The Badgers had to replace three starters along the offensive line, but the heavy lifting in that regard was done last spring, when left tackle Morgan Davis, center Donovan Raiola and right tackle Mike Lorenz earned starting positions. Raiola played in five games last year, including a start at right guard against Iowa. Lorenz earned playing time as a blocking tight end last season.
So all eyes were on the left tackle spot, where Morgan Davis was moving into place having only played special teams. Davis has risen to the challenge thus far. In practices he displayed the type of physical play that a 6-5, 326-pound lineman can bring to the table. His drive blocking was particularly impressive. Davis is an adequate pass blocker, who sets up well and can demolish potential pass rushers if he locks onto them. There is no live game action to go by, only what we saw this fall as Davis went up against his teammates play-after-play. But it appears that left tackle should not be a concern. It should not be surprising if the position is actually more secure this season than it was last year with NFL pick Ben Johnson playing there.
Center Raiola has huge shoes to fill and comes very close to doing so at this early stage. Al Johnson is one of those extremely rare players—a super competitive, super talented lineman who was well-warranted of the high draft pick he received last spring. Raiola is similarly feisty competitor, a tough-nosed player who will mix it up in the middle of the line. Raiola is a mauling run blocker and good enough pass blocker. Production here likely won't be quite as high as with Al Johnson, but it will be close. Raiola has the potential to be an even better player than Al Johnson when it is all said and done.
At right tackle, the 313-pound Lorenz is expected to be a force. He is not exceptional in any facet of the game, but he is very good in every area of the position. Again, despite breaking in a new starter here, expect little-to-no drop off in play. In fact, Lorenz has displayed the potential to be a truly great lineman before it is all said and done.
A huge reason why the Badgers offensive line struggled last season is that left guard Dan Buenning wasn't himself, fighting the effects of mono and shoulder injuries all season. Buenning is a fantastic, all-conference first team type of player when healthy. With Buenning back to his old self, the line receives a huge boost.
Jonathan Clinkscale is another holdover, and another strength, at right guard. He has started 19 games the last two seasons. Clinkscale is a good all-around player. He is another one for whom the beginning of the season will be a tell-tale sign. Going against Anttaj Hawthorne all fall there was very little middle ground. Either Hawthorne throttled through and into the backfield, or Clinkscale demolished him. No doubt each player is ready for some new competition.
It seems odd that the Badgers offensive line is considered a liability. So long a strength, the line was a point of concern all of last season. Granted, the gargantuan 46 sacks allowed were partly the result of quarterback Brooks Bollinger holding the ball too long, but the line did not play particularly well either. The group was inconsistent at best and was out played by more athletic lines.
This is still a line that will thrive more with physical play than grace (aren't most lines like that?) but the line should actually be improved this season, once the new pieces mesh with the old. This line will in all likelihood not be one of the better ones in the Big Ten this season but should be considered a strength by this time next year. The line consists of three juniors and two sophomores who will continue to grow throughout the season.
There is quality depth. Right guard Kalvin Barrett has started seven games and continues to play at a high level. Barrett is a mauling guard he struggles a little in pass blocking but is a high quality backup; a good, physical player who can also handle duties on the left side.
Left guard Matt Lawrence lacks experience but has played well in camp and will back up Buenning. Center Jason Palermo has looked quite good in reserve of Raiola and starting guard Clinkscale can also play the position.
Freshman Joe Thomas emerged this fall as the No. 2 left tackle. Thomas is an extremely good athlete, especially for an offensive lineman. At 6-8, he is listed at 260, though he claimed 280 during fall workouts. Thomas will likely get a good deal bigger without losing the athletic ability that makes him stand out practice after practice. A big man is not supposed to be as fluid and agile as Thomas is.
Thomas's emergence pushed Sophomore Jake Wood to right tackle, where he has thrived. Wood is very strong at the point of attack and that has been on better display from the right side.
The team has added depth in the form of senior left tackle Fred Nieforth and freshman right tackle Randy Gyllin. A quartet of talented true freshmen will almost assuredly redshirt. Center Luke Knauf, guards Marcus Coleman and Danny Kaye and tackle Andrew Weininger present a very bright future for Wisconsin's offensive line.