MADISON, Wis. — For years, Wisconsin’s brand of football has included the plug-and-play method on the offensive line. Graduate all-conference players, easily insert new, broad-shouldered, physically dominant specimens ready to thrive.
But with nine days remaining before the Badgers’ first game of the 2012 season, coach Bret Bielema is still attempting to plug one hole on the line.
Following Thursday’s practice, Bielema said a three-man race had developed for the starting right guard position, featuring redshirt sophomore Kyle Costigan, freshman Dan Voltz and now redshirt junior Zac Matthias.
“Zac Matthias has really come along,” Bielema said. “He’s a guy that’s been waiting (for) his opportunity.”
Matthias, a 6-foot-5, 320-pounder from Hemlock, Mich., underwent back surgery and wasn’t cleared until the final weeks of spring practice, which limited his development. He has played in 18 career games at Wisconsin and appeared in nine games last season, mostly on special teams.
“To his credit, (he) has rehabbed himself all summer and got himself back,” Bielema said. “We’ve always felt he’s a real strong, physical, big kid. Probably needs to get his weight balanced a little better and approach things with more urgency, but I know our guys are really excited about him. He’s looked good there this week.”
Costigan is currently listed as the starter at right guard on the team’s depth chart. The 6-4, 313-pounder played in three games last season as a defensive lineman but switched to the offensive line during the spring.
Redshirt senior Robert Burge began fall camp as the starting right guard but is far from the most athletic offensive lineman and struggled to keep pace. Burge has played in 29 games and spent most of last season on special teams. He is now listed as the backup right tackle to starter Rob Havenstein.
Voltz enrolled in school a semester early during the spring and has impressed the coaching staff. He is listed as the backup right guard.
Transfer updates: Bielema said former Wisconsin wide receiver Manasseh Garner, a Pittsburgh native, would transfer to Pittsburgh to play for head coach Paul Chryst. Chryst served as Wisconsin’s offensive coordinator from 2005-11 before taking Pitt’s head coaching job during the offseason.
Garner, a junior, will have to sit out this season under NCAA rules. He caught two passes for 45 yards last season and appeared on Wisconsin’s depth chart last week as a backup wide receiver.
“He just has battled through a lot,” Bielema said. “He’s got a baby back home, got some life issues that (he) needed to be closer to home, (which) is going to be a good thing for him. …
“Manasseh was actually leaning toward maybe some FCS schools. I think I released him to 15 schools. I sat down with him. I talked with Coach Chryst and explained the best option in my opinion would be to go to a BCS school and sit out a year, get himself healthy and then have two years to play, so that’s exactly what he’s doing.”
Bielema indicated that sophomore defensive back Jameson Wright, who announced his transfer earlier this week, would attend school somewhere in his home state of Florida. Wright did not see any game action for the Badgers.
“The thing I admire about these kids that are moving on is they see themselves in a situation that they want to compete,” Bielema said. “It’s not like they’re just sitting here occupying space and getting an education. They want to get on the field and compete, and I can’t blame them for that.”
In other transfer news, Bielema said former Badgers quarterback Joe Brennan will transfer to Towson, a school in Maryland located roughly two hours from Brennan’s hometown of Audubon, N.J. It is also an FCS school, which means Brennan will be eligible to play immediately this season.
Brennan appeared in six games last season as Wisconsin’s backup quarterback and completed 6 of 15 passes for 48 yards with no touchdowns and one interception.
He was one of four quarterbacks in the mix for Wisconsin’s starting quarterback job when fall camp began but quickly fell behind Danny O’Brien, Curt Phillips and Joel Stave before deciding to transfer.
Best players play: Although running backs Montee Ball and James White weren’t often on the field at the same time last year, expect that to change when the 2012 season opens.
Both players were used in two-back formations during the spring, and White has been used occasionally during the fall split out wide at receiver.
“There are plays where you’ll see James and Montee out there,” Bielema said. “We’ll put our best personnel on the field. There ain’t no doubt about that now. If we’ve only got a couple wide receivers we feel good about, you might see a lot of fullbacks and tight ends and stuff like that. There’s one thing in my mind that I know our players understand is we will put our best players on the field.”
Among the players Bielema praised was newly converted fullback Derek Watt. Watt, a redshirt freshman, switched positions from linebacker to fullback during fall camp and has quickly risen on the depth chart. He and fullback Sherard Cadogan are both listed with the first-team offense. Watt’s brother, J.J., was a standout defensive end at Wisconsin and now plays for the Houston Texans.
“Derek Watt, you mark it down,” Bielema said. “I know older brother did a lot of good things here. Derek Watt is going to be a phenomenal football player here at fullback. For him to be a freshman and doing what he’s doing at fullback is unbelievable.”