Aug. 22, 2014
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- Troy Fumagalli felt the best way to learn was to follow.
So he played follow the leader last season while redshirting as a Wisconsin freshman.
Jacob Pedersen, Brian Wozniak and Brock DeCicco provided the senior leadership at tight end.
“They taught me to stay in the playbook,” he said. “That’s the most important thing.”
When they left, Fumagalli once again began “following around the older guys,” and still does.
“I just follow them as much as I can,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot on how Wisconsin operates.”
The older guys? Sam Arneson is a fourth-year senior; Austin Traylor is a fourth-year junior.
Fumagalli went so far as to follow Arneson into a five-credit calculus class this summer.
“It was a lot of work,” sighed the 19-year-old Fumagalli. “I’m just glad that I got it done with.”
They wound up giving each other high marks.
“We couldn’t have developed better chemistry,” Arneson said. “We pretty much spent every day together all summer. We lifted and went to class and we have a great relationship.”
He extended that to include everyone in the position group, young and old, tendered and walk-on: Traylor, Eric Steffes, Austin Maly, Sam Eckert, T.J. Watt and Derek Watt, a hybrid fullback/tight end.
“The best thing about it is,” Arneson said, “we understand there will be roles and we’re ready to fill those roles in the best way -- sharing reps and such. That’s the great thing about our group.
“For the first time in a while, there’s been quite the turnover at the tight end position. But I’m excited about the talent and depth that we have. We’re just a little inexperienced.”
Nonetheless, he said, “We look to show up and learn quickly in that first game (against LSU).”
• • • •
Pedersen, Wozniak and DeCicco combined for 46 catches, 600 yards and seven touchdowns last season. Most of the production came from Pedersen, who tied tailback James White for the second-most receptions on the team. Both had 39. Meanwhile, Wozniak had four scores on just six catches.
Arneson definitely factored into the rotation and also finished with six catches and a couple of touchdowns. No other returning tight end has caught a pass at Wisconsin. Derek Watt had three receptions as a fullback in 2013 -- down from the 12 catches that he had the year before.
“Sam is having an excellent training camp,” said UW tight ends coach Jeff Genyk. “By losing some pounds, he’s a little faster but he’s still a powerful guy and we’re going to try and feature him in many ways in the run game and passing game. I feel really good about Sam.”
|“I’ve adjusted to it,” Fumagalli said of his missing left index finger. “People were really surprised with that. But I don’t think it limits me whatsoever.”
The 6-foot-4 Arneson lost about 10 pounds, slimming down from 255 to 245 last spring.
“I’m just feeling better,” he said. “I feel good with the shape I’m in and the weight I’m at.”
It’s especially relevant knowing that he will be taking more reps and moving around more this season, motioning prior to the snap from one side of the formation to the other, similar to Pedersen. “And maybe this will be better for me sustaining (his power/strength) the whole season,” he said.
By now, he knows what’s best. In 2011, Arneson was one of only three true freshmen to letter. He played in 10 of 14 games as a blocking tight end. As a sophomore, he had two starts and four catches, two of which went for touchdowns, including one in the Big Ten title game against Nebraska.
“I’ve played a lot of football here and learned a lot of things and I’m just looking forward to putting it all together this season,” said Arneson, a quarterback, receiver and linebacker at Merrill High School. His dad, Dave, a former UW tight end, was also a multi-faceted prep athlete at Clintonville.
“We’ve learned so much from Ped (Pedersen) and Woz (Wozniak),” he went on. “Attention to detail is something that they always prided themselves on ever since I’ve been here and I’ve kind of carried that over to our group. Doing the little things is going to make us successful in the long run.”
Arneson can offer some stability at the position even though it has been lacking at times on the UW coaching staff. He has had three different tight end coaches (Genyk, Eddie Faulkner and Joe Rudolph) and three different offensive coordinators (Andy Ludwig, Matt Canada and Paul Chryst).
“I’m just trying to be the leader of the group,” he said, “and get us ready to play at a high level.”
It’s one of the reasons why Fumagalli has been such an enthusiastic follower.
“He (Arneson) is a great role model for me,” he said. “On the field, he obviously knows what he’s doing; he’s a veteran. He works hard and finishes plays and does everything the right way. He was my host on my official visit and he’s a good guy. He always does the right things. I like following Sam.”
Genyk pointed out that Fumagalli had some college options, scholarship offers from Minnesota and NC State, but elected to walk-on with the Badgers with only the promise of earning a tender, all of which, Genyk says, underlines “his work ethic and determination to be here at Wisconsin.”
Fumagalli was a three-star recruit out of Waubonsie Valley High School in Aurora, Illinois, a western suburb of Chicago. Besides excelling as a tight end and defensive end, he was also a very good pitcher. As a senior, he struck out 14 in a complete game 4-3 win over Wheaton Warrenville South.
Asked about his upside as a tight end, Genyk said, “Limitless.”
Fumagalli, who caught two touchdown passes in his first varsity game at Waubonsie Valley, has some physical qualities -- he’s 6-5 and 246 pounds -- that should bode well for his effectiveness in tight quarters. “He’s a big target,” Genyk said. “He’s also got a little bit of a burst and can gain separation.”
His success, to date, in practice, notably in red zone drills, has not been by accident.
“I take a lot of pride in my catching,” he said, “and with my in-traffic ball ability.”
Fumagalli sports a specially designed catching glove on his left hand. He was born with a circulation problem which necessitated the removal of his index finger, from the knuckle up. On his right hand, there are small scars visible on his fingers, the result of additional surgery.
“I’ve adjusted to it,” said Fumagalli, who’s left-handed, making his success on the pitching mound even more remarkable. “People were really surprised with that. But I don’t think it limits me whatsoever. I think I can do the same things as everyone else.”
He’s in the process of proving that as a Wisconsin tight end. “Once you understand the playbook,” said Fumagalli, whose two older brothers played football at Dayton, “things start to slow down and you really start to play your game.”
It all goes back to learning how Wisconsin operates as a developmental program, something he has learned from his elders, the team leaders. “They may not all be top recruits,” he said of the roster makeup. “But they come in here and work hard and they take a lot of pride in that ‘W’ on the field.”
And he’s following their lead.