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Wisconsin solidifies offensive line with unlikely candidate

Kevin Zeitler's future will come into focus Thursday or Friday at the NFL draft, but no one could have envisioned who his replacement would be.
Kevin Zeitler's future will come into focus Thursday or Friday at the NFL draft, but no one could have envisioned who his replacement would be.

MADISON, Wis. -- When I asked Wisconsin guard Rob Burge if he ever thought he would be in the position he is now -- the starter at right guard for a team that routinely turns out top-notch pro linemen -- after walking on with the team more than four years ago, the response I got was typical of the soft-spoken redshirt senior.

"Well, I always though I'd be a tackle," Burge said with a grin after practice Tuesday.

Dry humor aside, there's little doubt Burge, who also told me the biggest difference between spring camp with new offensive line coach Mike Markuson and past camps has been "less yelling," needed to have a positive attitude to crack the starting lineup.

Burge said he developed the survivor's mentality that (at least for now) earned him the starting job by competing with young scholarship players for scout team reps in past years.

"There’s always been that sense of urgency as a walk-on. I had to go out and prove myself every day, even though I was just on the second team or a backup. I had to prove myself to stay in that role as a walk-on, because I always knew there was a scholarship guy coming up right behind me that would fill that spot at the snap of a finger," Burge said.

Even at the beginning of camp, the candidates being thrown around in conversations about who would replace Kevin Zeitler at right guard involved Casey Dehn, who had recently re-joined the team after leaving briefly, and even heralded incoming freshman Dan Voltz, who Markuson called "the full monty-package."

But few were talking about Burge until a couple weeks ago, when he was the toast of practice April 12. I talked to Montee Ball and center Travis Frederick that day, and both mentioned they were how impressed they were with Burge's blocking that day.

Now, it appears Burge has earned a spot in the starting lineup alongside left tackle Ricky Wagner, left guard Ryan Groy, Frederick and right tackle Rob Havenstein. Even Markuson, who watches every rep his linemen take in practice, was impressed with the progress the former walk-on made.

"At the present time right now, he’s done a fabulous job," Markuson said. "He has to continue to get better, but I’m very happy with what he’s been doing out here. Being a fifth-year senior in his last year, he’s really done a lot of good things."

Still, Burge and Markuson know as well as anyone a lot can happen before the start of the regular season. If his performance dips even a little bit, the right guard spot could be up for grabs once again. Dehn has taken the first-team reps at right tackle while Havenstein recovers from shoulder surgery, but he has plenty of experience at guard as well, and could challenge Burge in the fall when Havenstein is healthy.

Another player who could get time at right guard in fall is redshirt sophomore and former scout team player of the year Dallas Lewallen, who has missed the entirety of spring with a knee injury but impressed Markuson with his athleticism on tape. Redshirt junior Zac Matthias, who has been limited this spring with a back injury, could also be in the mix.

But for now, the starting job is Burge's. And even if he didn't always see himself as a guard, he did see himself as a starter.

"I knew that I could start at this program. It’s always been a vision, and if you don’t have that vision you won’t necessarily get to where you are," Burge said.