MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen’s play script called for one more offensive series during a spring scrimmage two Saturdays ago when he blew the whistle, called his team into a huddle and ended practice. He was neither overjoyed nor disgusted. He simply needed to conserve the energy of the few offensive linemen capable of participating.
It hasn’t been the easiest set of spring practices for a unit that predominantly rotates a bunch of big bodies to dominate the line of scrimmage, mostly because fresh faces have been at a premium. During one stretch, only eight healthy offensive linemen even suited up for the Badgers.
Through it all, the core members have endured, trying to find the right combination of five players to lead Wisconsin’s ground attack next season while balancing the needs of the entire offense.
“It definitely can’t be an excuse,” Badgers starting right tackle Rob Havenstein said following Monday’s practice. “You can’t be like, ‘I missed that block because I’m tired because I’m taking reps with the ones and twos. That’s no good. That’s not going to get you anywhere. It’s just been getting everyone better. The more reps you can get, the better.”
Two projected starters — left guard Dallas Lewallen and center Dan Voltz — have been especially busy taking snaps with the second-stringers. But those players also have the least amount of game experience among any of the starters. Voltz, a redshirt freshman, has yet to play a down in college. Lewallen, a redshirt junior, has appeared in six games with no starts.
The No. 1 line currently features Ryan Groy at left tackle, Lewallen at left guard, Voltz at center, Zac Matthias at right guard and Havenstein at right tackle. Excluding Voltz, the other four players have combined to play in 106 games with 39 starts. No. 1 right guard Kyle Costigan, who has played in 15 games with nine starts, is out while recovering from offseason knee surgery.
That type of overall experience has Havenstein optimistic Wisconsin can continue to own the trenches as it had in past seasons.
“That’s massively important to any offensive line,” Havenstein said. “You don’t want five guys in there that have never had a game rep. They can be spring ball warriors, but once Saturdays come in the fall, it’s obviously a little different. Those game reps are absolutely invaluable.”
Groy will be called upon to anchor the line because he has more experience than any lineman on the team. He has appeared in 41 games with 20 starts. And with Wisconsin losing two players to the NFL (right tackle Ricky Wagner and center Travis Frederick), his voice will be the one that resonates most with teammates.
“Obviously, Groy is the leader of that group,” Andersen said. “He’s done a tremendous job of being a senior and being very unselfish because the numbers were so low, he’s had to play guard, he’s played tackle, he’s out there early taking snaps. He’s just been an awesome leader and really is what you want as a coach.”
The biggest question mark surrounding the starters is how the 6-foot-4, 310-pound Voltz will react to live game situations. He’ll be replacing Frederick, who was one of the most intelligent and steady players on the roster last season. But Wisconsin’s coaching staff thinks highly enough of Voltz to provide him with an opportunity few redshirt freshmen receive in the Big Ten.
“He has the talent and I think this spring he’s been working to stay consistent,” Badgers offensive line coach T.J. Woods said. “The sustainability that he’s playing with right now is important. At offensive line, you can’t have good games and bad games. You’ve got to have the same games every game. But I’m impressed with him, his mentality, his football IQ. All of those things I think have been a pleasant surprise with him being a redshirt freshman.”
The extra repetitions certainly haven’t hurt. And for the entire offensive line, neither has seeing a variety of defenses, as the Badgers tinker with a 3-4 defensive scheme that emphasizes blitzing from different angles. Andersen said the offensive line had been forced to do a better job of pass protecting because of the 3-4. They also have maintained the smash-mouth style of play that has made the Badgers so good on the line for so long.
Some of the names are different, and depth is a concern, but physicality is one aspect on the line that won’t change.
“That’s what Wisconsin football is and that’s what the offensive line does,” Woods said. “For me, that’s meshed really well with my style, with what I’m all about. There haven’t been a whole lot of issues with that. It’s more about the consistency. You have to be able to do it every single time you take the field.”