CHICAGO — The question was loaded to begin with, but Wisconsin tight end Troy Fumagalli knew there was really only one answer to provide. After all, this wasn’t the first time Fumagalli had thought about the topic himself.
So when a reporter inquired during Big Ten Media Days earlier this week if Fumagalli was the best tight end in college football, he stared intently at the questioner and tried not to crack too wide of a smile before responding.
“I believe I am, yep,” Fumagalli said.
Few would have reason to argue.
As Fumagalli enters his senior season, he does so with an opportunity to produce one of the finest campaigns by a tight end in Wisconsin football history. That’s saying something, considering the lineage of NFL-ready tight ends to come through the program. Athlon Sports already has named Fumagalli a preseason All-America selection, and Pro Football Focus has graded Fumagalli as the second-highest rated returning tight end in the country, behind Adam Breneman of UMass.
How to quantify what being the best tight end means is difficult because Fumagalli’s blocking for teammates also plays such a vital role in the offense. But catching passes generally provides a good indicator, and not many tight ends perform in the chances they are given with as much consistency and skill as Fumagalli.
Last season, Fumagalli led Wisconsin with 47 catches and ranked second on the team with 580 receiving yards and 2 touchdowns. Some of his best games took place in the biggest moments. He caught 7 passes for 100 yards in a season-opening victory against LSU, added 7 catches for 84 yards in an overtime loss to Ohio State and hauled in 6 catches for 83 yards with a touchdown to earn offensive MVP honors in a Cotton Bowl victory against Western Michigan.
Fumagalli was nearly unstoppable in the bowl game and made a stunning one-handed catch over the middle against Western Michigan linebacker Asantay Brown. Pro Football Focus graded Fumagalli as the highest-rated performer of any player in any bowl game last season, giving him a 93.1 grade.
Troy Fumagalli’s amazing one-handed catch
New Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck, who coached Western Michigan in that bowl game, described the 6-foot-6, 248-pound Fumagalli as a serious matchup problem.
“If you go back and watch the game, we’re actually in really good position,” Fleck said. “He’s a giant, and he’s incredibly athletic. He goes up and over Asantay Brown, one of our linebackers, and makes a heck of a catch. [Cornerback] Darius Phillips is in his face one time. He still makes the catch. So it wasn’t necessarily a bad scheme. It was just their player was better than our players were and our scheme on that particular day.
“He’s a phenomenal football player. I mean, phenomenal. I’ve already thought about how we’re going to be able to defend him. He’s one of those forces to be reckoned with. He’s a wonderful player.”
Badgers linebacker Jack Cichy said Fumagalli is so difficult to handle because he can counteract most defensive alignments. If a defense tries to play man coverage on Fumagalli in the pass game, he is too big, strong and athletic. The same goes for man coverage in the run game, where Fumagalli’s blocking is good enough to open holes for the tailbacks. If a defense plays zone coverage, Fumagalli is intelligent enough to find gaps and still haul in catches.
Yet for as good as Fumagalli has been, he recognizes there is plenty of room to develop. Fumagalli ranked 13th among FBS tight ends in receiving yards last season and 14th in receptions per game (3.4) — numbers that should increase this season. From a historical perspective, he also has a long way to go to reach or eclipse the performances of the Badgers’ best tight ends in recent memory.
In 2007, Travis Beckum set the program record for catches by a tight end with 75 for 982 yards, eclipsing the record of 61 for 903 yards he established the previous season. In 2010, Lance Kendricks led the Badgers in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. Both of those players earned All-America honors and went on to play in the NFL. Jacob Pedersen finished his career in 2013 with 17 touchdown catches, the most by a tight end in school history. Fumagalli, by comparison, has 3 career touchdown receptions.
Fumagalli said that earlier in his career he watched Beckum, Kendricks, Pedersen and Owen Daniels on a Badgers game tape meant to teach younger tight ends in the program about how to maintain such a high standard. He stopped watching the tape for a stretch until Paul Chryst returned to the Badgers’ program as head coach in December 2014. Each of those four tight ends played at some point under Chryst when he served as Wisconsin’s offensive coordinator.
“A lot of what we do is similar to what they were doing when Coach Chryst was the OC, if not the same,” Fumagalli said. “I’ve watched a lot of that tape and try to take as much as I can from it.”
Chryst compared Fumagalli’s growth to that of Kendricks, who increased his catches each season from 6 to 29 to 43. Fumagalli has gone from 14 catches as a freshman to 28 as a sophomore to 47 as a junior. And both players significantly improved as blockers.
“Junior year, Lance was a good blocker at times,” Chryst said. “I think Fum was like that. He didn’t win every one, but I think that’s what’s exciting to me about Fum is that he can be truly a complete tight end. You can hold him to the highest standard on any of those things, and that’s pretty good. I think it’s in him, and I think he’s really talented.”
Other tight ends likely will have a say in whether Fumagalli emerges as the best in college football. Breneman and Penn State’s Mike Gesicki are among those considered in the top group, and they play on teams willing to throw far more than the Badgers. UMass passed the ball 436 times last season, Penn State 391 and Wisconsin 323. But if Wisconsin utilizes Fumagalli as much as it should, he’ll position himself for a special season as a Mackey Award frontrunner and potential All-American.
“I want to be the best tight end in the country,” Fumagalli reiterated. “And the other big goal is I want to be the best leader I can be for this team. I want to be that guy that’s always accountable, who’s there if somebody needs anything on and off the field.
“If you look at my numbers, I’ve tried to take great pride in trying to elevate my numbers every year, to find a way to get better. I think there’s no reason why I shouldn’t this year as well.”