The University of Wisconsin football coaches shocked Zander Neuville when they asked him to switch from defensive end to tight end last year.
It wasn’t that the suggestion came out of nowhere. Neuville knew well beforehand that the staff saw offense as a possibility for the then-sophomore. The timing, however, couldn’t have been more unexpected.
Neuville moved to tight end after fall camp ended last year, less than two weeks before the Badgers opened the season against then-No. 5 LSU. He played days later in UW’s upset over the Tigers, learning a new position on the fly against some of the top talent in the country.
"I was totally set on playing D-line for the year,” Neuville said. “The first half of the season was probably the most challenging thing I’ve had to do. Mentally, it was just a lot different from defense, and I went from not really knowing anything about the offense to just all of a sudden jumping in and trying to learn a lot of different things."
Neuville’s role looked quite different when the Badgers opened this season against Utah State on Sept. 1. He played 47 of 73 snaps against the Aggies, per Pro Football Focus, and his first career catch went for a 28-yard touchdown early in the third quarter to give UW a comfortable lead.
The junior has played 62.1 percent of the Badgers’ snaps through two games in which the first team was still on the field, solidifying himself as a staple in UW’s offense.
"He’s someone who’s gotten better from the moment he’s been in that position,” UW offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said. "He’s had a couple growing pains and things that he’s learned from, but he’s got a year under his belt playing that spot, and I am really excited for him. I think he can be an outstanding player and will be an outstanding player there."
Neuville dabbled at tight end during his days at Waupaca High, so he knew how to catch a football. Learning the complexities of UW’s offense took some time, though, as did refining his blocking technique.
"I was just launching out at people because when you’re playing D-line, you just want to launch out and be physical,” Neuville said. "If you do that blocking, guys are going to throw you and you’re going to be off-balance. That was a big thing for me to adjust to."
The turning point for Neuville was last year’s Purdue game Nov. 19, when the former walk-on starting participating in a higher number of snaps.
He felt much more comfortable with the offense by that point, and his emergence led the Badgers to begin using three-tight end sets more often.
"I started to play a lot more that game, and I did have a better idea of what was going on so I could just kind of let it loose,” Neuville said. "After that, my role just started increasing more and more, so that was definitely a confidence-booster game for me. And then the last couple games of the season — the Big Ten Championship game and the Cotton Bowl — were probably the two games I played the most and was feeling really confident."
Neuville parlayed that into a vital role this season. He’s listed as the co-No. 2 tight end with sophomore Kyle Penniston, but Neuville has out-snapped Penniston 90-56 this year, per PFF, and appears to be the true complement to preseason All-American Troy Fumagalli.
Neuville likely won’t catch too many passes — his touchdown against Utah State served as a bonus — but he’s now capable of moving around the formation more freely and will certainly remain a big part of what the Badgers want to do in the running game.
"I feel very confident with the playbook now,” Neuville said. "I know multiple tight end positions and have played some wide receiver, fullback. I just have a better understanding of the offensive concepts as a whole. … Compared to last year, it’s like night and day for me."