Spring preview: Tight ends

MADISON, Wis. - The Badgers are in for some growing pains at tight end now that Jacob Pedersen, Brian Wozniak and Brock DeCicco are out of the program.
They combined to play in 126 games for the Badgers during their careers, which means that tight end is now one of Wisconsin's youngest position groups for the first time in several years. Their returning tight ends have played in just 57 games combined, and only one of them has any career receptions.
The Badgers' relative youth at the position makes tight end one of the team's biggest question marks this spring. It becomes even more important when you consider just how crucial the tight ends are to Wisconsin's success in both the running game and the passing game. In Pedersen and Wozniak, in particular, UW is losing two solid run blockers who also proved to be valuable safety nets for quarterback Joel Stave.
With so much up in the air here's what I'll be looking for out of Wisconsin's tight ends this spring:
Sam Arneson is back, but who picks up the slack?
Arneson is Wisconsin's lone experienced tight end now that last year's senior class has left the program. Arneson has 10 receptions in 36 games so far after three seasons with the Badgers, and has a chance to take over as a primary safety net for the Badgers underneath a defense's coverage. The Badgers have used Arneson as an in-line tight end in the past, but they have also looked to him as the primary receiver on several plays (especially trick plays), showing that they trust his hands enough where they will try and get him the ball in crucial situations.
The Badgers will need a second tight end to step up, though. Wozniak filled that role for the Badgers during his career, and as of right now Austin Traylor looks like the likeliest candidate to take over that job in 2014. Traylor is listed at 6-foot-3 and weighed in at 243 pounds last fall, which would make him a good physical fit for the position -- especially if he added a few pounds during the offseason. Traylor doesn't have any receptions in 15 career games, but he is certainly their most experienced tight end after Arneson.
Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig loves to use tight ends, though, so two contributors isn't going to be enough for the Badgers. They'll need backups at both spots to provide some depth, just like DeCicco and Arneson did last year. Austin Maly could get a look at the H-back spot. At 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds Maly is nearly identical to Pedersen in body type, but he hasn't appeared in a game for the Badgers after three years on campus. That probably says more about how deep tight end has been for Wisconsin over the last few years, but Maly will have to take advantage of the extra reps this spring.
Other tight ends like Eric Steffes (six games played), Alex Walker, T.J. Watt and Troy Fumagalli will also get chances to show how they would fit in Wisconsin's offense. Of the four, Fumagalli and Watt are the most intriguing. Both players stand at 6-foot-5, but they weighed in at around 230 pounds last fall and will need to show that they added some strength during their redshirt years before they can push for playing time.
How much work will Derek Watt get at tight end?
Head coach Gary Andersen broke some news on Monday when he told that fullback Derek Watt would get some looks at tight end this spring. Watt spent his freshman and sophomore seasons as Wisconsin's starting fullback, but Andersen's announcement means the Badgers are looking to diversify Watt's role in the offense.
That's probably a good thing for the Badgers, who seemed to under-utilize Watt as a receiver in 2013. Watt finished his sophomore season with just three catches after he had 12 receptions in 2012. The Badgers deployed Watt as a check-down target in the screen passing game, and he could benefit from James White's graduation simply because the screen passing game helped the Badgers open up the middle of the field for their running backs last year.
It is unclear how often the Badgers will split Watt out as a tight end, or how often they'll ask him to run routes downfield, but deploying him in different ways is a concept with seemingly little downside. Watt has already proved to be a good blocker in the run game, and splitting him out as a tight end means the Badgers are committed to getting one of their top players on the field as much as possible.
Projected Depth Chart:
Austin Traylor
Austin Maly
T.J. Watt
Alex Walker
Tight End
Sam Arneson
Eric Steffes
Troy Fumagalli
John Veldhuis covers Wisconsin football, basketball and recruiting for on the network. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnVeldhuis.