The Wisconsin offensive line is back.
What had eroded as a result of a change in philosophy under a previous regime, and a string of unlucky career-ending injuries, has been rebuilt. It’s taken time, but the struggles of 2015 led to small steps in 2016, which then gave way to giant leaps last year. By the end of the season, the Badgers had one of the better lines in the country. Now, with expectations off the charts for the team as a whole, Wisconsin’s line is back to what it was when Paul Chryst, Joe Rudolph and Bob Bostad left for Pittsburgh following the 2011 season.
Back then, they left behind a room that included future NFL starters in Travis Frederick, Kevin Zeitler, Rick Wagner, Rob Havenstein and Ryan Groy. The one Rudolph oversees now includes what draft expert Matt Miller said is his top ranked center — sophomore Tyler Biadasz — and top two ranked guards — seniors Michael Deiter and Beau Benzschawel. If that wasn’t enough, Miller also has junior David Edwards among his top five tackles.
“[It’s] just a nasty OL across the board,” Miller tweeted this week.
Deiter and Benzschawel could have gone to the NFL after last year, but for a variety of reasons, including improving their draft stock, they came back. Now, a number of very early mock drafts have them going in the first round next April. The same goes for Edwards.
The dramatic shift from what the Badgers lined up with against Alabama in the 2015 opener to what they’ll roll out on Aug. 31 against Western Kentucky is nearly inconceivable. It’s led to a healthy portion of the college football community calling them the best in the country and others believing they could be the best line in Wisconsin’s storied OL history by the time the season is done.
Biggest question: Who starts at left tackle?
Wisconsin returns all five starters from last season, but it’s not expected that the same five will trot out for the first series against the Hilltoppers. Deiter, an All-American at left tackle, has moved back to his more natural left guard spot. That has left an opening on the outside and Rudolph made it clear at the end of spring practice that the competition is wide open between redshirt sophomores Cole Van Lanen and Patrick Kasl, along with junior Jon Dietzen, who started 12 games at left guard last season.
“I think we need that type of fight there [to] figure out the best five to get on the field,” Rudolph said in the spring.
Four months earlier, Rudolph had issued a challenge in bowl prep, saying he wanted hard a fought competition for the left tackle spot, specifically pointing to Van Lanen, who took note.
“When a coach says that, it shows that there is opportunity,” Van Lanen said in April. “I’ve got to use every practice I can as an opportunity to prove to him that I can play next year.”
A former 4-star recruit, Van Lanen seemed to hold his own during the 15 sessions in the spring and appears to be the favorite heading into fall camp. But that’s an outsiders perspective and one that he doesn’t necessarily agree with.
“I can’t say that. All I can is I’m giving it 110 percent,” Van Lanen said. “I need to be making a difference on every play. I can’t just be going through the motions. There needs to be a significant block, consistently, to show that I’m ready.”
Kasl spent much of the spring at right tackle, which is where he played in the Orange Bowl after an injury hampered Edwards.
Dietzen is a bit of a wildcard seeing as he’s played almost exclusively at left guard since arriving on campus as an early enrollee in January of 2015. He’s started 20 games for Wisconsin, but has been limited by injuries. It’ll be interesting too see how he transitions to playing on an island.
What they said:
Reporter: “Expectations for you guys as a team are quite high. Do you talk about that at all?”
Van Lanen: “We keep the outside voices out. We only care about what we’re talking about and what we’re trying to do. It doesn’t matter what other people say.”
Reporter: “What are your expectations?”
Van Lanen: “We want to be the best in the country.”
Projected depth chart:
LT: Cole Van Lanen (RS SO), David Moormann (JR)
LG: Michael Deiter (SR), Jon Dietzen (JR)
C: Tyler Biadasz (RS SO), Brett Connors (SR)
RG: Beau Benzschawel (SR), Micah Kapoi (SR)
RT: David Edwards (JR), Patrick Kasl (RS SO)
“The Camp” previews the OL