Left tackle tradition is Wagner's now
CHICAGO — When Ricky Wagner takes the field for Wisconsin's football team this season, he won't just be competing against defensive linemen on the other side of the ball.
Wagner, a 6-foot-6, 322-pound starting left tackle, also finds himself battling the success of former Badgers at his position.
You see, the two other left tackles to start at Wisconsin since Bret Bielema took over the program in 2006 just so happened to be the best left tackles in the country by their senior seasons. Both Joe Thomas and Gabe Carimi won the Outland Trophy as college football's top interior linemen and were first-round NFL draft picks.
When Bielema switched Wagner from right tackle to left tackle in 2011 following Carimi's departure, he made sure Wagner understood his expectations.
"I told him when I moved him a year ago he had big shoes to fill," Bielema said at Big Ten media days. "So he's hopefully going to live up to the same standards."
No pressure, kid.
"That's definitely one of my goals," said Wagner, now a senior. "I want to be the best offensive lineman, the best left tackle. Nobody wants to be the second best or the third best. You want to be the best. You want to shoot for the highest goal."
Wagner's presence on the offensive line this season will be vital to Wisconsin's success, particularly while the Badgers look to patch up the right side of the line with reserves from last year's team. As he prepares for his senior season, he does so with a loaded backfield that includes Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball and James White, which should highlight Wagner and his soaring NFL stock even further.
Wagner, a preseason Outland Trophy candidate, appears in line to follow in the footsteps of both Thomas and Carimi as first-round NFL draft picks. The Cleveland Browns selected Thomas third overall in 2007, and the Chicago Bears took Carimi at No. 29 in 2011.
Early mock drafts for 2013 indicate Wagner is a sure-fire first-round prospect. The only question is: How high up the draft board will he rise?
FOXSports.com NFL writer Peter Schrager has Wagner going No. 13 in the 2013 NFL Draft. ESPN NFL draft analyst Todd McShay has Wagner going as high as No. 2.
Wagner already has heard the rumblings about his draft status, but he refuses to look ahead before playing a single game of his senior season.
"I hear it from my friends and stuff," Wagner said. "It's nice that they're paying a little bit of attention to me, but I really can't be focusing on that. I have a full season. If I start thinking about that, I'm not going to have a good year."
Wagner's path at Wisconsin is not a typical success story for a player considered a first-round NFL prospect. He came to the Badgers in 2008 as a walk-on tight end after being rated the top high school tight end in the state of Wisconsin. But when Wagner saw the sheer strength and power of senior Travis Beckum, a future NFL draft pick of the New York Giants, he and his coaches realized that perhaps a position change was in order.
"I don't think I was going to be a very successful tight end," Wagner said. "They saw that I had a little bit better future elsewhere, and it worked out great. I was a pretty big tight end. I was about 260. Compared to Travis Beckum, it was just night and day."
As a redshirt freshman in 2009, Wagner appeared in 12 of 13 games in reserve action on the offensive line. By 2010, he became a starter at right tackle as a fill-in for the injured Josh Oglesby and has started 24 games in his career.
Wagner attributes his rise in the Badgers' system to his practice habits.
"At Wisconsin, we really take our practicing seriously," Wagner said. "You never know when you're going to get that next start. I came in when Josh Oglesby went down. I didn't know I was going to play the rest of the year that year. So you have to really practice like you're going to start the next week."
Badgers linebacker Mike Taylor said the team's defensive linemen knew Wagner had the potential to be a standout player two years ago. When Taylor and his teammates talked in the locker room about which offensive linemen were the toughest matchups, Wagner often was mentioned in the same breath as Carimi and fellow future NFL player John Moffitt.
Taylor recognizes all eyes will be on Wagner this season to carry on the tradition of success at left tackle.
"This past year, he finally got a little bit of recognition," Taylor said. "I think going into this next year, not to hype him up or put pressure on him, but he should be right up there. He deserves all of it."
Unlike some Badgers offensive linemen in year's past, Wagner is not a particularly outspoken player — Bielema called him "a quiet storm" this week — and perhaps that's why his name is only now hitting the college football airwaves.
But other players in the Big Ten have already taken notice of his talent.
"I've never met him, but I always watch him," Minnesota left tackle Ed Olson said. "They run our same sort of blocking schemes. He's a great athlete. I try to model my game after him. He's going to have a good year this year."
Wagner, Bielema and the rest of the Badgers fan base are counting on it.
"I'm just trying to take advantage of every day because it's my last year," Wagner said. "I really want to make sure I don't have any regrets this season."
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