2013 Wisconsin Spring Football: Offensive Line Promising, But Thin

Jeff Hanisch-US PRESSWIRE

The Badgers are accustomed to losing talent -- and recently, position coaches -- along their offensive line. But is it simply automatic that the production will be just as good up front in 2013?

The news came late on a Sunday night, the day after a crushing loss to Oregon State. Newly hired offensive line coach Mike Markuson's career at Wisconsin had come to an abrupt close before the ink of his signature could dry. Taking the veteran assistant's place was a young, unproven assistant by the name of Bart Miller.

Bret Bielema's bold move to dump Markuson two weeks into the 2012 season turned into a rallying cry for an offensive line fresh off a beatdown at the hands of the Beavers' defense. That OSU unit turned out to be a solid group, finishing third in the Pac-12 in total defense, but at the time it sent shockwaves through the very foundations of the Badgers' program. This was, after all, Offensive Line U, where 230-pound freshman turn into 310-pound beasts who thrive in the NFL.

The O-line showed remarkable under improvement under Miller, a Bob Bostad protégé, and helped tailback Montee Ball claw his way to 1,830 yards and 22 touchdowns in his senior campaign. With Ricky Wagner and Ryan Groy anchoring the left side and Travis Frederick tapping into that expansive brain of his to make off-the-cuff adjustments, Wisconsin bullied its way to 467 rushing yards against Purdue and 564 more against Indiana.

Despite those absurd rushing numbers against the Big Ten's underlings, the Badgers' line failed to match the remarkable consistency of the 2010 and 2011 squads. Gabe Carimi, John Moffitt, Peter Konz and Kevin Zeitler (each selected in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft), they were not.

But drawn together by their young, personable position coach - no better signified than the "Miller Time" shirts his pupils rocked late in the season - they did not let the stellar reputation of Wisconsin offensive linemen crumble. Right tackle Rob Havenstein remained a liability, but Kyle Costigan eventually locked up the right guard spot over Zac Matthias, who was the plug-in-as-needed guy off the bench.

Now under the guidance of T.J. Woods -- their fourth position coach in the last 16 months -- the Badgers resume play without two of the strongholds from the 2012 line. Frederick made a somewhat surprising decision to skip his senior year and enter the NFL Draft while Wagner graduated, leaving a group with intriguing talent, but nothing more.

Spring Depth Chart

LT1 -- Dallas Lewallan, 6-foot-6, 318 pounds, RS junior
LG 1 -- Ryan Groy, 6-foot-5, 317 pounds, RS senior
C1 -- Dan Voltz, 6-foot-4, 310 pounds, RS freshman
RG1 -- Kyle Costigan, 6-foot-4, 304 pounds, RS junior
RT1 -- Rob Havenstein, 6-foot-8, 338 pounds, RS junior

LT2 -- Tyler Marz, 6-foot-7, 318 pounds, RS sophomore
LG2 -- Ray Ball, 6-foot-7, 327 pounds, RS sophomore
C2 -- Jacob Ninneman, 6-foot-1, 280 pounds, RS junior
RG2 -- Zac Matthias, 6-foot-5, 323 pounds, RS senior
RT2 -- Walker Williams, 6-foot-7, 318 pounds, RS freshman

Strengths

Unsettling as it may sound, the greatest strength of the 2013 offensive line may simply be its potential. There is no shortage of size among the offensive line and, aside from Voltz, all of the above projected starters appeared in at least four games last year.

Though naturally a guard, Groy has been sliding over to left tackle in recent practices and will be counted on to hold this line together wherever he ends up. The Middleton, Wis., native has appeared in all 41 of UW's games over the past three years (20 starts) and will need to use his experience to help the two most inexperienced linemen, Voltz and Lewallen.

Havenstein certainly has all the physical tools to be a dominant right tackle, yet he remains an unproven talent. It was Haveinstein who let Michigan State defensive end William Gholston break through the line and put the season-ending blow on quarterback Joel Stave just as things were getting interesting back in October.

Voltz drew rave reviews from Frederick last year and, beard and all, almost seems like a clone of his predecessor. He faces a steep learning curve if he does become a starter in his first year seeing live game action, but Voltz appears to be UW's long-term option in the middle of the line. The most pressing question comes at left tackle, likely the most important position on the line for a team stocked with right-handed quarterbacks.

Lewallen, one of the favorites for that spot, only saw limited playing time in 2012 and most of it came early in the season. The tools appear to be there, but he has large shoes to fill if he steps in for Wagner, a three-year starter.

Weaknesses

Every time a downed linemen is slow to get up this year, it will provoke more than a brief moment of agony for Badger fans.

The O-line has already been decimated by injuries in spring ball, with as few as eight players fully healthy for the five-man rotation and the spring game less than two weeks away. Though most of those players will be healthy by the season opener, it's not exactly a promising sign of durability for 2013. And it's not as if UW is stocked with capable reserves who have proven they can handle a heavy workload for a team so dedicated to the power run game.

Outside of Groy, Havenstein and Costigan, Matthias is the only other offensive linemen with any starting experience. As pointed out above, there is no shortage of future promise among this group. But how quickly can they learn and how ready will they be to jump in during the midst of a scoring drive when a teammate hobbles to the sideline nursing his right knee?

It ultimately becomes a question of how efficiently Woods can develop his crew into powerful and quick-footed blockers capable of trotting down the field to throw a block for a streaking James White or Melvin Gordon. That, along with some lucky breaks on the injury front, could put Wisconsin back atop its perch as an offensive linemen factory.

The pieces are there, but no one is sure exactly how each individual fits into the puzzle.

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