If Bret Bielema wanted to make a big splash, he certainly accomplished that with Mike Markuson. Spending the last 14 years in the SEC, coaching the offensive lines at Arkansas and Ole Miss, Markuson has coached six different players to All-America honors since 2003.
"Mike brings experience of having success at the highest levels of college football," Bielema said in a statement announcing his hiring. "The production of his offensive line units and the offenses he has been associated with is very impressive. He has coached a number of players who have earned national honors and gone on to the NFL. Being from Minnesota, he brings the Midwest values that we're looking for and he's very excited about the opportunity to be the offensive line coach at the University of Wisconsin."
Markuson has brought a different, calmer style than his predecessor, but is the same fundamental technician that UW's linemen have become accustomed to. Still learning what he's working with, Markuson told Badger Nation this week that he is rotating in a lot of different players to find the right starting five.
You've been rotating a lot of different guys at different spots this week that we've seen. What do you want to have done after spring ball?
Markuson: You've got some young guys like Tyler Marz. You know about Ricky Wagner and Ryan Groy and Travis Frederick, they've played. They've played the game. Casey Dehn has played. Casey, we've had a few little things with him that have hindered him some. But he's coming around. He's a guy who can play for us. We need to keep … Coach B has been really patient with him. Casey's doing what he's supposed to be doing right now and he wants to be a part of this. There's a guy right there – we've got to have him. Not just for our sake. He does a lot of good things. He played here last year. I think he's a real valuable guy. If we can just keep him on the straight path, get your stuff done, take care of everything you've got to do, he's certainly somebody who can help us.
Are you talking about stuff off the football field?
Markuson: Yeah, there are some things I (don't want to get into). We'll deal with it. We go through this – coaches with players. And he's doing good. I moved him some today out at tackle because he's played tackle. We've had him at guard. Because I've got Tyler Marz out there playing. He's learning, he's struggling a little bit. The younger guys – Coon, Ball, Marz – they're struggling. They're young, they're still babies. They're getting a lot of repetitions. We moved Kyle Costigan to guard. This was the first day he actually was able to do anything, so he's swimming. He's trying to learn to play the position. But he's a strong kid, he wants to please. He's trying.
Dan Voltz. Boy he's been a pleasant surprise as a freshman. He really should be a senior in high school. He's a tough, gritty kid. He's smart. He's had a few problems moving with balls on the ground. Any young center, a guy you're trying to train at center, that's going to happen. We can't have it. Can't accept it, but he's getting better.
Was the initial plan for him to be at center?
Markuson: I knew coming in, we talked about it. Coach B, I said ‘Coach, I would like to try this guy at center.' And establish a real solid center. I know we've got Ryan Groy as well. We wanted to rep him some today, which we did. Get him back in the fold doing that. But you'd really like to establish Dan as a good, solid center. He could probably play guard some, too. And he's learning. He's got to snap the football, make those assignment checks … but by and large, he's done a good job. He really has. I'm proud of what he's done. We've just always got to get the snap. The ball is the most precious thing we have and we can't have it on the ground. Certainly, in a center-quarterback exchange, we can't have it. And he knows that. They're getting used to it. He's doing a lot of good things.
You've got Riki Kodanko, a guy that's trying to get better. We're missing Dallas Lewallen and missing Rob Havenstein. Havenstein is a big miss. They're getting better. Matthias was back out there today. He's limited. We just don't know with him.
All those guys … it's going to all come together. You want to get through spring and have a bunch of healthy kids in August. At any position. They're working hard, I think they'll be all right. Obviously there are some depth issues there, but you've just got to fight through that. Try to get guys in the right positions where they can feel comfortable in helping the team. So that's why we're moving them around some. Experimenting.
When do you think you'll get Dallas back at all?
Markuson: I don't think we'll have him. He'll be back in August.
What's the toughest part about going from tackle to guard
Markuson: It's the pass blocking part. They're out on an island and you're in space out there and you have to set to spot, kick to a spot – is what we call it. You're in that area – just space and air – and can I block this fast-twitch defensive end and lock onto him. Where when you play inside, it's a little bit more bull rush, a little bit more hard. You get bigger body type guys in there. It's different that way. Some guys, Casey's done a decent job making that transition, but I can tell he's a little natural at tackling. We'll watch the film and see.
You've got to always ask yourself: Who's the next guy? Right now without Havenstein, who's your right tackle? That's a question you have to ask. That's why three guys are getting reps there now and we'll continue to do that until spring's over with.
If you had a preference, would you like bigger bodies on the inside at guard for the guard spots?
Markuson: I do, as long as they can bend and get under somebody. Because you face the kind of guys like the guys we have here. You've got 6-2, 310 and 320 pound bodies – they're just real strong and thick – and you have to get under them to block them. Sometimes if you get taller guys that can't bend, bend their knees and get pads under them, it's difficult. They have to be able to do that. Ryan Groy, for example, I mean, that guy can bend. He's an athlete. He can get under people. Ryan's big.
You've got to have big bodies in there when you're playing in this league. Any major BCS conference schools, guys are huge. You've got to be strong and to be able to bend and move.
What does Travis Frederick need to do to improve his game?
Markuson: Fundamentals. I'm always on him about fundamentals. He's so strong. He can get away with some things that others can't, but continuing to get better with his hand placement, bending, fitting in on people. The offensive line is continual. You could correct every snap, every little thing – the first step, pad level, where you put your hands, your landmarks. They do this, how are you going to respond? It's 24/7.
He's so strong that if he can get his hands on you and bend, he's going to win most of the battles. Like all of them, you want to encourage them to get better with the fundamentals of the game.
What impresses you about his intelligence? The way he can flip from guard to center?
Markuson: He's unbelievable. I just love guys like that that can … because they can direct out there. If the defense presents something that you may have not seen or a wrinkle that you said ‘OK, if they do this we're going to do this,' that guy has to make the calls. You can't put that it on the quarterback. They're worried enough about making their reads and their checks. You've got to put it on somebody. And having that guy in the middle – center – that can do that is big. We're still ironing out some things, which is natural because I am getting used to him and they're getting used to me. It's all good. Nothing wrong, but it's a process.
We're trying to really just keep our package simple with what we've been doing here which basically is run game – same things we've been doing at Wisconsin. And passing game, just trying to get the ball out. Not trying to hold onto it. Coach Canada is getting the ball out and we've just got to stay out in front.
I'm encouraged. It's day by day and correct, correct, correct. Good, good, good, correct, correct, correct. It's continual.
When ideal do you want to have your starting five penciled out? Would you like to have it by the end of the spring but because of all the injuries and flux, you can't?
Markuson: That's a great question. You would sure like to think that if you had to do it today and go play the first game that you could take five and say there's our starting five. But there's still people out there – Havenstein, Lewallen – where will they fit in that mix? But yes, at the end of the spring you'd like to say he's going to be here, he's going to be here – if we had to play today. Absolutely.