MADISON – The Wisconsin football team will open fall camp on Aug. 8, so over the next few days we’ll be going position-by-position to preview head coach Paul Chryst’s second team in Madison.
Today it’s the tight ends and offensive line:
Perhaps no positional group was more impacted by the Gary Andersen era at Wisconsin than the offensive line. When Chryst and several other assistants left for Pittsburgh after the 2011 season, the line was the strength of the team, constantly among the best units in the country. By the time Chryst returned to Madison in January of 2015 he barely recognized the group that for so long had been the driving force behind Wisconsin’s power run game. It was a contributing factor to the Badgers struggling to move the ball on the ground a year ago, averaging just 150.3 yards per game – their lowest since 1995.
Now there was some bad luck that led to what took place, namely career-ending injuries to several highly-rated recruits over the last three years. It forced young guys to play earlier than they were ready. Still, rebuilding the group, especially in the weight room, has been among the top priorities for the Badgers. And though the nucleus that makes up this year’s line is still relatively young, it’s hoped the trials and tribulations they overcame a season ago will bear fruit this fall.
What we know for sure as camp opens is that redshirt sophomore Michael Deiter (13 starts: seven at left guard, six at center in 2015) will man the center spot. He was so impressive last year after replacing an injured Dan Voltz, that even Voltz – an All-Big Ten player — told the coaching staff that Deiter was better than him and should remain the starter.
It’s also believed that junior Ryan Ramczyk will get the start at left tackle after transferring in from Division III UW-Stevens Point. Though forced to sit out last year due to NCAA transfer rules, Ramczyk earned high praise for his work on the scout team. Former linebacker Joe Schobert called him the best offensive tackle he faced last year.
Meanwhile, it seems likely that sophomore Beau Benzschawel, who added 15 pounds to his frame after starting eight games a year ago, will get the nod at right guard.
Redshirt sophomore Jacob Maxwell, who started three games a year ago at right tackle, is the favorite to win that spot, though a leg injury suffered at the end of spring impacted his summer workouts. If he struggles, Benzschawel could be bumped out there.
The one spot that appears a bit uncertain is left guard. When spring practice ended, redshirt freshman Jon Dietzen was with the first-team offense, while redshirt sophomore Micah Kapoi worked with the second-team at both left and right guard.
Where the uncertainty comes in is what to do with Voltz. The senior has dealt with injuries throughout his career, and suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in late October of last year. He missed all of spring practice and was also noticeably lighter than the 303 pounds he was listed at last season. With Deiter entrenched at center, Voltz volunteered to move to guard – a position he’s never played in college. It remains to be seen if he can make the transition.
LT: Ryan Ramczyk, David Moorman
LG: Jon Dietzen, Dan Voltz
C: Michael Deiter, Dan Voltz
RG: Beau Benzschawel, Micah Kapoi
RT: Jake Maxwell, Brett Connors
Many have pegged Voltz as the starter at left guard. While I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if it happens, I struggle with the idea that it’ll be an easy move. He’s supposed to play a new position after missing most of the offseason and do so at less than 300 pounds? Wisconsin will play its best five linemen, but it’s not a foregone conclusion that Voltz will be among them.
Though not in the two-deep, it’s possible that true freshman Cole Van Lanen – the top recruit in UW’s 2016 recruiting class – could end up there by the end of camp. He’ll start his career at left tackle, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.
Entering his junior season, Troy Fumagalli is poised to become one of the better tight ends in the Big Ten. At 6-foot-6, 248 pounds, the Illinois native is the perfect target for an inexperienced quarterback and should serve as a nice security blanket. Last year, he had 28 catches for 313 yards despite being limited early in the year with an ankle injury. With Austin Traylor now trying to earn a job with the Dallas Cowboys, Fumagalli is far and away the top target at the position.
That said, redshirt freshman Kyle Penniston could steal some of his action. A four-star recruit out of California, Penniston is a talented receiver that can be a mismatch for a linebacker. He averaged nearly 14 yards per catch as a senior in high school and should be a nice option for whoever wins the quarterback battle.
Eric Steffes returns for his senior season. Battered by injuries throughout his time, Steffes is a solid run blocker and will be effective when Wisconsin goes to the two and three tight end sets that Chryst likes.
Behind those three is a lot of intrigue. With redshirt freshman David Edwards moving to offensive tackle, it leaves room for one of the young guys to perhaps earn some time. The most likely candidate is Mitchell Herl, who has put on 40-plus pounds since arriving last summer. He showed glimpses of being able to get open during fall camp last year, and if he can still do that while having gained the necessary weight to play the position, he could be a contributor in the near future.
TE1 – Troy Fumagalli, Kyle Penniston
TE2 – Eric Steffes, Mitchell Herl
Monday: Quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers
Tuesday: Offensive line, tight ends
Tomorrow: Defensive line