MADISON - When talking about Wisconsin’s dominate running game from a year ago, it’s easy to forget about the other side of the equation. Although James White and Melvin Gordon received all the attention when they set a new NCAA record by rushing for 3,053 yards as a duo in a single season, both would be quick to point out that it started up front with the offensive line.
One of the key components that paved the way was left tackle Tyler Marz, who is part of a veteran offensive line that is eager to open up running lanes for another talented ground attack of Gordon and Corey Clement.
“That’s what we’re known for here at Wisconsin: running the football,” Marz said. “We may not always get the attention but if we do our jobs our offense will have success.”
A full-time starter for the first time last season, Marz was a consensus honorable mention All-Big Ten selection after stepping in for Ricky Wagner, a two-year starter who was drafted by Baltimore in 2013.
Marz’s road to the starting lineup had been a constant transition. In his first two years on campus, Marz dealt with three offensive line coaches and two vastly different styles of coaching. So with the return of offensive line coach T.J. Woods for a second season, it finally meant a sense of consistency.
“Consistency is great in football, and with Coach Woods and Coach (Andy) Ludwig returning at offensive coordinator it’s great,” Marz said. “It’s all the same for the summer and having a chance to digest even more information, hitting the film room and the playbook. It’s been great.”
Originally recruited out of Springfield, Minn., by offensive line coach Bob Bostad, Bostad left following Marz’s redshirt season, one of six assistant coaches that departed following 2011. That led to the controversial hiring of Mike Markuson, a long-time assistant of Houston Nutt and teacher of the spread offense. That failed partnership lasted two games before then-head coach Bret Bielema fired Markuson and promoted graduate assistant Bart Miller after a disastrous showing in a 10-7 loss at Oregon State.
That many coaches in such a short time frame could hinder a young player’s growth, but Marz tries to look at it as a constructive experience.
“I think you have to look at it as a positive thing and take away something from each guy,” Marz said. “Each coach coaches differently; some focus on the hands more than the feet, some focus more on the feet than the hands. If you try and take something from each guy you can improve your game.
“I know I struggled last year at times when it came to pass protection, and I’ve been trying to improve on it. I’ve been getting in the film room to see where I need to get better for this coming year, but it will only come easier with studying and practice.”
Outside of Marz wanting to improve in pass protections, Woods wants to see his line become dominant in all aspects of the offense: run blocking, third-down efficiency and eliminating penalties. A great way to tell whether or not the line is winning in the trenches is by the number of pancakes that occur during a given game.
“We’ll keep track of pancakes during the season, which is a big thing because it shows your aggression,” Marz said. “Coach Woods just wants us to dominate. If it’s run blocking, pass protection (or) being an aggressive mauling team, that is something that we are working hard on becoming.”
Although the offensive line will have to replace left guard Ryan Groy, all five linemen working with the ones in camp have starting experience. And with the group staying healthy for the most part, especially with Dallas Lewallen (knee) and Kyle Costigan (knee) having battled through injuries, it has allowed the starters to build their chemistry and communication.
“With everyone back we can work together, we can communicate at the line and make our calls,” Marz said. “If we had to replace multiple starters along the line, communication would be a bigger issue to deal with. Having the health is huge and it has allowed us to gel together quicker and be effective in our communication at the line of scrimmage.”
“As a unit we need to be more consistent if we want to be great,” Marz added. “In practice we need to do a better job of converting on third downs to keep the chains moving. If we do well in the run game then we won’t be in those third and long situations.”
The amount of chemistry returning amongst the starters (115 career games played) will allow the Badgers to be prepared when they take on LSU’s talented and athletic defensive line in the season opener.
“We as a unit are looking forward to the challenge,” Marz said. “We know we’ll have to be prepared but we’re still breaking ourselves into a routine again, which is a big thing for the first week. As we get later on in camp we’ll start really honing in on who LSU is and what they do.”