Wisconsin’s best receiver this year is a 6-6, 247 pound tight end. That’s not particularly strange for the Badgers, who are known for loading the field with big bodies and bruising their opponents with size and power. It does however lead to some interesting tactical choices for Wisconsin to make in terms of how they use this player to attack opponents.
Under athletic director Barry Alvarez the Badgers have been about classical pro-style formations and run-centric offense for a long time now. They like to get under center, put some extra beef in the box with tight ends and fullbacks, and then just run the ball right over their opponents. If it goes well enough, they’ll throw the ball some off play-action down the field.
Meanwhile true pro-style offenses, when defined as the style of offense preferred in the pro ranks, has now moved away from that philosophy in favor of using the west coast passing game to set up the rest of the offense. Big guys are prized when they can use their size to benefit the passing game.
Troy Fumagalli is really more of a modern pro-style weapon who uses his size and athleticism to present matchup issues for the defense in the middle of the field running routes. The Badgers have naturally been looking to utilize him in that fashion but they also want to maintain their traditional method of smashing opponents with the run game. Here’s how they’ve struck a balance.
Classically pro-style on standard downs
The 2017 Badgers have shown a lot of 12, 21, and 22 personnel sets thus far this season. Fumagalli normally stays on the field in every setting but they tend to pair him with fullback Austin Ramesh or fellow tight ends Zander Neuville and Kyle Penniston as often as not when it’s a standard down.
Naturally these other guys tend to line up inside of Fumagalli and draw the more physical assignments in the run game. For instance, here’s the Badgers running what seems to be their best play in 2017, stretch zone, from a few different big formations.
Here’s a double TE set with both tight ends aligned to one side of the field.
It’s zone stretch and Fumagalli is the last man on the edge. BYU is hoping to keep the ball contained and not bounced so they have a LB right up on the edge to force the ball inside but stretch zone typically cuts upfield anyways. The Badgers are aiming at the double team between inline TE Zander Neuville, a 6-5, 257 pound bludgeon, and right tackle David Edwards.
That tandem ends up getting Edwards to the BYU DE’s outside shoulder without much effort and then Fumagalli need only be a half-decent obstacle to allow freshman RB Jonathan Taylor to cut off Edwards’ shoulder and follow Neuville upfield.
Here’s a 13 personnel set (three TEs) executing the same play with Fumagalli again just tending the edge while the ball goes off-tackle:
And the same effect on on display with this power run from a 21 personnel set:
Fumagalli is a strong blocker but the Badgers prefer to give him assignments where he’s maintaining the point of attack rather than forcing the issue. He lines up in spots where he can be a threat to run routes and on running plays the Badgers power the ball behind their blocking specialists.
The money downs
Fumagalli is worth his weight in gold to the Badgers for what he offers them on passing downs. In those situations, they abandon their bigger, classic sets in favor of modern pro-style formations. In particular, shotgun trips with Fumagalli flexed out and standing up on the hash mark where he’s best positioned to be the focal point of various route combinations:
From this spot on the field Fumagalli can threaten the most vulnerable part of a defensive coverage, the area between the hash marks which is defended by linebackers chosen primarily for their abilities to stop the run and not their ability to cover a 6-6 guy running option routes. Wisconsin’s ability to set up QB Alex Hornibrook with easy throws over the middle to Fumagalli is difficult to counter and perhaps the strongest feature of their offense.
On the snap above, Utah State tried to handle the situation with a fire zone blitz that put 6-0, 210 pound safety Gaje Ferguson on him in man coverage. That went poorly:
Fumagalli is working to the opposite hash as a part of a “four verticals” passing concept but when he finds himself facing man coverage he breaks it off outside to give Hornibrook a target at the sticks.
If the opponent prefers to try and match up in coverage and than the Badgers will use west coast route combinations to attack them for how they handle Fumagalli.
On this red zone play they set up Fumagalli to run a flag route to the corner of the end zone:
BYU has “five over three” to the Fumagalli side of the field while the weak side linebacker and cornerback are in a “two on two” against the route combination by the X receiver and the running back. Hornibrook is reading the weak side safety and when he sees him roll over to Fumagalli he immediately knows where to go with the ball. The corner gets beat inside by that receiver and that’s all she wrote.
Here’s a similar example on third and seven:
This time BYU is playing cover 3 with the sam linebacker and strong safety bracketing Fumagalli in the middle of the field while the weak side corner and linebacker are again left in a “two on two” against the RB and X receiver. Quintez Cephus (no. 87) runs a curl route and when Hornibrook sees the Cougars rotating their coverage to the field again he rifles the ball in for another first down.
There aren’t many easy answers for this set. You can try to confuse Hornibrook about where the coverage strength will be but the Badgers rep this set pretty extensively. If you look to double Fumagalli in the middle of the field then you have to cover veteran receivers Cephus or Jazz Peavy in man to man. If you have a player that can handle Fumagalli in man to man coverage you’d better make the most of him because, like the Wisconsin senior, he’ll be collecting checks in the NFL next season.
Between this passing down weapon, a rebuilt run game, their typically stout defense, and a pretty favorable schedule, the Badgers are a pretty interesting team to watch in the playoff hunt this season.