Wisconsin's OL rebuilding, not reloading
OCT 03, 2012 5:00a ET
In most years, the formula of big boys equaling dominance was a given at Wisconsin, which seemingly cycled through all-conference players like an assembly line.
But the game is played on the field, not in the kitchen. And although this year's offensive line, averaging 6-foot-5 and 326 pounds, is actually bigger than last year's 6-5, 322-pound unit, the team has not found the same cohesiveness and success.
Size, of course, isn't everything. It's what you do with it. And last year's line did whatever it wanted.
What has transpired since then has been a steady drop in production from the offensive line, and the reasons are numerous -- though they offer little comfort for Badgers fans who have seen their team plummet out of the top 25 polls.
For starters, most pundits underestimated just how difficult it would be to replace three all-conference offensive linemen: center Peter Konz, right guard Kevin Zeitler and right tackle Josh Oglesby. Zeitler was a first-round NFL draft pick of the Cincinnati Bengals, and Konz went in the second round to the Atlanta Falcons.
The year before, Wisconsin replaced left tackle Gabe Carimi (Chicago Bears first-round pick) and left guard John Moffitt (Seattle Seahawks third-round pick) without much fuss.
"I think the outside world has been a little bit spoiled in what's happened the past couple of years and the amount of people that we've replaced," Badgers center Travis Frederick said. "For me personally, it's been a little bit weird because we've just always been good."
The right side of the line still features size, but it does not feature experience. Right guard Kyle Costigan (6-4, 313) and right tackle Rob Havenstein (6-8, 342) had started a combined total of one game before this season.
But it isn't simply inexperience. It also has to do with scheme, which was out of the offensive line's control.
Wisconsin endured two coaching changes on the offensive line over a nine-month span. Last year's coach, Bob Bostad, now holds the same position for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. His replacement at Wisconsin, Mike Markuson, was fired by coach Bret Bielema after just two games when it became apparent the line couldn't manage the push it needed up front.
Markuson's coaching methods clearly didn't mesh with the way Wisconsin's offensive line had played football in previous years. And only now is the team returning to its past roots.
Frederick said Markuson's teaching philosophy focused on moving the line sideways rather than vertically, which essentially went against the smash-mouth brand of football Wisconsin has played for years.
"In the past, (we) really had good solid double-teams that were moving up vertically," said Frederick, who has started 22 games. "I think everybody knows that, but we haven't been doing that as well."
Bart Miller, a former graduate assistant, was brought in to bridge the gap between the old, vertical offensive line style and mesh with the current staff, which features six new assistant coaches.
The progress has been slow. Frederick noted that Miller has really only had six full days of practice over three weeks with the team, which typically goes hard on Tuesdays and Wednesdays during the season.
"I don't like to use that because it is an excuse," Miller said. "But it is encouraging to see in six days how far we've really come. It's not necessarily visible to every fan. But we do need to continue to get better."
Left tackle Rick Wagner insists the minor details such as footwork and hand placement have improved drastically. But so far, the results on the field haven't.
Last season, running back Montee Ball became a Heisman Trophy finalist when he rushed for 1,923 yards and scored 33 touchdowns on the ground. His 39 total touchdowns tied the FBS single-season record set by Barry Sanders in 1988.
This season, Ball has fallen off the Heisman radar. A year ago, he ranked third nationally in rushing yards per game (137.4). This season, he ranks 46th overall with 90.0 yards per game. And worse, his yards per carry are down from 6.3 last year to 3.7.
As a team, Wisconsin ranks a staggering 96th nationally in rushing offense (125.6 yards per game) -- dead last in the Big Ten. A year ago, Wisconsin's rushing offense averaged 235.6 yards per game to rank 11th in the country.
"They've been doing a great job," Ball said. "But I believe a lot of people don't understand. I guess now you see how good they were (last year) now that they're gone. I feel like the players we have now can do just as good, and I believe that they will."
It certainly hasn't helped the offensive line that Wisconsin lost five offensive starters off last year's team to the NFL. Without a dynamic quarterback or multiple receiving threats, defenses can load the box and relentlessly attack the Badgers' once-vaunted run game.
Still, the offensive line is outwardly taking responsibility, allowing fans to point the finger specifically in that direction.
"They have every right to blame us," Frederick said. "The running game hasn't been going as well and we've had some protection breakdowns, so that comes down to us. There are a lot of other things that go into that. But as an offensive line, we make up half of the offense. If we ever screw up, that means half the offense is messed up and obviously you can't win doing that."
Now, the offensive line has no choice but to embrace the criticism and attempt to improve. Frederick, for one, is leading the charge.
"We have bigger shoulders than everybody else," he said. "We'll take it and we're going to run with it. That's something that kind of feeds us is just that nobody believes in us. Everybody thinks that we've lost so much as far as personnel and coaches. We're just trying to prove to everyone that we're still there and the same people."
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