Not many college football programs could lose three all-conference offensive linemen and still expect to have an elite unit in the trenches the following year. But for the second year in a row, the Badgers find themselves in that position.
In 2011, the Badgers lost Gabe Carimi, John Moffitt and Bill Nagy to graduation. All three went on to be drafted and begin the season as a starter for their respective NFL teams. Now, the Badgers are coping not only with the losses of Peter Konz, Kevin Zeitler and Josh Oglesby, but with the departure of offensive line coach Bob Bostad and arrival of new offensive line coach Mike Markuson.
After the Badgers practiced Thursday, center Travis Frederick said all the changes around them has actually brought the group of returning linemen closer together, and Montee Ball seemed confident Wisconsin's offensive line will once again play up to the lofty standards that made him a Heisman finalist last season
"I’m not worried at all because we have great depth. What I’m seeing now is, they’re really clicking to the offense and the new coach that they have and doing a great," Ball said.
The Badgers' offensive line depth allowed them to transition seamlessly last season, as Frederick and Ricky Wagner stepped into starting roles and eventually earned all-Big Ten honors.
Now, Frederick has moved from left guard to center and Ryan Groy, who made four starts in 2011, is penciled in as the starting left guard. With Wagner returning at left tackle and Rob Havenstein looking like the starter at right tackle, the only real position battle up front appears to be at right guard.
The regular season is still more than four months away, but it looks like redshirt senior Robert Burge is emerging as an early favorite for the job. Burge earned the praise of several of his teammates Thursday, including Ball and Frederick.
"He’s made some great progress. I think he’s really done a good job of taking advantage of the opportunity that he’s been given: a chance to play with the first group and a chance to move in," Frederick said. "I love seeing the way that he works."
Whomever earns the starting job at right guard will first have to earn the approval of the fiery Markuson, who has already shown a penchant for immediately sending players to the sideline who perform below his standards in drills or scrimmages. Markuson spent the last 14 years in the SEC coaching the offensive lines at Ole Miss and Arkansas, so he's no stranger to crafting dominant offensive lines.
Interestingly, both Groy and Frederick mentioned how dissimilar Markuson's coaching style is to that of his predecessor, Bostad, despite both coaches' success at the job.
"A lot of things are different from (Markuson) and Bostad," Groy said. "It's just technique stuff from one coach to another."
Earlier in the spring, Bret Bielema identified Frederick and Groy -- who, along with the soft-spoken Wagner, have the most experience among the returning linemen -- as players who could step in and become vocal leaders on the offensive line. Konz filled that role last season, and both Frederick and Groy said they're comfortable with filling the void now that Konz is gone.
Frederick seemed almost honored by the suggestion when I asked him about it Tuesday.
"Since I was a kid, I felt like I could take that leadership role. Whether or not is was in junior tackle football or moving up through high school or things like that. It’s always kind of been that way and I feel pretty comfortable with it and I’m gracious to have the opportunity to do that," Frederick said.