MADISON, Wis. — Austin Traylor’s devotion to becoming a better pass catching tight end this offseason can’t be questioned. The question, however, is whether that means his statistics significantly increase during his senior year.
Over three seasons at Wisconsin, Traylor has appeared in 30 games. And at 6-foot-3, 248 pounds, he certainly possesses the body to make for an easy target for quarterbacks. But through all those games, he has only three catches for 24 yards — all of which took place last year. He caught a nine-yard pass against LSU in the season opener and added an 11-yard reception against Maryland and a four-yard catch against Ohio State in the Big Ten title game.
Now, Traylor is setting out to change the way in which his ability has been categorized.
"That was my plan from the jump," Traylor said. "I felt like I could have been utilized more in the past, honestly. Missed out on some opportunities. But I feel like this is my year to show that I’m not just a blocking tight end. I feel like I definitely can catch the ball."
Wisconsin has long been known as a hotbed for producing quality tight ends because the position is so vital to the team’s pro-style offense. But the tight ends who generally have been recognized in recent years developed into consistent pass catchers: Travis Beckum, Garrett Graham, Lance Kendricks, Jacob Pedersen and Sam Arneson, to name a few.
During Traylor’s Wisconsin career, he has primarily served as a blocking tight end while Pedersen and Arneson racked up the catches. This year, sophomore Troy Fumagalli figures to be the team’s top pass catching tight end after he caught 14 passes for 187 yards a year ago. But Traylor expects his fair share of passes as well for the first time in his career — as do his teammates.
"We’ve always had that pretty solid threat in the passing game from the tight end position as far as Ped for my first two years and then going to Sam for last year," Badgers quarterback Joel Stave said. "We know that we’ll have options there at the tight end position. And I think with him and with Troy, the two of them can be a tough duo of tight ends to cover."
Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst noted he had been particularly impressed with Traylor’s work ethic this offseason, which has put him in position to contribute in the passing game.
"I think Austin is an example of what you want your guys to do," Chryst said. "Every day since he came back from the bowl, he caught 100 balls a day. I think that gives you confidence. You know you put the work in. Austin’s got good hands. I think he’s a good route runner."
Traylor said the number of daily catches was closer to 150 or 200 balls, from a machine that would fire footballs in his direction while he rested on one knee to improve hand placement. On nice days, he would practice in Camp Randall Stadium. Other days, he would practice indoors off to the side with a teammate while the track team used the McClain Center.
Traylor was so dedicated to maintaining his pass catching routine in the winter that he occasionally was forced to practice in the team’s locker room when the McClain Center was locked up and snow still clung to the ground. And all that work is paying off, he said, because he noticed a difference during spring practices in the way coaches used him.
"I’ve been included in the passing game more," Traylor said. "They looked at me and I talked to the coaches. The whole talk was about me being the three-down tight end and not coming down on the third down, not just using the block. I made sure to do everything I possibly could to make that happen."
During the team’s spring game, Traylor caught one pass for 14 yards. And in a Sunday scrimmage the week before the spring game, Traylor was a focal point in the passing game and made several more catches.
"I think he’s had a really nice spring," Stave said. "He’s a guy who’s a great athlete and can really do a lot for us in the pass game. I know that scrimmage on Sunday, he was catching everything, and we were really throwing the ball a lot to him, too. He’s had a good spring, and I think he’s in position to build with a great summer."
It’s the spot Traylor has been waiting on for years.
"I’m a senior leader of the group," Traylor said. "It’s an opportunity to be the playmaker I know I can be and want to be."