MADISON, Wis. — Troy Fumagalli’s season began on the upward trajectory he expected. He set a career-high with 105 receiving yards in Wisconsin’s season opener against Utah State, notched another career high with 8 catches against Florida Atlantic and caught his third touchdown pass in three games against BYU.
Everything, it seemed, was falling into place for one of the best tight ends in the country.
Then Fumagalli sustained a left leg injury that halted his progress and forced him out of action. He missed Wisconsin’s Big Ten opener against Northwestern, played through the injury to record 3 catches against Nebraska, and was used only as a blocker against Purdue because he couldn’t practice during the week.
Fumagalli’s patient approach paid off last Saturday when he caught 7 passes for 83 yards against Maryland and once again resembled the player he was earlier in the season. His health could be one of the most significant factors for Wisconsin in its push for a potential College Football Playoff berth because of the way he helps open up the offense.
Despite missing one game, Fumagalli still is tied for the team lead with 25 catches and has 350 receiving yards with 3 touchdowns. He figures to be a big part of the offense when No. 5 Wisconsin (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten) plays at Illinois (2-5, 0-4) at 11 a.m. CT Saturday.
“I’m just trying to play the best I can each week,” Fumagalli said. “It’s tough, obviously. I’ve been hurt. But I think that I can keep elevating my play and keep getting better. I don’t think I’m there yet. You watch the game, there’s a lot of stuff that I can keep improving on. But I keep working towards it.”
Last season, Fumagalli caught 47 passes for 580 yards with 2 touchdowns and was on a short list of the best returning tight ends in the nation. During Big Ten media days in July, he was asked whether he believed he was the best tight end in the country. Without hesitation, he replied: “I believe I am, yep.”
That is a lofty ambition, but it was one Fumagalli worked to attain. During the offseason, he said he emphasized better understanding reading coverages and working leverage on defenders. He routinely spent time in the film room breaking down his routes and would occasionally pick the brain of defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard to hear how defenses might attack him.
The result was a player who had become even better at his craft.
“We went against him every day in summer camp and still do in practice,” Badgers linebacker T.J. Edwards said. “He’s a handful. He’s a guy who can beat you with some slight speed or use his big-bodied frame to catch balls and be physical with you. It’s tough. And I also think his run blocking has improved drastically. He’s a guy who at the point of attack is very strong, so he’s been fun to watch.”
Fumagalli’s 350 receiving yards rank No. 5 among FBS tight ends this season. What makes him special is his route running and ability to catch difficult passes in traffic.
“During spring ball, it seemed like he was just catching everything that was getting thrown to him,” Badgers tight end Zander Neuville said. “He’s just one of those guys where if you give him a chance to make a play on the ball, you feel really confident that he’s going to come down with it.”
Added Badgers quarterback Alex Hornibrook: “It’s a big difference maker. He can pretty much get open in any situation, so it’s good to have a guy like that.”
Before Fumagalli sustained his injury, he was Hornibrook’s favorite target. Hornibrook targeted Fumagalli 23 times on his first 70 passing attempts through nonconference play. During Wisconsin’s 38-13 victory against Maryland, Fumagalli was targeted nine times, which resulted in 7 completions. He was particularly important in that game because the Badgers had only three healthy scholarship wide receivers available: Quintez Cephus, A.J. Taylor and Kendric Pryor.
Three times, Fumagalli converted a first down after the Badgers faced third down. He has played a pivotal role as Hornibrook’s safety valve, which has helped Wisconsin convert 55.2 percent of its third-down attempts this season. That mark ranks No. 2 in the FBS behind TCU.
“I take pride in my job making sure that if something’s going wrong, he’ll have somewhere to go with the ball, which can make a big difference with a sack,” Fumagalli said. “Just try to help it that way.”
Wisconsin offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said much of Fumagalli’s impact is found in the slight differences he makes for the offense.
“It’s that throw, and do you come down with the catch or don’t you?” Rudolph said. “Do you gain that extra bit of separation or not? The comfort with the quarterback and the tight end. I think all those things come into it.
“But it was fun being able to do some of that stuff with the tight ends, and Zander as well. Fum’s a special player.”
One other area that isn’t quantifiable is how much attention Fumagalli receives from opposing defenses. Because he is a focal point, it can free up other receivers. Neuville, who has 5 catches for 56 yards with 2 touchdowns, has seen it first-hand.
“We’re in multiple tight-end sets a lot,” Neuville said. “I’m assuming defenses are trying to take him away first. Obviously for me, I’m either going to get single coverage or be able to find a spot in the zone a lot easier because they’re definitely more focused on him.”
With his injury issues behind him, Fumagalli is ready for more opportunities. He appears to be rounding into form at just the right time, which is good news for the Badgers’ postseason fortunes.
“I think I still haven’t played my best football yet, which his cool,” Fumagalli said. “I can keep getting better. I just think that I try to put as much into it as I can every week so that at game time I have no regrets. Whatever happens, happens. I know I worked as hard as I could to get to that point.”
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