Waupaca grad playing for Badgers
By Greg Seubert
A switch from defense to offense is about to pay off for Zander Neuville.
The 2014 Waupaca High School graduate expects to see plenty of time on the field this season for the University of Wisconsin football team after moving from defensive lineman to tight end.
“Compared to last year, I have higher expectations for myself,” the redshirt junior said. “I’m feeling a lot more confident at tight end now. I think this last spring ball was good for me. I learned the offense and I learned the details of each play instead of just trying to memorize what to do.
“My coach told me that he expects me to play a lot this year,” he said. “I’ve been working at the No. 2 tight end spot. I’m expecting to play a lot and have an important role this year. I want to be more of a dominant run blocker and also keep developing the passing game. This spring, I think I did a lot better and showed that I can be a reliable pass catcher.”
Neuville will play behind senior Troy Fumagalli, who started all 14 games at tight end for the Badgers last year and caught 47 passes for 580 yards.
“Ever since I switched, he’s sort of guided me with learning the offense,” he said. “He’s a great route runner and can catch the ball really well, so I’ve learned a lot from him. The things he does day in and day out helped me take my game to the next level.”
Besides appearing in all 14 games last season as a tight end, Neuville also played on special teams last season.
“I’m expecting they’ll keep me on special teams,” he said. “I was on three or four special teams last year and I’m expecting to do the same.”
From defense to offense
Neuville is the first to admit the change wasn’t easy at first.
“The first half of the season was really challenging for me,” Neuville said. “Even in high school, I was primarily a defensive guy and didn’t really know a lot about offense. The terminology and technique of how you play on offense was the biggest thing for me to adjust to. On defense, I was so used to coming out and trying to be as explosive as possible. On offense, you need to play physical, but also be a little more controlled, so that was a big adjustment for me.
“They expect the tight ends to do a lot of things,” he added. “I think at the end of the year, I was getting a lot more confident. I feel like I belong at tight end now.”
Coach Paul Chryst’s offense includes plays that feature multiple tight ends.
The position has been a key part of the Badgers’ offense and three former UW tight ends – Lance Kendricks, Travis Beckum and Garrett Graham – played in the NFL. Kendricks signed with the Green Bay Packers earlier this year, Beckum won a Super Bowl ring with the New York Giants and Graham spent six seasons with the Houston Texans.
“It’s really nice playing tight end at Wisconsin,” Neuville said. “Coach Chryst has been known to use tight ends a lot. I think I saw something that in the last nine or 10 years, a tight end has been in the top two in receptions at the end of the season. The NFL is using tight ends, so it’s really nice to be in a system where he loves doing that.”
Chryst approached Neuville about the position last year.
“He mentioned it last spring a little bit because their depth at tight end was limited,” Neuville said. “I actually played all fall camp last year on the D-line. Probably about two weeks before our first game, coach approached me before one of our team meetings and said, ‘Hey, if you’re willing to do it, I think it would be a good switch for you and you’d probably get more playing time as the season progresses.’
“I was open to it, but I was definitely nervous because I hadn’t played a lot of offense and I knew there was going to be a big learning curve,” he said. “Once he brought it up, I kind of knew it would be a good change for me, too. I knew it was going to be a lot of work at first, but I was definitely excited.”
Badgers find a spot
The Badgers passed on recruiting Neuville in high school and he accepted an offer from Minnesota State, a Division II school in Mankato. The Badgers later came back with an offer to be a preferred walk-on and Neuville jumped at the chance.
“My junior year was when I first kind of started getting talked to a lot by college coaches,” he said. “I had never thought of playing at that level until that point. I remember sitting down with my parents at some point during my junior year and my top goal was to play at Wisconsin and if I got that opportunity at all, I was going to take it.
“I got invited to go to games (in Madison), but it wasn’t looking like it was going to happen,” he said. “When they had the spot open up and actually gave it to me at the end of my senior year, I was extremely excited to have a chance to go down there and prove myself. I’ve always prided myself, even in high school, to try to be the guy who works the hardest. I didn’t start out in high school being a huge contributor, I kind of had to work my way through that. I was very thankful that I got a chance.”
Neuville eventually earned a scholarship.
