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You’re Nuts: Who is the best returning non-OSU TE in the Big Ten?

Which tight ends should you be on the lookout for in 2021?

NCAA Football: Michigan at Indiana Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

Everybody knows that one of the best parts of being a sports fan is debating and dissecting the most (and least) important questions in the sporting world with your friends. So, we’re bringing that to the pages of LGHL with our favorite head-to-head column: You’re Nuts.

In You’re Nuts, two LGHL staff members will take differing sides of one question and argue their opinions passionately. Then, in the end, it’s up to you to determine who’s right and who’s nuts.

This week’s topic: Who is the best returning non-OSU TE in the Big Ten?

Josh’s Take: Peyton Hendershot, Indiana

Gene, I say we just lay down our swords on this one and agree that the best non-OSU tight end in the Big Ten will come from Iowa or Wisconsin… and then we can copy and paste year after year. Especially on the 4th of July weekend, I don’t know how much effort I can put into an argument against the inevitable.

I am obviously joking, but it was tempting to pick Sam LaPorta or Jake Ferguson by default. It seems like the two schools I mentioned could take a guy off the street and turn them into a productive tight end. Whether it was George Kittle, T.J. Hockenson, Travis Beckum, or Troy Fumagalli, the Hawkeyes and the Badgers have regularly punished Ohio State with big pass catchers.

I am actually looking outside the Big Ten West, and sticking with the same school I wrote about last week. I believe Peyton Hendershot from Indiana will be the best non-OSU tight end in 2021. Whether or not you think he should be on the field is a separate argument entirely, and it is not my place to speak on it in this forum. Controversy aside, Hendershot is a talented football player in a potentially explosive offense.

Hendershot was a three-star recruit in 2017, and ranked inside the top-15 of all players in the state of Indiana. He ultimately chose to stay home and play for the Hoosiers, and got on the field for them right away. He played in the first four games as a true freshman, but suffered a season-ending injury that resulted in a medical redshirt. Hendershot then led Indiana tight ends in each noteworthy stat in 2018, but his season was nothing to write home about: 15 catches, 163 yards, and two touchdowns.

The 6-foot-4, 250-pound tight end broke out in a big way in 2019, and I expect this type of stat line again in 2021. Henderson set Indiana single-season position records with 52 receptions (fourth among tight ends nationally) and 622 yards. He chipped in four touchdowns, and earned Third-Team All-Big Ten from the media. With that production, he should have easily made second or third-team unanimously, but the Hoosiers were not nearly as competitive as they were with Michael Penix Jr. last year. Team biases and reputation clearly worked against him, as coaches named Luke Farrell Third-Team All-Big Ten in their voting. The former Buckeye was a great blocker, but had seven catches in 2019!

2020 was a down season for Hendershot, but he was coming off two surgeries and unable to participate in spring practices due to his off-field behavior. He put up just 23 receptions, 151 yards, and four touchdowns. He clearly did not establish the same chemistry with Penix Jr. that Ty Fryfogle did, but he now has a full offseason to work on his game and get mental reps with the Hoosier quarterback. If Penix Jr. is able to get back on the field in September, I think Hendershot will be a real pass-catching threat.

Indiana loses WR Whop Philyor, so Hendershot should pick up a lot of his targets and opportunity. He possesses ideal size, speed, and athleticism, and could end up as a mid-round draft pick in 2022 — depending on how NFL teams look upon his past transgressions. I believe that Jeremy Ruckert is head and shoulders above other tight ends in the conference, but Hendershot has sneaky potential. His 2019 season was wildly under-appreciated, and a return to that form should put him in the conversation for best overall at the position.

Gene’s Take: Jake Ferguson, Wisconsin

You know what Josh, you’re not wrong. The Big Ten West has no shortage of tight end factories, and it is usually a safe bet to just take whoever is lining up at the position at Iowa or Wisconsin as the top guy in any given year. I know we are doing best non-OSU tight ends, but I did want to give a quick shout out to Jeremy Ruckert, who I think is actually far and away the best TE in the B1G this season. It is rare that Ohio State has one of those truly elite guys at the position, but Ruckert breaks that mold as a damn good one.

That being said, I’m going to do exactly what I said was the easy thing to do and choose Wisconsin’s tight end: Jake Ferguson.

There was really never any doubt that Ferguson was going to wind up playing for the Badgers. Growing up in Madison, Ferguson played his high school ball in Wisconsin’s backyard at James Madison Memorial. Standing at 6-foot-5, 209 pounds, the class of 2017 prospect was only a three-star recruit, ranking as the nation’s No. 13 tight end and the No. 354 prospect in the country overall. He was, however, the No. 2 player in Wisconsin, so naturally the Badgers were the first to offer and the rest is history.

Even despite his lower rating, Ferguson made an impact almost immediately upon stepping foot on campus. In his first season with Wisconsin in 2018, he hauled in 36 receptions for 456 yards and four touchdowns — ranking second on the team in all three statistical categories. He played in all 13 games for the Badgers and made two starts. It would be good enough for him to earn the full-time starting job in 2019, when he poured in a very similar season with 33 catches for 407 yards and two TDs. He was named a consensus All-Big Ten honorable mention after his second campaign in Madison.

While Wisconsin played about half the amount of games they would play in a typical season in 2020 as a result of the pandemic, Ferguson’s production did not see any sort of drop off. He was named to the 2020 preseason John Mackey Award watch list, and he certainly did not dissapoint. The tight end led the team in receptions (30), receiving yards (305) and receiving touchdowns (4) while being one of the most consistent players on the team in a year where not much else was consistent for the Badgers — or anywhere else in college football, for that matter.

With a return to a full schedule and three full seasons now under his belt, the senior is primed for a huge season in 2021. In addition to more games and tons of experience, Ferguson will also be entering year two with Graham Mertz at the helm. Mertz had a bit of a shaky season in 2020, but with a real full offseason to continue building chemistry between the two, it will be no surprise to see Ferguson put up big numbers this fall.