MADISON - It's not a secret that the Badgers are looking for ways to diversify their passing game. Just having Jared Abbrederis wasn't enough for the Badgers last year. Teams began to double-team him when it became clear none of the other receivers were going to pose much of a consistent threat.
As a result the Badgers were forced to stick with the running game that gave them so much trouble early on in the season. In the meantime the Badgers had to rely on their tight ends to pick up some of the slack in the passing attack. Jacob Pedersen finished the season second on the team in receptions and receiving touchdowns, and Sam Arneson's two receiving touchdowns was good enough for third.
The Badgers are still hoping another receiver will step up and establish himself opposite Abbrederis during spring or fall camp, but they're prepared to rely on their tight ends once again if that doesn't happen. Head coach Gary Andersen said the offense would use '13' personnel fairly often, which calls for one running back and three tight ends on the field. That puts a lot more responsibility on the tight ends' shoulders, but they're perfectly happy to showcase their versatility.
And this year the Badgers have a coordinator who's more willing to showcase his tight ends. Brian Wozniak said new offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig told them he loves throwing to the tight end, and Wozniak is excited that his position group will be more of a "focal point" for the offense.
"I feel more comfortable with this game plan because coach Ludwig loves the tight end," Wozniak said. "He wants to get the ball to us. He told us immediately he's a tight end guy. If you go back and watch the San Diego State tape, three of their top tight ends were top-five receivers. That was exciting to hear."
"We have to be able to help out the receivers, and I think coach Ludwig really looks at the tight ends as a group that can shine this year."
Ludwig's approach to the tight ends is also closer to what the Badgers ran under Paul Chryst, instead of how Matt Canada used them last season. Pedersen said Ludwig gives the tight ends more on-field flexibility and calls more "choice" passing routes for them, where they can alter their route depending on what their defender does and where he lines up.
"Last year I felt like I had real simple routes and that [Matt Canada] just didn't trust us to do a lot of complicated stuff," Pedersen said. "We have some choice routes this year, a lot of different stuff, and we've only got half of the offense installed, so I'm excited to see what we have."
"In a way last year was just, 'Nope, on this play run a corner [route].' And I might have a corner who's sitting outside me at 20-yards deep, so I'm just going to run a corner right into him. This year I can break it off inside. I like having the option better. It keeps the defense guessing. [Chryst] trusted us to do quite a bit of stuff, so like I said it's nice to be getting back to that."
The tight ends will probably get plenty of passing looks this season too, even though 13 personnel is usually a run-heavy set. The Badgers have often split Pedersen and the other tight ends out wide like regular receivers, and that kind of balance can cause big problems for defenses.
"When they see me, Wozniak and Arneson in there, they're probably thinking run, but for sure it could be a pass just as easily," Pedersen said. "When we come out and spread the field, you're usually getting a safety out on someone or you've got a linebacker who's not used to covering someone with speed. I think it helps the offense a lot and makes the defense have to at least game plan for it. It takes off some of the things they think they'd be able to do."
Time will tell if the Badgers find another wide receiver to complement Abbrederis. But if the younger receivers don't step up and help the offense, the tight ends are getting ready to lend their hands to the cause just in case.