This article originally appeared in The Badger Herald on September 29, 2015. It has been republished with the author’s permission.
Austin Traylor knew he had to get better.
The fifth-year senior tight end was lined up to become the No. 1 tight end on the Wisconsin football team’s depth chart, but had never caught a pass in his career at the University of Wisconsin.
Sure, he had been targeted before, but the passes wound up on the ground, evading the clutches of his receiver-gloved grasp and causing Traylor frustration and disappointment.
So when Paul Chryst and his staff took over this past January, Traylor asked, “How do I get better?”
UW offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Joe Rudolph had an answer.
Catch 100 balls a day, he said. You will get better, he said.
And “an answer” turned out to be “the answer.”
Now, in his final year as a Badger, Traylor has transformed himself from a blocking tight end to one of quarterback Joel Stave’s most sure-handed targets.
“They talk about the great wide receivers of the game, who regardless of how good their hands are, will always stay after practice and catch a few extra balls,” Stave said. “I think Traylor took some of that mindset into his own.”
The results jump off the stat sheet. In Traylor’s career prior to 2015 it read: no passes, no catches. But this season, Traylor already has eight catches for 121 yards and three touchdowns.
But the work had to be put in first. If catching 100 balls a day was what he needed to do, Traylor was going to catch 100 balls a day.
Whether he was using a machine or tossing the pigskin with redshirt sophomore wide receiver Rob Wheelwright, Traylor caught the ball every day, even if it meant going into the locker room during the bitter Wisconsin winter.
“It’s paying dividends now as you can see,” Traylor said. “When the ball’s coming my way, I don’t even second-guess it, I know it’s going to be a catch.”
Rudolph had implemented the 100 balls-a-day technique with other UW tight ends, like Lance Kendricks (now with the St. Louis Rams), when he served as that position coach from 2008-11.
Rudolph and Chryst are known to use their tight ends quite a bit in their offensive scheme, and Traylor has noticed a significant uptick in the number of targets he’s getting.
“Having the confidence from the coaching staff helps a lot,” Traylor said.
All three of his scores have come in the Badgers’ last three consecutive games against Miami (Ohio), Troy and Hawaii. His first touchdown came on a back-shoulder throw from Stave in the middle of the end zone. Traylor made an acrobatic play to corral the ball.
The second touchdown almost wasn’t meant to be. Late in the game against Troy, Stave floated a ball near the goal line. Traylor fully extended and came down with the ball, but fell at the two-yard line.
Traylor said he was disappointed because he thought the coaching staff would just call a play to run it in. Not so fast.
The play-action call came into the huddle, and Traylor perked up. He got what he deserved and had his second touchdown of the season near the right sideline by the student section.
His third touchdown provided valuable insurance for the Badgers in their win over Hawaii. Up 14-0, Traylor found a seam in the middle of the Rainbow Warriors’ defense and Stave delivered a dart.
Over the last few seasons, Wisconsin has had the luxury of having effective tight ends in the passing game with guys like Jacob Pedersen and Sam Arneson.
Pedersen caught 17 touchdowns in his career at UW, and Arneson, as a primary target last season, caught 29 passes for 387 yards and a team-high four receiving touchdowns.
Traylor is now simply continuing that trend. Having predecessors put up those numbers not only motivated Traylor, but helped him become the player he is today.
“Being around those guys definitely helped me a lot,” he said.
That said, Traylor molded himself into a unique tight end not only through natural ability, but also dedication and thousands of hours snatching footballs.
Traylor’s success comes as little surprise to Chryst because hard work pays off, Chryst said.
“He did it. He did more than that,” Chryst said. “But that was an example of where he’s going to take it literally and do everything he can to give himself a chance to be the best he can.”