MADISON, Wis. - The last time Bryan Beckner caught a pass, it was completely by accident.
It was the final game of the 2007 season against Ball State and the Northern Illinois tight end was wearing a hefty soft cast on his right arm. He was just supposed to be a blocker.
“It was a mistake I was even in there and I ended up getting the catch,” Beckner recalled with a laugh.
This time, it was no mistake. When Beckner, now a redshirt junior, made a pair of catches for 41 yards in a 28-20 loss at Wisconsin on Saturday, it was a matter of hard work paying off.
Beckner was once again wearing a soft cast, this time smaller and on his left wrist, but he was also a little older and wiser, appreciating the game a little more than the last time he started at Wisconsin in 2007.
“There were a lot of hard memories here,” Beckner said. “We played them a lot tougher this time and things are feeling positive.”
Not just for the Huskies (0-1), who will play host to Western Illinois at 6 p.m. Saturday, but also for Beckner.
At the start of the offseason, tight ends coach Brian Anderson sat Beckner down.
The Bishop McNamara graduate hadn’t played all season and wanted to know what he did wrong. Anderson told Beckner he needed to lose weight and get in better shape to be a mobile tight end.
That’s when Beckner’s diet changed, and his workouts gained a little intensity.
“He was frustrated after last season because he didn’t play very much and he had played the year before,” NIU offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. “He’s a guy that wanted to know what he had to do and, to his credit, he had a good attitude and did it.”
Beckner came into spring practice 30 pounds lighter, down from 270 to 240, and the coaches couldn’t have been more pleased.
“At first I was worried, because going into the spring I was 240 and I had never gone into any football contact weighing that little since high school,” Beckner said. “I was worried that blocking would be an issue and it didn’t really seem to be that bad.”
Now Beckner is one of four tight ends on the Huskies’ traveling roster, along with Sycamore High’s Jason Schepler, Reed Cunningham and Jack Marks.
Throughout the offseason, Beckner has done his best to separate himself from that group and all that work showed on Saturday.
“It was a good example of a guy that really did everything we asked of him and it paid off for him,” Limegrover said. “We ask a lot, we need him to block on first down and catch a pass on third down.
“But, he worked to get there and it doesn’t surprise me he was able to do what he did.”
Now the challenge will be repeating the two-catch performance, which doubled his previous career total of one catch.
“I worked really hard but I feel like everybody did,” Beckner said. “I wouldn’t say I put myself above but I made the plays tonight. We travel four tight ends and any one of the four could be the guy on any given night. We’re all on a pretty even playing field.”
The Huskies will use plenty of two and even three-tight end sets this season, which means there will be plenty of opportunity for all of the tight ends to get into the action. Limegrover said that those sets also won’t necessarily be goalline running formations, meaning he needs the tight ends to split out wide and make plays in the open field.
That was the biggest reason the Huskies wanted Beckner to lose those 30 pounds and the biggest reason he found early success in the new system after shedding them.
“I think we’re going to see the position catch a lot of balls but there is not a lot that separates those four guys right now,” Limegrover said. “Competition is a great thing because Bryan had been the most consistent and so he had the most opportunity leading up to the game.”