Don't be surprised if the B1G boasts college football's two best tight ends in 2017
It was difficult for Penn State’s Mike Gesicki and Wisconsin’s Troy Fumagalli to work their way into the B1G tight end conversation a year ago. Despite some solid numbers for both guys, it was Michigan’s Jake Butt that stole most of the headlines.
And for good reason.
Butt caught 46 passes for 546 yards and four touchdowns last season, was named a first-team All-American and took home the Mackey Award for the nation’s top tight end. He became the first player from the B1G to win the award since Minnesota’s Matt Spaeth in 2006.
Entering 2017, there’s a good chance that award goes to a B1G tight end again.
Gesicki and Fumagalli both had better numbers than Butt last season, though the Nittany Lions and Badgers played 14 games compared to Michigan’s 13. Still, Gesicki was the conference’s top pass-catching tight end, catching48 passes for 679 yards and five touchdowns. Fumagalli ranked second in the B1G with 580 yards and a pair of scores on 47 receptions.
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It wasn’t just the numbers that were impressive, though.
By frame, Gesicki and Fumagalli look the role of tight end. Both guys measure in around 6-foot-6 and weigh about 250 pounds. But when they’re targeting in the passing attack, they look like overgrown receivers.
Gesicki and Fumagalli showed off their sneaky athleticism at times last year. They mastered the art of the one-handed grab:
Those are the plays usually made by receivers, not tight ends.
Both tight ends showed off an innate ability to adjust well to the ball, too.
Wisconsin got a first-hand look at Gesicki’s play-making ability in the B1G Championship, when he made a leaping catch for Penn State’s first touchdown of the afternoon:
And in case you wanted more evidence of Gesicki’s athletic ability, there’s always the video of him throwing down some dunk contest-worthy slams on the hardwood.
Fumagalli also demonstrated the ability to adjust well to the football and understand his place on the field. Against Ohio Sate, he was able to sneak between a few Buckeye defenders, tight rope the sideline and absorb contact for a 30-yard reception:
Though Fumagalli was relatively open on that play, he still needed the awareness to stay inbounds and control the football while taking a shot to the back from the Ohio State defender.
But making those plays against top competition wasn’t unfamiliar for Fumagalli.
Fumagalli performed well when Wisconsin needed him most. In some of the Badgers’ biggest contest, the tight end was extremely effective.
In the season-opener against LSU, Fumagalli hauled in seven passes for 100 yards in an upset win. Against Ohio State in an October bout, he caught another seven balls for 84 yards. And to top it off, the Illinois native concluded last season with six catches for 83 yards and a touchdown against Western Michigan in the Cotton Bowl, a stat line impressive enough to win the Bowl’s Offensive MVP award.
Unlike his Wisconsin counterpart, Gesicki didn’t have many of those really big outings, mainly because the Nittany Lions had so many quality receivers in the mix. But he did prove to be a consistent target throughout the year.
Gesicki had a catch in every game in 2016, with multiple receptions in 12 games. He caught at least four passes eight times last season and averaged 48.5 yards per contest. He also finished the year strong, accounting for a touchdown in each of Penn State’s final three games.
Those numbers are tough to replicate, especially for tight ends. But there’s a good chance both Gesicki and Fumagalli post an even better year in 2017.
Penn State is losing top receiver Chris Godwin, meaning the Nittany Lions are going to have to make up for his lost production. While Gesicki won’t instantly become the top option in the passing attack, he might be targeted more frequently this fall.
Wisconsin will be going through a similar situation.
The Badgers aren’t losing their leading receiver – Jazz Peavy – but the team’s third-most popular target, Robert Wheelwright, is gone, as well as running backs Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale. While Paul Chryst will undoubtedly still run an offense that emphasizes a strong rushing attack, Fumagalli will likely be one of the most dependable players for the unit.
And both Gesicki and Fumagalli will be working with second-year quarterbacks, too.
Trace McSorley looked like a seasoned veteran by the end of the year and has some outside votes as a potential Heisman candidate. That should bode well for Penn State’s passing attack and Gesicki’s numbers.
In Madison, Alex Hornibrook struggled in his freshman season. With a full year under his belt, though, the Badgers should see some improvement in his decision-making. And considering Wisconsin’s offensive mindset, that probably means targeting Fumagalli more frequently.
There’s no guarantee those factors will lead to better stat lines in 2017, but certainly, Gesicki and Fumagalli have things working in their favor.
Catching passes isn’t everything as a tight end, but it is an area where these two excel. In order to become more well-rounded at the position, Gesicki and Fumagalli must become better blockers by next fall, a skill that Butt developed and one that separated him from the rest of the nation’s top tight ends.
For the B1G to claim the rights to the Mackey Award winner for consecutive years, that’s an area both Gesicki and Fumagalli need to improve.
Regardless, Gesicki and Fumagalli will be two of the top tight ends entering the 2017 season. They won’t be butted out of any of those conversations.
A spot as a first-team All-American selection at tight end is vacant. The Mackey Award is also up for grabs. Don’t be surprised if the finalists for those accolades hail from the B1G.