MADISON, Wis. — The natural inclination for Wisconsin football fans is to see the team’s projected offensive line, consider it one of the more inexperienced units in recent memory and question whether the end of the Badgers’ dominance up front is imminent.
With a redshirt freshman starting at center and a left guard who has played only sparingly in his career, it’s easy to see why some would make such assertions.
But a closer look reveals the Badgers’ line isn’t exactly unequipped to handle the grind of another season. Wisconsin’s projected starting offensive line of Ryan Groy, Dallas Lewallen, Dan Voltz, Kyle Costigan and Rob Havenstien has combined to play in 89 games, including 44 starts. Throw in right guard Zac Matthias, who has 32 games played and four starts, and there is plenty of reason for optimism.
“The way we prepare every day really, I think if we were to play a game right now, we’d be ready,” Voltz said Tuesday following Wisconsin’s second day of fall practices. “We’re not going to go out there and be bug-eyed and be scared when we step into Camp Randall for the first time. We’re going to go out with confidence and we’re going to do what we do every day and that’s be physical and own our opponent.”
How do Wisconsin’s experience numbers compare to other Badgers offensive lines? Consider that in 2009, Wisconsin’s line of Gabe Carimi, Jake Bscherer, Travis Frederick, Kevin Zeitler and Josh Oglesby opened the season having played 63 combined games with 27 starts. That team finished 10-3 and won the Champs Sports Bowl against Miami.
Last year’s starting line for the season opener — Rick Wagner, Groy, Frederick, Matthias and Havenstein — had 114 games played and 48 starts, or just four more combined starts than this year’s projected line.
If there is a bridge between Wisconsin’s dominant lines of years past and the future, it is Groy, a redshirt senior who has played center, tackle, guard and even fullback in his Wisconsin career. Groy has appeared in 41 games with 20 starts and begins the season as the team’s left tackle and the unquestioned leader of the line. He spent last season playing left guard but shifted over to tackle primarily out of necessity when Wagner graduated.
Groy said the biggest adjustment for him has been getting used to sets and hearing the snap calls.
“You’re a little further away from the ball so it’s harder to get off on time,” Groy said. “Especially with the count that we’re on. The cadence isn’t through a voice. It’s a little hard. You’ve got to watch the ball a little more. Little things here or there in plays are different.”
Groy and right tackle Havenstein (27 games, 15 starts) will serve as solid bookends for the Badgers, while right guard Costigan (15 games, nine starts) is now at full strength following offseason knee surgery.
The biggest question marks on the line will be the performance of Lewallen and Voltz. Lewallen played in four games last season but did not appear in any of the Badgers’ final four contests. Still, he is a 6-foot-6, 322-pound redshirt junior who has been around the program long enough to know how to step into a big role on the line.
“It’s definitely something you’ve got to work for,” Lewallen said. “I can look back at my freshman year, and even previous lines were all very dominant. You can name off numerous all-Americans: Joe Thomas, Pete Konz, Kevin Zeitler, Gabe Carimi, John Moffit. All those guys. It’s definitely something that helps motivate us, myself. Just to work hard and get to that standard of what a Wisconsin o-line is.”
Voltz, a redshirt freshman, has yet to start a game, but he appears primed for a breakout year. He spent last season learning from the best center in college football, Frederick, whom the Dallas Cowboys selected in the first round of the NFL Draft.
“That was huge,” Voltz said. “Obviously I was kind of on the fringe of playing a couple games in the season. Just trying to suck as much knowledge out of him as I could was kind of my goal. I felt like I did that. Nobody knows more than that guy as far as football goes. He’s starting right now for the Cowboys. It was phenomenal being able to learn from him and seeing how he handles things from the center position.”
The larger line questions concern depth and overall talent level. Seven players off the last three offensive lines have been drafted, with three coming in the first round and one in the second round. Groy already is projected as one of the top tackles for the 2014 draft, but beyond that, it remains to be seen which linemen could play in the NFL.
Additionally, Wisconsin opens fall camp with 12 scholarship linemen and six walk-ons. At times during spring practices, the Badgers used only eight healthy linemen, which forced Badgers coach Gary Andersen to occasionally end practices early for fear of exhausting his line.
Despite the concerns, Groy insists there is little reason for panic. The Badgers’ pro-style offense remains, which means five men once again will have to pave the way for a talented running back core — a task for which the offensive line is ready.
“That’s what you dream of is coming to Wisconsin to play offensive line,” Groy said. “Once you get here, you embrace whatever you have to do to keep this place going, keep the tradition alive.”