MADISON, Wis. — As glamour positions go in football, tight end does not exactly rank near the top of the charts. Wisconsin’s Jacob Pedersen only made it look that way with how effortlessly he caught touchdown passes inside the red zone last season.
Pedersen, a 6-foot-4, 242-pound redshirt junior from Menominee, Mich., tied for the second-best mark among tight ends in the country with eight touchdown receptions — all coming in the red zone. He caught a total of 30 passes for 356 yards and was a second-team All-Big Ten selection by the media.
Yet even after a season in which Pedersen repeatedly found himself celebrating a touchdown catch, his emphasis during spring practice has been on improving an aspect of the game that is far less glamorous.
“It’s been my point of focus ever since I got here to really try to work on blocking,” Pedersen said. “It’s just fundamentals in general and working on my strength. That’s been it since Day 1, and I’m still working on it.”
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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. And his growth is already apparent to members of the coaching staff.
“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. “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.”
Of course, the same traits that will make him a better blocker — footwork and strength — also should aid him in finding space down the field in the passing game.
Pedersen is the beneficiary of playing in a pro-style offense that utilizes tight ends more than other college teams. Wisconsin is a run-first unit, but when the Badgers play two tight ends, they can often split them out and take advantage of mismatches in defensive coverage. And few tight ends in the country capitalized on those mismatches in the way that Pedersen did last season.
Pedersen first emerged as a viable offensive threat in nonconference games against Oregon State and Northern Illinois. He caught six passes for 80 yards and two touchdowns against Oregon State on Sept. 17. And he added two catches for 64 yards with a touchdown against Northern Illinois, including a career-best 55-yard reception.
Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema often preaches the value of the tight ends in the passing game to open up the team’s wide receivers, and Pedersen is a big reason for that success.
“His touchdown-to-catch ratio was pretty good,” Bielema said. “I think Ped is a guy, especially with (offensive coordinator Matt) Canada and what they’ve done in the past with tight ends and what we’ve been able to do in the past here, he should be able to have an expanded role.”
While Pedersen is clearly Wisconsin’s No. 1 tight end, the Badgers continue to look for a second threat at the position, particularly when the team operates out of a two-tight end set.
Sam Arneson, a 6-4, 255-pound sophomore from Merrill, Wis., has shown flashes during the spring of being that second option.
“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.”
Still, there is no doubt Pedersen will bare the brunt of the offensive responsibility among Wisconsin’s tight ends.
“He’s real important,” Badgers wide receiver Jeff Duckworth said. “I feel like every year we’ve had a big tight end. He just keeps getting better. He still has two years left, too. He’s definitely going to be better for next year.”
Taking advantage of defensive coverages and catching passes in key moments are tasks that Pedersen embraces, even if he’s spent his offseason honing other, less glamorous skills.
“You always want to see your production go up,” Pedersen said. “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.”