This is part of a summer-long preview put together by the Armchair Big Ten department. We vote weekly on the best players at each position and will provide the ranking every Monday.
The Big Ten’s reputation for the ground-and-pound game means tight ends often have more responsibility blocking than receiving. Though Jimmy Grahams and O.J. Howards didn’t come from the conference, there still is plenty of talent at tight end. Just last season, Jake Butt was one of the better tight ends in the nation. Though he’s moved on, there are some tight ends that are ready to take over this season.
2016/17 Stats: 48 Receptions—679 Yards—5 Touchdowns
The big man who hails from New Jersey is primed for another huge year in State College. A whopping 6-foot-6, 252 pounds, he can—at times, not always—look like Rob Gronkowski out there. Seriously. That’s how well he played last season.
Gesicki benefits from one of the best and most balanced offenses in the conference. He blocks for Saquon Barkley while showcasing his receiving skills downfield. The best asset for him is the use of play-action in the Penn State scheme. With quarterback Trace McSorley’s ability to throw on the run, Gesicki often finds himself open over the middle or in the flat. And, of course, he can compete for any jump ball. He’s taking over for Jake Butt as the conference’s best tight end, and he could very well be among the finest in the country.
2016/17 Stats: 47 Receptions—580 Yards—2 Touchdowns
Fumagalli is like a Gesicki who gets less attention. Part of it is down to the Badgers’ offensive playbook, which is rather run-heavy. Of course, Fumagalli can block, but his ability to aid in the air attack is vastly underrated.
The Illinois native’s offensive production should be bolstered by the growth of Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook. He looks to take a big leap in his sophomore year, and Fumagalli stands to benefit immensely. He’s got all the physical tools at a size similar to Gesicki. All he needs is a quarterback who can throw to him and an offense conducive to such a concept. Will he get that? It remains to be seen, but Fumagalli is still a strong player for the Badgers.
2016/17 Stats: 24 Receptions—269 Yards—2 Touchdowns
This is where it gets interesting. Baugh was decently productive last season for the Buckeyes, but didn’t post numbers at the level of Gesicki or Fumagalli. It comes down to Ohio State’s spread offense, which doesn’t utilize tight ends as much as the pro-style sets you see at Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan and more. Still, Baugh seems to be poised for a breakout season.
He’s generally utilized more in the run game as a blocker, but, as he showed by garnering over 250 yards, he has the capability to influence the passing game. With A.J. Alexander reportedly out for the season, it’s Baugh’s time. If Ohio State choose to utilize a tight end, he should be the guy, and he’s talented enough to make a difference.
2016/17 Stats: 13 Receptions—135 Yards
Based on Wozniak’s stats, it seems like we’re scraping the bottom of the barrel here. Many tight ends in the Big Ten have yet to prove themselves, and Wozniak is one of them. However, there’s something about him that could create a bit of a problem for opposing defenses—he’s 6-foot-10.
Conor Rhoda looks poised to take over the duties as the Golden Gophers’ starting quarterback. Though Wozniak spent most of last season blocking for their dangerous running back tandem, Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, Rhoda could bring some stability to the passing game. Enter: the tallest man on the field. Wozniak isn’t going to light up the box score, but expect some red zone targets and perhaps some increased looks for the big man.
2016/17 Stats: 10 Receptions—183 Yards—4 Touchdowns
Again with Hopkins, he isn’t quite Gronk’s reincarnation. His yardage stats pretty much mirror Wozniak’s, and he’s five inches shorter. However, one thing sticks out for Hopkins—he had the second-most touchdowns last season, just one behind Gesicki. Yes, 40 percent of his receptions were in the end zone.
Purdue’s David Blough threw for over 3,300 yards and 25 touchdowns last season. His main problem was interceptions, as he tossed 21 passes to the wrong guy in 2016. Hopkins, should he get more targets, with his big frame can become something of a safety blanket. He already was in the red zone, so why not all over the field? Hopkins will be just a sophomore this year, so we can expect him to at least improve on last season’s stats. Who knows, he could do more than just improve.
NEXT WEEK: OFFENSIVE LINEMEN