“That was a huge deal for me,” he said. “I remember (linebacker) Ryan Connelly, who’s my roommate now, and I kind of joked when we first got there about who’s going to get a scholarship first. It ended up that a year after we got there, we both got put on scholarship at the same time. That was a huge day for us. It was really cool for me to call my parents and tell them that I earned a scholarship here and they wouldn’t have to pay for my schooling anymore. That was definitely one of the best moments of my life so far.
“It definitely helped validate all the hard work I thought I had been putting in,” he said. “It was just nice to see that the coaches noticed that and thought I was going to be a good player and a big contributor on the team.”
Neuville is one of 56 players on this year’s roster from Wisconsin. The Badgers’ roster includes a pair of former Amherst High School players, offensive lineman Tyler Biadasz and running back Garrett Groshek.
“I definitely think (Chryst) is recruiting Wisconsin heavier than what it was in the past couple of years,” Neuville said. “I think Wisconsin goes under the radar a lot as far as talent. Guys might not be as developed physically in high school, but if you look at a lot of the teams that Wisconsin has had or even teams in the Big 10 in general, it seems like every year, there are a lot of guys from Wisconsin that are contributing in big ways. I think the challenge is breaking the stigma that Wisconsin doesn’t have a lot of football talent. We definitely do. Some of the teams we’ve had in the past definitely show that.”
Neuville was a starting tight end Jan. 2 in the Cotton Bowl, a 24-16 win over previously unbeaten Western Michigan at AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys.
“That was a great experience for us,” he said. “We had played at AT&T Stadium once before, but going down there for a week, they treated us great. That was a great bowl experience.”
Besides winning their bowl game, the Badgers finished 11-3 and made it to the Big 10 Championship Game.
Neuville doesn’t mind going up against established Big 10 teams like Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State.
“They obviously have very talented players, but I think the thing we do at Wisconsin is we prepare really well and the coaches are great at developing players,” he said. “I came in and I probably wasn’t nearly at the level as a lot of guys from these bigger programs. Just the way they develop players physically and mentally, by the time we’re out there playing them, we’re at the same level. I think we have just as good a chance of winning a game against anybody in the country.”
The Big 10’s West Division includes Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, Illinois and Purdue, while Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Indiana, Penn State, Maryland and Rutgers make up the East Division.
“The one thing I’ve learned in the Big 10 is you can never take a week off because every team has a lot of talent,” Neuville said. “You can never take a team lightly.”
Back in Madison
The Badgers held their annual Football Family Fun Day July 28 at Camp Randall Stadium. Fall camp is also underway before the team opens its season Friday, Sept. 1, at home against Utah State.
“From where the program was to where it’s is now, it’s at a totally other level,” Neuville said. “I definitely feel lucky to be a part of it now. The biggest thing now is we need to not only maintain it, but just keep taking it to a higher level. With the team we have this year, we definitely have a chance to do that.”
Football isn’t the only major sport on campus. Since Neuville arrived in 2014, the UW men’s basketball team has played in two NCAA Final Fours.
“Ever since I’ve been down here, both teams have been competing at a very high level,” he said. “We’re one of the top schools for consistency in both programs. I knew it was a big deal, but now that I’m down here, it’s cool seeing how many people care about Wisconsin football and how many fans there are.
Meanwhile, the men’s and women’s hockey teams have also had successful seasons recently.
“Any time you have teams that are winning like that, it’s always fun,” Neuville said. “There’s a ton of people supporting a lot of different teams down here.”
Besides playing football, Neuville is majoring in biology and hopes to become an anesthesiologist after medical school.
He received two Buckingham Awards, which UW gives to student-athletes, earlier this year. He received an Athletic Board Scholars Award and an award from Chi Alpha Sigma, a national student-athlete honor society.
Whether the Badgers can be in the mix for a national championship at the end of the season remains to be seen, but Neuville likes the team’s chances.
“We have a lot of talent on this team this year,” he said. “Skillwise and talentwise, we have as much talent as I’ve seen since I’ve been down here. The biggest thing for us is keeping guys healthy throughout fall camp and during the season. We could have a very special year and that’s what I hope happens.”