Projected starters: Jacob Pedersen (redshirt junior)
Key backups: Sam Arneson (sophomore), Austin Traylor (redshirt freshman), Brock DeCicco (redshirt junior), Austin Maly (redshirt freshman), Brian Wozniak (redshirt junior).
The breakdown: Jacob Pedersen is arguably the best tight end in the Big Ten, and his presence makes Wisconsin’s offense even stronger.
Pedersen was the team’s third-leading receiver last season with 30 catches for 356 yards and eight touchdowns. He is a prototypical Wisconsin tight end — a big body with solid hands that can block in the Badgers’ pro-style offense — and he appears in line to continue the tradition of Badgers tight ends going to the NFL (see Travis Beckum, Owen Daniels, Garrett Graham and Lance Kendricks).
Pedersen said he spent the offseason refining his footwork and upper-body strength, with the objective of being able to battle bigger defensive ends at the line of scrimmage. So as he enters his junior season, expect him to be a more versatile player.
“He’s continued to blossom as a blocker, both an off-the-ball blocker where you move him around and on the line,” Badgers tight ends coach Eddie Faulkner said during spring practice. “I think he has the ability to be that all-around kind of tight end guy. He’s not locked into being one kind of position. I think he can play them all. That’s what makes him special.”
Pedersen is poised for an even bigger year than last season, particularly if Wisconsin doesn’t establish a No. 2 wide receiver behind Jared Abbrederis. Pedersen could become quarterback Danny O’Brien’s safety valve in the offense.
Wisconsin incorporates two tight ends in its offensive sets, so we’ll see who takes the field along with Pedersen.
Pedersen plays the “H” tight end spot, which is the position that typically goes in motion or splits out wide. He is on the preseason watch list for the Mackey Award, given annually to the top tight end in the country.
Arneson, DeCicco, Maly and Wozniak play the “Y” tight end spot — the traditional position that lines up at the line of scrimmage.
Arneson, a 6-4, 255-pound sophomore from Merrill, Wis., showed during the spring his capabilities as a second tight end option in the passing game.
“He plays beyond his years,” Faulkner said. “He’s only in his second semester of college. He plays like he’s a junior or senior. I only expect that to increase. With all our multiple-tight end sets, we need those other guys.”
Best position battle: Since Pedersen is locked into the No. 1 tight end position, the battle for playing time in the Badgers’ rotation comes at the No. 2 spot.
Arneson very well could earn that position with a solid fall camp, but Brian Wozniak should be in the mix as well. Wozniak is a veteran on the Badgers’ special teams unit, having appeared in 21 games over the past two seasons.
Brock DeCicco is another name to keep an eye on as fall practice rolls along. DeCicco sat out last season after transferring from Pittsburgh and saw playing time with the Panthers in 2010. He played in 13 games with three starts and caught two passes — both for touchdowns — including a 13-yard score in a bowl game against Kentucky.
Best of the Big Ten: 1. Wisconsin; 2. Nebraska; 3. Ohio State.
Pedersen gives Wisconsin a reliable veteran at tight end, but the remaining players battling for playing time make this one of the Badgers’ deepest positions.
At Nebraska, seniors Kyler Reed and Ben Cotton both produced solid seasons last year. Reed caught 15 passes for 257 yards with a touchdown. Cotton tallied 14 catches for 189 yards. In his career, Reed has 43 catches for 706 yards with nine scores.
Ohio State’s Jake Stoneburner could have a big season under first-year coach Urban Meyer. Meyer utilizes tight ends more than some coaches, and when Meyer coached at Florida, he helped Aaron Hernandez become an NFL player.
Meyer suspended Stoneburner indefinitely for a run-in with police officers in early June. But given Stoneburner’s importance to the team, he’ll likely be back at some point. Last season, Stoneburner caught 14 passes for 193 yards and seven touchdowns.
Jacob Pedersen says: “You always want to see your production go up. Whenever the QB comes to me, I try to do everything I can to make the play. Keep playing full speed, running full routes, and whenever they ask me, I’ve got to make a play.”