MADISON, Wis. — Troy Fumagalli could have picked a different college and been a pass-catching dynamo without redshirting for a season. Scholarship offers from a handful of FCS programs, six Mid-American Conference schools and North Carolina State were among those waiting for him.
But Fumagalli, a redshirt freshman from Naperville, Ill., decided that if he truly wanted to become a complete tight end, there really only was one choice.
"Especially playing at Wisconsin, they expect you to do everything," Fumagalli said. "You watch some other schools, some guys, you don’t even ask them to block. But Wisconsin, they take a lot of pride in moving around and blocking and catching and running routes. Just learning the playbook is the biggest thing. It’s a big playbook. There’s a lot of jumps and shifts."
How complicated is it to be a tight end at Wisconsin?
According to tight ends coach Jeff Genyk, the position requires players to learn more than 60 different types of pass patterns, a full zone run-blocking scheme and a man-to-man gap-blocking scheme in addition to understanding pass protection for the quarterback. Given the value placed on the position at Wisconsin, which has operated out of a pro-style offense for years and sent tight ends to the NFL by the bushel, the importance of knowing every facet cannot be overstated. One missed block or blown pass protection, and the play is blown.
"It’s a significant amount of stuff to learn," Genyk said. "When you have mental errors or any sort of issues, usually it’s because of the volume you have. So it’s a little bit of a process. It takes some time. But Troy’s working really hard at it to try to minimize the mental errors so he can play more."
The area in which Fumagalli truly excels is in pass catching. He wowed coaches and teammates during fall camp with an ability to make acrobatic, leaping catches seem routine. And with Sam Arenson returning as the team’s only veteran pass catcher after the departures of Jacob Pedersen and Brian Wozniak, a spot was available for Fumagalli to step in.
Fumagalli demonstrated an eagerness to learn and impressed coaches with his work ethic in the fall, which helped him to stand out even more.
"He comes out to practice and he is 100 percent all the time, which is such a nice thing for a coach," Genyk said. "He also has great hand-eye coordination. He’ll go a long period of time without dropping a pass. He can make the exceptional catch, also. So his route running is above average for a redshirt freshman."
Fumagalli said offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig told him to model his game after New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham. Graham has become more than a tight end in the NFL and actually lined up in the slot or out wide on 67 percent of his snaps a year ago.
Wisconsin’s coaching staff won’t be using Fumagalli in the same capacity, but Badgers coach Gary Andersen said this week that Fumagalli would "be an integral part of the offense as we move forward."
Fumagalli caught his first career pass last game on a first-and-10 from the Western Illinois 21-yard-line early in the third quarter. Four plays later, fullback Austin Ramesh caught a 3-yard touchdown pass from Tanner McEvoy to put Wisconsin up 16-3 and ease the pressure from an early scare.
"It was good to get it out of the way," Fumagalli said. "I didn’t really think about it too much, but everyone says once you get that first one, you get it going. That’s what I’m hoping for. It was good to get it out of the way."
With his first catch in the books, Fumagalli hopes there will be more to come. But he also recognizes that, without a working knowledge of blocking concepts that are paramount to Wisconsin’s tight end group, seeing the field will prove even more difficult.
The task of becoming an all-around tight end is an ongoing process for Fumagalli, and Genyk likes what he sees.
"It certainly is a challenge because of all the different techniques and all the different angles we ask him to do," Genyk said. "However, his effort is outstanding. He’s getting better at it. He’s also getting better at understanding defensive fronts, who to block and how to communicate in the blocking system."