The fourth in a 10-part series breaking down each position group on the University of Wisconsin football team, offering a closer look at Lance Kendricks and a video roundtable featuring Mike Lucas, Tom Mulhern and Jim Polzin of Madison.com sports.
Kendricks ready for his shot in spotlight
It was a performance worthy of a leading man.
And the beauty of tight end Lance Kendricks’ portrayal of a go-to receiver for the University of Wisconsin football team in the Champs Sports Bowl was its authenticity. He really nailed it.
Kendricks proved he is ready for a major role in the offense this season by catching seven passes — each resulting in a first down — for a career-high 128 yards in the 20-14 victory over Miami (Fla).
Yet, even the best leading man needs a supporting cast. So, while the Badgers go into the season feeling confident about the ascension of Kendricks to the top spot, they still have to find a competent second tight end.
The identity of the No. 2 tight end is one of the few unsettled areas on offense heading into camp.
“The big challenge to our group, Lance needs to pick up from where he left off and continue to grow,” tight ends coach Joe Rudolph said in the spring. “He needs to be a leader for us. We need some of those young guys to step up into the two-deep. Someone we feel comfortable with is going to have to move into that second tight end role.”
Kendricks had a strong spring and looks capable of continuing UW’s string of outstanding tight ends, going back to Owen Daniels in 2005. It continued with Travis Beckum the next two years and Garrett Graham for two years after that.
Since coordinator Paul Chryst returned to run the offense in 2005, UW has had three first-team All-Big Ten Conference tight ends, Beckum in ’07 and Graham in ’08 and ’09.
During those five seasons, the team’s leading tight end has averaged 49.8 receptions, 663.4 yards and 5.4 touchdowns per season, numbers that seem within Kendricks’ grasp.
“Lance is doing a great job, trying to do as much as he can,” senior quarterback Scott Tolzien said. “There’s a lot on his plate from that position, mentally and physically.”
Also, each of those top tight ends from the past five years had a strong No. 2. The exception was 2008, when Beckum suffered a broken leg, Graham moved up to the top spot and Kendricks, a converted wide receiver, was still learning the ropes as a sophomore.
Otherwise, Daniels had Jason Pociask, who was picked in the fifth round of the NFL draft; Beckum had Andy Crooks, followed by a young Graham; then Graham had both Mickey Turner and Kendricks.
Turner, then a senior co-captain, caught only six passes for 34 yards in 2009, but his ability to line up at fullback and tight end made him unique. So, finding a replacement for him could be more difficult than replacing Graham, who caught 51 passes for 624 yards and a team-high seven TDs.
“Mickey really created his role,” Rudolph said. “He was a kid you just loved and you knew we needed to get him on the field. He was our best option at the fullback position.”
The Badgers might go with running back Bradie Ewing in that role this season. Even though Chryst favors two tight ends as the base formation — an H-back that usually goes in motion and a Y, which plays on the line — Rudolph said it is not set in stone. It’s incumbent on the tight ends to prove two of them deserve to be on the field.
“We came out of last spring saying, ‘Mickey, Garrett and Lance (will play),’ ” Rudolph said. “We didn’t start (this) spring like that.
“I tell my guys that was a reflection of how those guys performed. They sent the message they deserved to be out there, they were ready to be out there, ‘You can count on me, I’ll get it done.’ That’s what we’re looking for now. We can play with one tight end. It’s not hard to do. It’s who are going to be the guys who are ready to go?”
Redshirt freshman Brian Wozniak got an early look as the second tight end, but he was slowed by a minor knee injury. By the time spring practices closed, junior Jake Byrne, who is more of a blocker than a receiver, looked most dependable.
Given how hard the Badgers have recruited the position, there are plenty of options, including junior Rob Korslin, sophomore Zach Davison and redshirt freshman Jacob Pedersen. Manasseh Garner, one of two incoming freshmen at the position, is also intriguing due to his athleticism.
But the Badgers demand so much of their tight ends — playing multiple positions, lining up in different spots, plus shifts and motions — it’s a lot to ask of a young player.
“We’re the one position not bringing back (a starter),” Wozniak said of the offense. “Lance Kendricks is a great leader for us, but that Y position, which is what Jake and I play, there’s going to be a lot of questions there.
“We have a lot to live up to from Garrett. Our goal is not to have any fall-off from last year. I think we’re capable of doing that.”