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2014 Wisconsin football preview: Badgers return experienced offensive line

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Wisconsin enters fall camp with one of its most cohesive offensive lines of the past few seasons.

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Wisconsin historically has had a bit of a chicken-or-egg situation on offense. Which came first, the gaudy running back production or the pull-happy, mammoth-sized offensive line units?

Regardless, the results have been eye-popping, despite the turnover inherent to college football. Over the last four years, UW's running game has averaged 5.85 yards per carry on 42.6 rushes per game.

That even includes a stretch to begin 2012 when the Badgers averaged only 3.4 yards per carry over the first three games, before first-year offensive coordinator Mike Markuson was fired and the unit changed philosophies on the fly under a graduate assistant.

Between that, having a third coach in one calendar year when T.J. Woods started in 2013, lighter-than-ideal scholarship numbers and injuries to Dan Voltz and Dallas Lewallen, UW's ridiculous 3,689 rushing yards and 6.6 yards per carry are even more impressive. The scary part: Wisconsin's got more unit cohesion entering fall camp this year than its had since 2011.

Ryan Groy has moved to the NFL, but all five of UW's projected starters have experience. On a young roster, they'll be expected to be the seaworthy hull when the waters get rough, oh, about 8:15 p.m. on Aug. 30 in Houston.

DEPTH CHART: OFFENSIVE LINE
YEAR HT WT GP/GS HOMETOWN
LT Tyler Marz RS JR 6'5 321 22/12 Springfield, Minn.
LG Dallas Lewallen RS SR 6'6 321 13/7 Berlin, Wis.
Dan Voltz RS SO 6'3 311 11/6 Barrington, Ill.
RG Kyle Costigan RS SR 6'5 319 28/21 Wind Lake, Wis.
RT Rob Havenstein RS SR 6'8 333 40/28 Mount Airy, Md.
Key reserves: RS JR Ray Ball, RS SO Walker Williams, FR Michael Deiter
The rest: RS SO Trent Denlinger, RS SO Logan Schmidt, RS FR Ben Hemer, RS FR Hayden Biegel, RS FR Aidan McNamara, FR Brett Connors, FR Micah Kapoi, FR George Panos, FR Beau Benzschawel

Most to prove

The man nobody could miss anchoring the right side of the offensive line. At Big Ten media days in Chicago this week, head coach Gary Andersen said Rob Havenstein was one of the offense's unquestioned leaders. The redshirt senior has 28 starts to his name and now has his turn as the focal point -- as much as there can be one on an offensive line -- of the unit. You can click off the dominating performers and leaders from nearly every year going back. Ryan Groy, Travis Frederick, Peter Konz, Kevin Zeitler, Gabe Carimi, so on and so forth. For each, there was a point -- usually during their respective final years on campus- -- when you thought, "This is his group." The other thing they all have in common, of course, are pro careers.

That must be Havenstein this year. The Badgers have plenty of experience and he has fellow fifth-year seniors in Dallas Lewallen and Kyle Costigan, but the Maryland native is the one on the preseason watch lists and representing UW at media days. He also has as many starts as Lewallen and Costigan combined.

Since he arrived on campus, the biggest man among a bunch of big men has been on a steady arc upward. Havenstein's never consistently dominated, but he's put himself in position to take that step. He'll also be asked to lead. If he's up to the task, look out.

X-factor

Many thought Dan Voltz would start 2013 as the starter at center as a redshirt freshman. Instead, an injury in camp set him back and Dallas Lewallen started the first four games before Voltz got his first crack at live action.

Now, the Illinois native should be tasked with running the show in the middle of an experienced, productive unit. Even with 11 games and six starts to his name, Voltz will be the youngster between redshirt senior guards Lewallen and Kyle Costigan. He's got the smarts and talent to handle the job -- Wisconsin's rushing production against South Carolina's defense in the Capital One Bowl stands as a clear example -- but consistency will be the key, especially with the possibility that Voltz won't know who he'll be snapping to until late in camp.

Injuries are always an x-factor in their own right, but after missing time last year Voltz also sat out spring camp. It's unfair to tag him alone with the responsibility of staying healthy -- Lewallen also missed spring ball, Costigan has had knee problems through his career and all appear to be healthy now at the outset of fall camp -- but it is critical the redshirt sophomore stays on the field.

Wisconsin has better depth in sheer numbers on the offensive line this year, but the starting five are far preferable to the alternatives, and an injury to Voltz would probably spark a domino effect, where Lewallen slides to center and Ray Ball or someone else steps in at guard.

Rest of the position group

Tyler Marz started every game in 2013 at left tackle. The redshirt sophomore is solid, if unspectacular, and should continue to develop. Kyle Costigan started 12 games at right guard. Dallas Lewallen has seen game action each of the last three years, but has just seven starts, all in 2013. The in-state product native should be primed for a big year. Walker Williams and Ray Ball provide upperclassman depth and have played multiple positions in their time at UW, though Voltz and Lewallen are the only options at center ahead of freshman Michael Deiter. An early enrollee from Ohio, Deiter was thrown right into the fire in spring camp and reportedly acquitted himself well. He, George Panos and Jacob Maxwell anchor what could be a special freshman class. Jaden Gault has a chance to be the crown jewel of that class, but the freshman from Monona Grove, Wisconsin, is working through issues with depression and will not be with the team this fall. Both he and head coach Gary Andersen have expressed confidence in his eventual return, but that's clearly not the most important thing at this juncture.

Quotable

"He's the toughest man in the world. It's a Ripley's Believe It or Not Fact. He wakes up and eats bowls of nails for breakfast. I don't think he actually knows what the word pain means. He's a heck of a guy and a heck of an athlete. He's a machine. He's a freak. You can go on with all of these analogies, but when it comes down to it, the man is just purely tough. He's just real tough." -- Rob Havenstein, speaking to Big Ten Network at Big Ten media days this week, lavishing lineman love on redshirt senior guard Kyle Costigan.

Did you know?

Kraig Urbik is still in the NFL. Not that the guy was a slouch in college or anything -- he racked up his fair share of awards, played on winning teams and was drafted in the third round in 2009. I just hadn't heard anything about him in a while. He's playing in Buffalo, which likely explains it. The Hudson, Wisconsin, native started all 16 games a year ago and 13 each of the previous two before that.

I am aware of this because he caught a touchdown on a corner route during training camp a couple days ago.

Really.

If I'm way behind the game here and everybody knows Urbik is still an NFL veteran and a touchdown machine, consider this: The five projected starters on UW's line weigh a combined 1,605 pounds. That's bigger than your average Holstein and a whole lot of Culver's Butter Burgers.