CHICAGO — Other players will earn more publicity this season on Wisconsin’s offense: running backs, quarterbacks, wide receivers, tight ends and even fullbacks that touch the ball on occasion. Those position groups feature players whose achievements are quantifiable by statistical output, and so it’s easy to note whether any produced stellar games.
Less recognizable on a play-to-play basis are members of the Badgers’ stout offensive line. Yet few individuals will be as important to the entire offense as right tackle Rob Havenstein, the 6-foot-8, 333-pound giant whose time has arrived as the next great Wisconsin lineman — even if those in the stands hardly notice.
"If I have a great game, no one is going to know about it unless you’re actually looking," Havenstein said. "No one’s going to hear about it. No one’s going to say my name. To me, that’s a great game. To come out, hold my side down, hold my job down, that’s all I can do. . . . For me, personally, I’m not trying to go out and win anything individually. It’s just every game I’m trying to go out and be the best right tackle in college football."
Havenstein has put himself in position to make a legitimate claim as being among the best offensive tackles in the game because of his hard work and dedication. Over five seasons in the program, he has substantially changed his body composition, learned to become a better student of the sport and become one of the most vocal personalities on a team picked to win the Big Ten West.
In fact, Badgers coach Gary Andersen said this week at Big Ten media days that Havenstein was "without a doubt the No. 1 leader on our offense."
"I think because of the position that Rob plays and it’s Wisconsin and it’s the offensive line, Rob’s voice is definitely heard, and he’s taking great pride in it," Andersen said.
Havenstein, a fifth-year senior, will enter the season as one of the most experienced players in the Big Ten. He has appeared in more games (40) and made more starts (28) than anybody else on Wisconsin’s team. The difference this year, he said, is the confidence he has in his abilities and his willingness to embrace a leadership role.
"I wanted to transition more to not just a leader on the offensive line but kind of bring that mentality to the whole team," he said. "That’s what I learned growing up. A tough, physical team that doesn’t take crap from anyone is kind of how I grew up in college with guys in front of me."
Specifically, Havenstein cited learning from former Badgers linemen John Moffitt, Gabe Carimi, Josh Oglesby and Kevin Zeitler. He watched the way each player evolved as leaders in their own right. He also noticed the way in which each studied film and observed tendencies of opposing teams
"Is he leaning this way?" Havenstein said. "Does that mean he’s going to go that way? The linebackers are at different depth. Just little things to look at. The film room is everything in the game of football, whether you’re in college or in the pros, I think. If you’re in college, it’s a huge thing to know your opponent, know who you’re going to play, know his tendencies and what he’s going to do. I’m only trying to get better and better at that."
Havenstein’s story is one of a player who didn’t really come into his own until his fourth year in college, he said. His parents did not let him play football until he reached ninth grade, and when he arrived at college, he weighed 380 pounds — far too heavy to contribute in a league as fast and physical as the Big Ten. Each year, he has worked to improve his physique. He played at 342 pounds as a sophomore, 338 as a junior and now weighs roughly 333 pounds. He also has made 27 consecutive starts for the Badgers at right tackle.
"He has done a tremendous job of making nutrition be important and getting himself at as good of weight as he can possibly be to be the best player he can for us," Andersen said.
Havenstein’s ability to bring the team together will be paramount to the Badgers’ success. Wisconsin’s starting quarterback remains a mystery and the wide receiver corps has yet to develop enough consistency to scare Big Ten teams. All of it means the team’s running game — and its offensive line — should once again be the key to Wisconsin’s conference title hopes. And if Havenstein plays the way most expect, he’ll wind up next season playing alongside many of his former teammates in the NFL.
Since 2009, eight Wisconsin linemen have been taken in the NFL Draft — including Moffitt, Carimi and Zeitler, among others. CBSSports.com lists Havenstein as the No. 17-rated offensive tackle among 2015 NFL Draft prospects. For what it’s worth, the 17th offensive tackle taken off the board in the 2014 draft came in the sixth round.
With one more college season ahead of him, Havenstein realizes that, even while trimming down, he still has plenty of room to grow before achieving his dreams.
"It does cross my mind a little bit every now and again," he said of the NFL. "It’s there. It’s one of my goals. It’s something I want to do. But when it comes down to it, I have to have a good senior season. That’s what I’ve been really thinking about this offseason, kind of getting my mind right and getting going on this season."