Spring preview: offensive line

Starting positions could be up for grabs throughout the front five.

Starters returning: Senior left tackle Joe Thomas (will not take part in spring drills, recovering from surgery to repair torn ACL), sophomore right tackle Kraig Urbik.

Other key returnees: Junior center/guard Marcus Coleman, junior guard/tackle Danny Kaye, sophomore guard Andy Kemp, sophomore tackle Eric Vanden Heuvel, junior guard Andrew Weininger.

Starters departed: Center Donovan Raiola, guards Jason Palermo and Matt Lawrence.

Other key departures: None.

2005 position coach: Jim Hueber

2006 position coach: Bob Palcic

Spring storylines

For the second consecutive spring the Badgers have to find new starters at three positions on the offensive line.

The quirk, of course, is that with a new position coach there is no guarantee that Urbik, who played very well as a redshirt freshman, will remain at right tackle. Expect Palcic to pick out the five best offensive linemen—a typical tactic among line coaches—and then establish positions among them.

If past performance is any indication, then Coleman will certainly be among that top five when the 2006 season rolls around. Coleman has been one of the Badgers' top reserves the past two seasons and could play any position on the line if necessary. He was primarily an understudy at center last season, but he started one game at guard when Matt Lawrence was injured. Expect Coleman to open spring as the starting center.

If he returns to full health, Thomas could be the best offensive lineman in college football. New head coach Bret Bielema has said that Thomas is ahead of the curve in his recovery, but ACL injuries can be tricky long-term beasts. Just ask Brett Bell, who never returned to full strength his senior year because of an ACL injury he suffered in January 2005. Unlike Bell, however, if Thomas cannot play up to his standards he would have the opportunity to redshirt, having never done so in the past. The indications, though, are that Thomas will play this fall.

In the meantime someone has to play left tackle in spring practices. That duty will likely fall to Vanden Heuvel, who played very well in the Capital One Bowl when he replaced an injured Thomas. If he picks up where he left off, expect Vanden Heuvel to clearly establish himself as one of the top five.

Then, of course, the question becomes can Vanden Heuvel or Urbik slide down to guard and remain effective? They both move well for players their size. Don't be surprised to see an all-Hudson, Wis., right side of the line this season.

With little depth this spring, effectively every linemen is a player to watch.

Kaye has often looked like a player on the rise, but he has been thwarted by injuries throughout his career. A solid enough athlete, Kaye has played both tackle and guard spots in practice at one point or another, but expect him to focus in on playing guard this spring.

Kemp was a second-team lineman as a true freshman last season. He played very little, but enters his second spring, having enrolled early last season. An exceptionally strong player, Kemp is one of the favorites to earn a starting spot.

Weininger really made major strides in practice last season to emerge at the guard position. He has played tackle in practice in the past, but struggled for the most part at that position. As a guard last season Weininger played like a future starter.

Also in the mix will be junior center/guard Luke Knauf, junior tackle Mike Van Someren and converted defensive tackle Jeff Stehle, an excellent athlete who could be the real x-factor this spring. Stehle has the physical ability to thrive at guard or tackle, but how quickly will he pick up on the offensive line position after spending last season working to shed blocks? It should be noted, however, that Stehle would have avoided a redshirt and played at defensive tackle in a reserve role last year if he had not been slowed by an injury in fall camp.

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