MADISON, Wis. — Jake Ferguson makes it clear that he hates being clean shaven. He would prefer to grow a flowing beard and put away the razors. But in the interest of holding himself accountable on the football field, here is Ferguson, baby-faced and unhappy with it this week.
That’s because Ferguson, Wisconsin’s redshirt freshman tight end, has made a pact with himself this spring. If he catches everything thrown his way in practice, he grows out his facial hear. If he has even one drop, well, goodbye beard.
“We had this thing back in high school — the more you win, it’s like a playoff beard almost,” Ferguson said after practice Tuesday. “If you keep winning, you keep the beard. But if you lose, you’ve got to shave it.”
Ferguson is still kicking himself for mishandling a pass after a defender leveled him as the ball arrived during Wisconsin’s scrimmage last Friday. It was one of the rare instances in which Ferguson did not come down with the catch this spring. That level of attention to detail, among other things, has Ferguson positioned to make a major impact for the Badgers this season.
Ferguson’s emergence could provide Wisconsin with a significant weapon as the Badgers tight end group tries to make up for the loss of Troy Fumagalli. Fumagalli, the Big Ten tight end of the year and a second-team All-American last season, led Wisconsin with 46 catches for 547 yards and added 4 touchdown receptions. He played in 52 games with 32 starts and finished his career ranked seventh in school history with 135 receptions and 13th all time with 1,627 receiving yards.
Given that Ferguson has yet to play in a college game, he has a long way to go to match Fumagalli’s production. But he is off to an excellent start. Last season, he was named the scout team’s offensive most valuable player and paid close attention to what Fumagalli did on the practice field.
“Every time I was with him, I was learning from him,” Ferguson said. “Just sitting behind him in the line and watching him go through his footwork and his mentality. I definitely picked up a lot from it. We’d be running skelly and he’d come back and say, ‘Hey, did you see how I slipped that guy or did this and that?’ I was basically taking mental notes the whole time I was watching him. It definitely helped me, and I definitely use a lot of that this spring just trying to get better with it.”
Wisconsin’s tight ends group still has plenty of talent with Zander Neuville, Kyle Penniston, Ferguson and Luke Benzschawel. Neuville is out this spring with a right leg injury but is the most experienced player in the group. He caught 9 passes for 81 yards with 2 touchdowns last season. Penniston added 7 catches for 56 yards and 1 touchdown.
Ferguson finished his high school career at nearby Madison Memorial with 1,795 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns. He was selected for the finals of Nike’s The Opening and was ranked as the No. 2 tight end nationally. He picked Wisconsin over scholarship offers from Iowa, Iowa State, Nebraska and Northern Illinois.
“At the start of the recruiting process, I told my parents I was going to treat Wisconsin like any other school,” Ferguson said. “Just take my visits, visit other schools. I kept going on visits to other schools, looking around and then I would come visit here as they recruited me. I wasn’t even living here, but it felt like it was an amazing fit. I’m so glad I came here.”
The 6-foot-5 Ferguson said he has spent considerable time bulking up in the weight room and learning to become a better blocker. He said he weighed around 210 pounds when he arrived on campus but is now in the 240-pound range.
“I really had to focus on my fundamentals last year,” Ferguson said. “Blocking Leon [Jacobs] and [Garret] Dooley every day was like you need to be perfect with what you’re doing. That really helped me. So now if my steps are doing well, I’m just a lot bigger, so I can kind of win the line now. I think last year was really big on the blocking aspect but also getting ready for that college feel and playing at a college level.”
That increased strength has allowed Ferguson to have more confidence when he must collect passes in traffic. Last week, Ferguson made an exceptional one-handed catch with outside linebacker Arrington Farrar draped over him. Wisconsin’s official football Twitter account posted video of the catch.
— Wisconsin Football (@BadgerFootball) April 3, 2018
“Jake Ferguson has definitely been making a lot of plays out here,” Badgers running back Jonathan Taylor said. “And I know that he’s talking to the older guys like Penniston on things that he doesn’t really understand that they’ve been around to understand. We know they’re working every day just like every other position group.”
Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook will have a number of options to throw to this season, particularly considering how deep the wide receivers group will be with Quintez Cephus, Danny Davis, A.J. Taylor and Kendric Pryor. But tight ends will continue to play a huge role in the Badgers’ offensive success. Last season, tight ends accounted for 30.3 percent of the team’s receptions. In 2016, tight ends were responsible for 29.7 percent of catches.
How many of those passes will come Ferguson’s way in 2018 remains to be seen. However, he continues to state his case during spring practice, one throw at a time.
“You see it all over Instagram and Twitter,” Penniston said. “Jake’s making great plays. It reminds me a lot of myself when I first came in. Very good pass catcher but didn’t want to do much in blocking.
“It’s kind of cool to see him starting to embrace the role that he needs to get his hand in the dirt and get physical. He’s done that this spring. He’s come a long way, and I think his ceiling is pretty high.”