UW Health Sports Medicine 

Lucas at Large: Ranking Badgers' best tight ends no easy task

FB_110708_Beckum_Travis.jpgAmong the John Mackey Award winners have been Purdue's Tim Stratton (the first recipient in 2000); Iowa's Dallas Clark (2002) and Minnesota's Matt Spaeth (2006).

The 11 winners have represented 11 different college football programs. Despite its run of success at tight end, Wisconsin has yet to show up on that list.

That came to mind Thursday when the legendary Mackey passed away. He was 69.

The first NFL game I ever attended was at Chicago's Wrigley Field, pitting the Baltimore Colts vs. the Bears. There were many Hall of Famers on the field that day, including Mike Ditka and Mackey.

Ditka was the first tight end inducted at Canton. Mackey was the second. Blessed with size and speed, Mackey helped redefine the position group. Besides blocking, he could also run and catch.

The Mackey Award is annually given to the college tight end who best personifies Mackey's qualities both on and off the field (Mackey was a former head of the NFL Players Association).

Travis Beckum was a Mackey semifinalist in 2006 (Spaeth won) and a finalist in 2007 (USC's Fred Davis won). Lance Kendricks was a finalist last year (Arkansas' D.J. Williams won).

How would Beckum and Kendricks rank among the greatest tight ends in UW history? Both were first-team All-Americans; a status that separates them from their peers with the Badgers.

Beckum has the third-most catches (159) and receiving yards (2,149) at Wisconsin. Only Lee Evans (175; 3,468) and Brandon Williams (202; 2,924) rate above him. And both were wide receivers.

But here's the rub: How do you compare someone like Stu Voigt -- a wingback/tight end from the late '60s -- with someone like Beckum, a tight end/H-Back from the 21st century?

How do you measure what the Badgers did offensively with the position in vastly different eras? Most recently, the line of succession has been Beckum, Garrett Graham and Kendricks.

Graham finished his career with 121 receptions; the same number as Pat Richter, a UW icon. So where does Graham rank among Badger tight ends? Do you put him above or below Larry Mialik?

Once again, we're comparing athletes from different generations. Although Mialik played in the early '70s, he would have to be in the discussion, along with Voigt, Beckum, Kendricks and Graham.

Also in that discussion would be Mike Roan, the tight end on the All-Alvarez team. Roan was a bigger part of the running game than the passing game but he could stretch a defense in the seams.

"I'm basically a part of the offensive line,'' Roan once said of his job description, "except on third down when I get to go out for a pass once in awhile.''

Roan was largely overshadowed on the UW offense by the tailbacks (Brent Moss and Terrell Fletcher) and the wide outs (Lee DeRamus and J.C. Dawkins). But he played a key role for the Badgers.

"He's a guy you can count on to make a third down catch to keep a drive alive,'' former UW assistant Bill Callahan said of Roan, "or he's going to make a key down block or reach block.

"People always talk about the inside guys, but if you don't get the edge blocked - get it hooked and reached - you don't have an outside play.''

That's one element in the rushing attack that hasn't changed over the years. Roan's tag team partner was Matt Nyquist, an H-Back, who still holds the school record for most catches in a game.

In 1995, Nyquist caught 13 passes from quarterback Darrell Bevell, who completed 35-of-51 for 352 yards in a 33-20 loss to Iowa. Nyquist caught 12 passes in 12 games during the 1994 season.

Identifying the biggest tight end at Wisconsin is a lot easier than naming the best tight end. Aaron Gibson, all 378 pounds of him, reshaped the position during the 1996 season.

Gibson had a 47-inch waist, 33-inch thighs and a 20-inch neck. He also had a No. 81 on his back. A Purdue player quizzed an official on whether there was a weight limit for players in the 80 numbers.

Alvarez liked them big. "I loved watching that big Daguesaurus run,'' he said of former UW tight end Dague Retzlaff, who stood 6-foot-8 and lumbered more than he ran.

Of all the UW tight ends, Voigt was the best athlete; lettering in football, track and baseball. He went on to a solid NFL career with the Minnesota Vikings and appeared in three Super Bowls.

Mialik, a converted tight end, was among the most productive. In the 1970 upset of Penn State at Camp Randall Stadium, he caught touchdown passes of 68 and 52 yards from Neil Graff.

Some of the more workmanlike tight ends were Jack Novak, Ron Egloff, Eric Grams, and Mark Anelli. Each had their own strengths. Novak and Anelli were first-team All-Big Ten.

While Owen Daniels has developed into one of the better tight ends in the NFL, he was still learning the nuances of the position as a converted quarterback when he played for the Badgers.

Among the more unsung UW tight ends was Dave Kocourek, who went on to play in the Canadian Football League and seven American Football League championship games, a record.

Another unsung player, a two-way player, no less, was Ron Leafblad, a starter on the 1962 Big Ten championship team that played USC in the Rose Bowl. He was also a team captain.

No discussion of tight ends would be complete without mentioning Jeff Nault, who caught the touchdown pass from Al Toon on the fabled "Bounce Pass'' play. Randy Wright was the quarterback.

If I've missed someone here, let me know. Otherwise let the debate begin anew.