April 21, 2010

Post spring camp: Tight ends

MADISON - Looking at the linebacker spot, at least at this juncture, senior Lance Kendricks is the only stable constant among a group of players jockeying for playing time this fall.

Kendricks, a player that absolutely destroyed the Miami secondary during UW's 20-14 Champs Sports Bowl win, returned to the program and continued to progress at the tight end position during spring camp.

Not only has he remained consistent catching the ball, but he has become one of the better blocking tight ends not only in the Big Ten, but also throughout the entire landscape of college football.

"Lance Kendricks is one of the best tight ends I have seen in the country," UW junior defensive end J.J. Watt said during spring drills. "I faced 13 tight ends last year and not many of them blocked better than Lance Kendricks. He definitely stands out to me.

"Obviously he has speed and agility and can make the plays on the outside edges."

Clearly Kendricks is one of the only shoe-ins at a positional unit looking to replace departed seniors Garrett Graham and Mickey Turner. That, in essence, was what position coach Joe Rudolph was looking for this spring.

Who was going to step up and fill the void?

"That's this group's challenge," Rudolph said. "Can they get themselves to that point where they can be consistent play in and play out against any competition?"

Now that the team has gone through its allotted 15 spring practices, it seems like some of those players are starting to make strides.

Jake Byrne, standing 6-foot-4 and weighing 257 pounds, is certainly one of the bigger tight ends on the roster. While he is probably more suited for a blocking role, it seems Byrne was able to make some positive progression as a pass receiving threat. And, perhaps most importantly, it seems as though the offensive playbook is starting to come together for the true junior out of Arkansas.

"Jake Byrne is doing a really good job," Rudolph said. "I'm excited about what he brings. He's physical, he's tough and he's got excellent hands. I'm excited about him and him getting better."

At this point, it would be fair to say that Byrne will likely be the second tight end alongside Kendricks. However, several things could change as opening day approaches.

Several of the young players like Jacob Pedersen, Brian Wozniak, Zach Davison and Rob Korslin seemed to make significant progress as spring camp wore on.

"Jacob has been a pleasant surprise," Rudolph said. "Probably one of the big questions was backing up the H and who could that be. I'm hoping he continues. Him and Rob Korslin are battling there and both of those guys have shown some flashes."

Korslin, another big body at the position, also spent plenty of spring camp backing up Bradie Ewing at the fullback position. That may be the best position for Korslin to get on the field this fall.

"What Rob will do is he will know all three positions which makes him invaluable," Rudolph said. "You run into trouble and you need someone to be able to fix some things. He's smart and he understands that. He will be invaluable at all three positions.

"I just saw him having the opportunity of him getting on the field the quickest there at fullback."

Pedersen, a relative unknown throughout the recruiting process, proved his mettle this spring as a pass catcher. He's got great size (6-foot-5, 215), and solid speed, which makes him difficult for opposing linebackers to defend.

After entering the program last fall, it seems as though Pedersen is making strides because he is more comfortable with the playbook, and all the responsibilities that come with each play.

"The playbook is getting a lot better," Pedersen said early in spring camp. "Spring ball, because we lost Mickey and Garrett and have a couple of guys out, I'm getting more reps. That's just the thing. You've got to take as many reps as you can get. Nobody is going to run perfectly every time. If you screw up, you've got to learn from your mistakes and take it as it goes."

Before he was injured midway through camp, it seemed as though Wozniak was making a strong push to break into a potential starting role at the tight end position. Even after he suffered a minor MCL tweak during an early spring camp scrimmage, it seemed as though Wozniak finished strong and will contend for a spot in the rotation come fall camp.

Davison, who only participated in the second half of spring camp, will be the dark horse come August. He will have potential to make contributions at the position, but may not be ready this early in his career.

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