Old and new intertwine on UW's offensive line

With little game experience, senior guards ready to assume leadership; right tackles in rotation

MADISON — Losing four seniors who started at three positions certainly gouged a hole in Wisconsin offensive line coach Jim Hueber's depth chart. Other senior departures and additional attrition has cut that rift further, giving the Badgers just 10 bodies for Hueber's five positions during spring practices.

Having a slim depth chart, however, can have its benefits.

"It's fun because you can tell the willingness of these young guys to want to try to learn," Hueber said. "I think everybody really feels like they got a chance to get on the field right now; there's some competition going on."

All 10 linemen — including three seniors, a junior, four sophomores and two freshmen — are effectively in the two-deep this spring, with just two positions sewn up: senior center Donovan Raiola returns for his third season as a starter, while junior Joe Thomas is back at left tackle.

Despite a depth dominated by youth, the Badgers' first team this spring has a decidedly veteran feel, with seniors Jason Palermo and Matt Lawrence at guards. Youth is served at right tackle, where redshirt freshman Kraig Urbik is splitting time with sophomore Danny Kaye.

Palermo and Lawrence have been waiting for this opportunity for quite a while, having seemingly camped out in the Badgers two-deep the past few years, before finally getting their opportunity. For the past two seasons, Lawrence has been a top reserve guard behind starters Dan Buenning and Jonathan Clinkscale, while Palermo backed up Raiola at center.

This spring, Palermo has shifted over to right guard, taking Clinkscale's spot, while Lawrence moved into Buenning's left guard position.

"They knew right from the get-go that they were brought along to take over that role," Hueber said. "They know what they have to do to keep it. They have not backed off. They've done everything that they can. Now, I have to help them with coaching and they just got to keep on going."

Palermo, the son of UW defensive line coach John Palermo, looks secure as the starting right guard. Lawrence has played well at left guard and appears to be one of the Badgers' top five linemen in the early stages of spring ball, but he will be pushed by young reserves Andy Kemp and Marcus Coleman.

"They are both tough guys," Hueber said of Palermo and Lawrence. "Both of them can run, can pull. Both of them really have an understanding of our offense, what we want to do, because all the repetitions they've had over the years. They're really a good fit for us right now."

Palermo and Lawrence have experienced only fleeting playing time in their careers, but they are carrying themselves like seasoned veterans.

"You see a leadership change," Hueber said. "You accept a role. If you are the older guy and you are the guy running with the 1s, you accept that role, you're now going to talk more, you are going to be more open. You're going to talk to the younger guys if they see something that I may not during practice, that I wouldn't see until a film comes on. They are going to be more verbal. And by the way they play they are going to be leaders."

Kemp, a true freshman who enrolled early for spring ball, said that the upperclassmen interior lineman have been quick to help him during practices.

"Every play Matt or Jason or Donovan Raiola come up to me, explain what I did wrong or what I did right, what I have to work on," Kemp said. "These guys are getting me through this for sure… They are helping everyone but particularly they are helping me quite a bit. It has been great."

The Badgers lost a pair of four-year starters in Buenning and Clinkscale, but the interior line transition has been anything but rocky thus far, in part because Raiola, Lawrence and Palermo already have a comfort level with one another on the field, from years of working together in practice.

"There's a trust factor. [Raiola] knows those two guards, and they know him," Hueber said. "They've been in a lot of meetings together, a lot of practices together. So there's a trust factor. [Raiola's] experience there… he should be able to talk to them about where combinations go if there is any question. Right now I'm really happy with the way those three guys are working together."

Raiola, Hueber said, was happy to see his old understudy, Palermo, get a shot to play next to him.

"They've been friends a long time," Hueber said. "I think he's excited that it didn't come at his expense."

Over at right tackle: Urbik and Kaye have one of the more interesting spring competitions on their hands. Urbik, who redshirted his first season on campus last fall, opened spring as the No. 1 right tackle on UW's official depth chart, but he is splitting reps with Kaye.

Starting left tackle Thomas missed the first two, non-contact, spring practices while competing at the NCAA Indoor championships this weekend, which allowed Hueber to play Kaye at left tackle and Urbik at right tackle, in an effort to give each an opportunity to receive first-team reps. Once Thomas returned to the McClain Center practice field Sunday (the first day of contact work), Urbik and Kaye began rotating at right tackle on both the first and second teams.

"I'm going to make sure they get the most work; those two guys get the most work," Hueber said.

Kaye bounced around the offensive line last season, playing every position in practice but center. Since last spring Kaye stood out among UW's reserve linemen, but a couple of injuries kept him from setting up permanent residence in the Badgers' depth.

In bowl workouts Kaye was moved to right guard, but Hueber said that was a temporary move designed to give Kaye as many opportunities as possible.

"I've had him all over the place," Hueber said. "That was really I wanted to make sure that he got some work with those seniors still here during the bowl practices.

"We knew what we were going to do with him. We knew where we were going to play him to start him out [spring workouts]."

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