This is the fifth in a series of 11 previews leading up to the Wisconsin football team’s Aug. 5 start of practice.
TODAY’S POSITION: OFFENSIVE LINE
Rating (1-to-10 scale): 7
Projected starter(s): Left tackle Ryan Groy (redshirt senior), left guard Dallas Lewallen (redshirt junior), center Dan Voltz (redshirt freshman), right guard Kyle Costigan (redshirt junior), right tackle Rob Havenstein (redshirt junior)
Key backups: Zac Matthias (redshirt senior), Tyler Marz (redshirt sophomore), Ray Ball (redshirt sophomore), Chris Gill (senior)
The breakdown: It’s a funny thing in college football when a position group becomes so well regarded over the years that it is expected to produce at the same high level regardless of the players actually on the team.
At Wisconsin, perhaps no position group bears the brunt of those expectations quite like the offensive line. The unit’s recent success is unquestioned, with six offensive linemen being taken in the past three NFL drafts. And since 2008, Wisconsin’s line has helped the Badgers rank in the top 15 nationally in rushing offense every season.
This season, however, there are important questions that need to be answered. Some of Wisconsin’s offensive linemen will be working with their fourth coach in the past three seasons (Bob Bostad, Mike Markuson, Bart Miller and now T.J. Woods). Players had time to adjust to Woods’ coaching tactics during spring practices, but we won’t get a good idea of what the unit will look like until games begin. Remember, the team worked under Markuson two springs ago and failed miserably early in the season. Markuson was fired after just two games.
Depth is also a serious issue. During stretches of spring practice, the Badgers had only eight healthy linemen working at a time, and a few of the first-stringers had to take reps with the second-team offense just to get through practice.
“It definitely can’t be an excuse,” Badgers starting right tackle Rob Havenstein said during the spring. “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.”
The No. 1 line currently features Ryan Groy at left tackle, Dallas Lewallen at left guard, Dan Voltz at center, Kyle Costigan at right guard and Havenstein at right tackle. Excluding Voltz, the other four players have combined to play in 89 games with 44 starts. Costigan, who has played in 15 games with nine starts, missed spring practices while recovering from offseason knee surgery. If injuries should flare up with Costigan during the season, Zac Matthias is a good option because he has played in 32 games with four starts and worked with the No. 1 offense in spring.
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 has played all over the line. He opened the spring at left guard but moved to left tackle. 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 in the spring. “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.”
Voltz is expected to take over the starting center role from Frederick, and the coaches are especially high on him. Rare are the players who can step in and start as a redshirt freshman, but Voltz handled that role well during spring practices.
“The sustainability that he’s playing with right now is important,” Woods said during the spring. “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.”
Best position battle: Although the starters appear set, it will be interesting to see how much the team’s backups play. As mentioned, depth was an issue in the spring, and many of the backup players on the line don’t have a ton of game experience.
Matthias should work into the line, and Tyler Marz saw action last season as well. Chris Gill is a senior from Appleton, Wis., who spent his entire career at Ole Miss but could wind up as Voltz’s backup at center. And Ray Ball could be the backup left guard. All of those players could be thrust into action. In football, they’re all just one injury away.
Best of the Big Ten: 1. Ohio State; 2. Wisconsin; 3. Michigan
As if Ohio State didn’t already have enough weapons on offense, the Buckeyes bring back four of their five starters from an offensive line that helped the team finish undefeated last season. Left guard Andrew Norwell has appeared in 36 games with 25 starts, while left tackle Jack Mewhort has played in 35 games with 25 starts. Right guard Marcus Hall (33 games, 18 starts) and center Corey Linsley (28 games, 12 starts) fill out the remaining starters from last year’s team.
Once again, Wisconsin will be counted on to reload on the offensive line after losing two NFL draft picks. The Badgers might not have the same type of top-tier talent, but it appears they have plenty of capable players to make them one of the best units in the Big Ten. Groy’s 41 games played is more than anybody else on this list, while Lewallen, Matthias, Costigan and Havenstein all have experience as well.
Michigan may have the best NFL prospect of any Big Ten player on the offensive line in left tackle Taylor Lewan. Lewan has appeared in 37 games for the Wolverines with 35 starts and was an Associated Press First-Team All-American in 2012. Right tackle Michael Schofield has 39 games and 23 starts under his belt, and he and Lewan will be counted on to lead the unit. Redshirt sophomore Jack Miller could take over at center after playing in six games last season.
Right tackle Rob Havenstein says: “Experience is massively important to any offensive line. 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.”