MADISON – With injuries plaguing the group from spring practices until the bowl game, Wisconsin's offensive line was a smattering of hit and misses. The Badgers are hoping to turn last year’s growing pains into this year’s successes.
After going through seven different offensive line combinations in 13 games because of injuries, Wisconsin is hopeful that the amount of redshirt freshmen who played their first collegiate games can take a substantial leap forward.
“Last year going in you knew you had some new faces to get in, but I don’t know if you anticipated not having depth,” offensive line coach Joe Rudolph said. “There are still a lot of faces that have a lot of years of experience who aren’t in the group anymore.
“Now after the last two games, when there were guys that started, that was good. You feel like those guys for over a month they had a hold of a starting position (and) practice. That makes you feel pretty good, but we have a lot of work to do.”
Although losing only one full-time starter (left tackle Tyler Marz) to graduation and two reserves (Hayden Biegel and Walker Williams) due to head injuries, the Badgers are still changing things up throughout spring.
With fifth-year senior center Dan Voltz out with a leg injury suffered last October, redshirt sophomore Michael Deiter continues to get work under center. Arguably the most impressive redshirt freshman on the line last season, Deiter started the seven games at left guard and filled in six games at center when Voltz was injured.
With Deiter working at center, Wisconsin has rotated redshirt freshman Jon Dietzen and redshirt sophomore Micah Kapoi at left guard. Kapoi started six games at right guard and three at left guard last season, but Dietzen spent the second and third practice last week taking the first-team reps.
Both players will likely be backups this season if Voltz is healthy, but Dietzen said getting the opportunity was exciting while Rudolph said Kapoi is the one player who can truly bounce between left and right guard.
“He really doesn’t seem to fall off going to one or the other,” Rudolph said of Kapoi.
Redshirt sophomore Beau Benzschawel started his first collegiate game against Nebraska at right tackle (coming off injury nonetheless) and made five more starts before switching to right guard for the Badgers’ final two games. He’s currently taking first-team reps at right guard during spring practice with Jacob Maxwell at right tackle. Maxwell made three starts at the right tackle spot after being groomed as the team’s future left tackle in the fall.
That plan was altered with the improvement of Ryan Ramczyk, who sat out last season after transferring from UW-Stevens Point. Called “a freak” by running back Dare Ogunbowale, Ramczyk (6-6, 308 pounds) has worked at left tackle from the start of camp, and the junior has impressed the staff since joining the program.
“The growth is (as) important as the growth of the player,” Rudolph said. “I’m excited for him. He worked his tail off last year. He got the most out of every opportunity that he had.”
Like the projected starting five, the depth is young. Outside of Dietzen and Kapoi, Wisconsin has eight offensive linemen in camp who have yet to start a game, let alone play enough reps to call themselves experienced. Five of those players are walk-ons and one of the scholarship players – George Panos (left shoulder) – has been limited through three practices.
Because of that, Rudolph said the starters might have to be their own backups early on as Wisconsin continues to hammer home technique and details.
The Badgers had their share of offensive disappointments last season: pressures that allowed Iowa to dominate the line of scrimmage in a loss in October, failing to rush for 100 team yards against one of the worst rush defenses in the Big Ten in Purdue, a blindside hit that caused quarterback Joel Stave’s injury at Illinois and giving up six sacks and minus-26 rushing yards against Northwestern.
After UW didn’t put a lineman on the All-Big Ten first team for the first time since 2008, Wisconsin returns a group of players who should be much more seasoned in preparation for a tremendously challenging 2016 schedule.