MADISON, Wis. — Rob Havenstein admits the post-practice training table meals inside Camp Randall Stadium have become a source of competition for Wisconsin’s offensive linemen.
“Whatever we put on our plates, we usually go ahead and say it’s a goal that we have to finish it,” said Havenstein, Wisconsin’s 6-foot-8, 340-pound right tackle. “If you put too much on, you’re kind of looking at the end of it with a couple biscuits left and maybe a half thing of spaghetti like, ‘I shouldn’t have put that much on.’ You just want to finish it.”
More often than not, Havenstein notes, he and his fellow linemen oblige. The result is a meal gathering that may as well be considered a small wreckage site, where anything from spaghetti to shrimp to ice cream meets its match. If it’s possible to put an all-you-can-eat buffet out of business, these are the guys who could accomplish such a feat.
“There’s quite a bit of food when we’re together,” Badgers left guard Ryan Groy said. “It depends on what day it is. If everybody is tired, there’s not that much. But if it’s wings and we’ve got some kind of big night, we’ve got piles of stuffed shrimp and bowls of ice cream at the end. It’s deadly.”
Offensive linemen everywhere in college football take pride in their poundage. But at Wisconsin, it is a particular badge of honor.
Last season, Wisconsin’s offensive line — which produced three all-conference players and two NFL draft picks — averaged 6-foot-5, 322 pounds and weighed in as the fifth-heaviest line in college or professional football.
The scary part is that this year’s projected starters are even bigger.
Left tackle Ricky Wagner, Groy, center Travis Frederick, Havenstein and right tackle Robert Burge average 6-6, 327.6 pounds.
As a point of reference, consider that the Green Bay Packers projected offensive line starters this season average 6-4, 312.8 pounds.
“I don’t know what they eat,” Badgers linebacker Mike Taylor said of his teammates. “I thought I ate a lot and they’re weighing 350 pounds. I think they just dip everything in ranch. I think that’s the key. That and cheese.”
That type of weight advantage often allows Wisconsin to dominate teams at the line of scrimmage, although far more skill is involved than simply pancaking opposing players. Even the hogmollies hone footwork, maintaining proper pad level and mastering fundamentals at multiple spots on the offensive line.
“We practice getting different positions down so that if something happens, you have the next best guy in there,” Frederick said. “You always want the five best guys on the field. It’s not necessarily about who plays this position better. It’s about getting the best people out there.”
Wisconsin is expected to continue its recent dominance on the offensive line as the 2012 season approaches, but the proof is in the pudding. Provided, of course, that Wisconsin’s offensive linemen haven’t eaten all of it.
Wagner, a 6-6, 317-pound redshirt senior, is a projected top-10 pick in the 2013 NFL Draft and could win the Outland Trophy for best interior lineman in college football. Frederick, a 6-4, 338-pound redshirt junior who has moved between left guard and center, also has NFL potential and has 17 career starts.
Groy has appeared in 27 games with six starts, including at left guard against Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game last season.
Havenstein and Burge entered fall camp as the biggest question marks but appear to have shored up starting roles already. The two will try to equal the dominance of predecessors Peter Konz, Kevin Zeitler and Josh Oglesby. Zeitler was a first-round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals, and the Atlanta Falcons took Konz in the second round.
Havenstein said veterans of that caliber help younger players learn good work habits and maintain a high level of play, which is important when their opportunities arise.
“One of the biggest things I learned from them is kind of how to analyze and watch film,” Havenstein said. “Coming in new, I didn’t really know what I was looking for. I just kind of watched players run around. But Pete and Kevin really started picking up on the small details of the game, which I think has helped my game so far.”
Burge noted that Wisconsin’s success on the offensive line can be attributed in part to scheme. The Badgers operate out of a pro-style, run-heavy offense that demands big bodies up front to control the line of scrimmage. Coaches make sure to find the right type of players, typically in-state linemen who grow up wanting to play for the Badgers and continue the program’s success.
This season, four of the Badgers’ five starters are from Wisconsin.
“They recruit a lot of in-state guys,” said Burge, a Holmen, Wis., native. “Guys that have a lot of passion for the game and passion for the university. I think they want to genuinely be out here and play and compete at the highest level.”
It certainly doesn’t hurt that those offensive linemen with a desire to play at Wisconsin are massive individuals who can pack on the pounds.
When Wisconsin played in the Rose Bowl last season, the Badgers participated in the annual Lawry’s Beef Bowl, an eating competition held at Lawry’s Restaurant in Beverly Hills that pits players on both teams against one another.
Frederick ate eight 13-ounce cuts of prime rib steak to claim the individual eating title for a second straight season. The year before, he won by eating seven steaks.
Havenstein, from Mount Airy, Md., may be the only Badgers starting lineman trying to lose weight. Two years ago, he tipped the scales at 380 pounds and wasn’t quick enough to stay with Big Ten-caliber defensive linemen.
“I’ve been trying to lose weight for a long time,” Havenstein said. “I’m still in the process. I have to watch what I eat. Some other guys have about a plate of French toast and a gallon of syrup and they’re just devouring it.”
Badgers offensive line coach Mike Markuson said Havenstein could be poised for a breakout season after waiting in the wings behind Oglesby last season. A year ago, Havenstein played in 13 games with one start.
“He played some but he is a big man,” Markuson said. “To be that big and be able to move like he does is exciting because I just know he’s going to be able to swallow some people up.”