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Wisconsin football 2015 preview: Way-too-early look at the offensive line

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The loss of three starters will force some up-and-comers to continue the tradition of O-Line U.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Wisconsin's football season ended with a 34-31 Outback Bowl victory over Auburn, but we around here know that college football season never really ends. The Paul Chryst era is now in full swing, as B5Q previews each position just a month away from spring football.

Wisconsin football is justly famous for cranking out pro-level offensive linemen, ones who during their college years are well-coached, athletic, and just plain large. These are linemen who pave the way for what is one of the most consistently productive -- and bruising and demoralizing -- running games in the nation. These things don't change and in very good years, think 2010, the line will pass-protect almost as well as it blocks for running backs. The line in 2014 wasn't that much different, but just didn't have the star power that lines of recent vintage featured.

2014 Stats and Position Review

Witness 2014's rushing numbers:

  • Fifth nationally in rushing offense at 320 yards per game (all those above ran triple option systems)
  • Second nationally in yards per carry at 6.92
  • The record breaking duo of Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement at 3,536 combined yards (breaking Gordon and James White's record from 2013)
  • Tanner McEvoy's broke Wisconsin's rushing record for a quarterback with 574 yards (at an eye-popping 8.83 yards per carry clip)
  • And, of course, Gordon's single game record for one week (408), second all-time FBS single season rushing yards (2587), along with 7.54 yards per carry, along with averaging 185 yards per game.

This line even helped cornerback-turned-running back Dare Ogunbowale rush for 193 yards with 5.58 yards per carry. In sum, even if fans (rightly) wondered just what hell was wrong with this line against Western Illinois -- who seemingly rushed nine or ten players every snap for three quarters -- the final rushing stats pop off the page. The only average grade the line earned was in pass protection, giving up 37 sacks in 14 games, but then again, just how many of those were on the quarterback, or perhaps the receivers, rather than on the line?

In 2014, Wisconsin was also pretty lucky when it came to injuries, at least as far as lost starts or lost time. The five starters -- Tyler Marz at left tackle, Dallas Lewallen at left guard, Dan Voltz at center, Kyle Costigan at right guard, and Rob Havenstein at right tackle -- remained intact until the Big Ten Conference championship game, when Voltz simply couldn't go on after an injury he incurred against Minnesota was aggravated and he left the game. Lewallen slid over to center and long-time, but little-used, reserve Ray Ball stepped in left guard.

Costigan recently retired from football after playing though injuries in 2013 and 2014 and Lewallen was rarely, if ever, at 100 percent. The staff was fortunate to have preserved the redshirt of Michael Dieter, an impressive true freshman who might have been used at one of the guard positions or at center.

As it turned out, Havenstein, who with Gordon is one of two Badgers invited to the NFL Draft Combine, was voted first-team All America by the AFCA, and was a consensus first-team All-Big Ten. Among other awards for the offensive line:

  • Costigan was also named a consensus first-team All-Big Ten
  • Marz and Lewallen were consensus All-Big Ten honorable mention
  • Voltz was a All-Big Ten honorable mention per the coaches.

Not too shabby at all for a line that wasn't considered by many to have been not quite up to recent Wisconsin standards.

Returning players

Marz (RS SR), Ball (RS SR) Voltz (RS JR), Walker Williams (RS JR), Michael Dieter (RS FR), Aidan McNamara (RS SO), Ben Hemer (RS SO), Logan Schmidt (RS JR), Brett Connors (RS FR), Beau Benzschawel (RS FR), George Panos (RS FR), Jaden Gault (SO), Hayden Biegel (RS SO), Jacob Maxwell (RS FR), Michael Kapoi (RS FR)

Departing players

Havenstein, Costigan, Lewallen and per reports Trent Denlinger (injury)

Additions to position

Jon Dietzen (Seymour, Black Creek, WI -- early enrollee), David Moorman (Northville, Northville, Mich.), Kevin Estes (San Marcos, San Marcos, Calif.).

X-Factors (or Battle to Watch):  Hayden Biegel and Walker Williams at right tackle (and maybe more)

Even though Wisconsin will be replacing at least three starters on the line, the biggest intrigue will likely be at right tackle, where "new" offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Joe Rudolph -- with plenty of input from head coach Paul Chryst, to be sure -- will have the task of replacing who was probably the most talented, but certainly the most decorated, starter in Havenstein. This should be the most important off-season battle on the line, as right tackle is a critically important position for such a run-heavy team like Wisconsin. This is the most precarious given that whoever is the starter there will have no real game time experience against a substantial opponent.

Redshirt sophomore-to-be Biegel was listed as the back-up right tackle in 2014. Walker Williams was Marz' back-up at left tackle, and is one of the few remaining scholarship holdovers from the Bielema regime (the group was decimated by attrition -- see Jake Meador, Jack Keeler, Matt Miller). Williams was listed as the back-up to Marz in 2014. He hasn't done much to earn playing time, but this might the year for the redshirt junior-to-be -- and will he compete for the right tackle position?

One other player to potentially watch is redshirt freshman Jacob Maxwell, who may get a look in this spot during spring or even fall.

"Way-too-early" prediction for starters: Marz, Ball, Voltz, Dieter, Biegel

Marz and Voltz have all-conference potential. Marz will be an already decorated senior who has consistently improved in both run-blocking and pass-blocking every year and Voltz, so long as he recovers from injury, was just beginning to live up to his vast potential (he's been in the program now for years, but he was in Tom Lemming's national Top 100 players). They're locks and will anchor the line in 2015. Beyond them, it gets interesting, if only because Wisconsin hasn't had to replace three starters on the offensive line in a few years. Of course, if anyone can manage that kind of transition well, it'd be Rudolph and Chryst, right?

The guard positions appear to be in good hands with Ball on the left and Dieter on the right. As mentioned, Dieter, a 2014 early enrollee who played extensively with the top unit in both spring and fall due to injuries to Costigan and Voltz, impressed the staff and former offensive line coach T.J. Woods. They wouldn't have hesitated to pull the redshirt off him if both Voltz and one of the guards were lost for an extended period.

Ball has generally been in the top tier of interior back-ups the last two seasons, and has seen extensive time in special packages and against Auburn when Voltz went down with a broken fibula. He should fill in capably for Lewallen, even if there will be some adjustment to being a full-time starter. With these four positions set, the 2015 shouldn't see a terrible drop from 2014 -- and may even be better in pass protection Costigan, for one, was an excellent, mauler-type run blocker but only adequate against better defensive tackles in pass protection. Lewallen could be similarly, if not more frequently, had by bull rushes up the middle on pass plays.

The right tackle position is discussed above, but if I'm picking, I'm going with Biegel as he appears to have developed a little faster than Williams during his time at UW, but it's difficult to tell given the staff changes.

Both former head coach Gary Andersen and Chryst said their goal was to maintain 15 or 16 scholarship linemen on the roster. After addressing the position heavily in 2014's signing class and a bit less so in 2015, Wisconsin is just about there. Although guards redshirt freshmen in guards Panos and Kapoi, and tackles Benzschawel and Maxwell have bolstered the ranks, attrition has made re-stocking difficult.

Losing Meador, Keeler, and Miller was significant for depth, but then the star of the 2014 signing group, Jaden Gault, hasn't played football yet while battling depression -- although he's still on scholarship and in school. He may yet contribute, but that's an unknown at present time. Paul Chryst noted during his National Signing Day press conference that he had not spoken with Gault yet. A couple weeks before National Signing Day this January, the Badgers lost another highly-touted lineman out of New Jersey -- Sam Madden -- to academics/admissions policies (he eventually committed to Georgia).

The remainder of this year's group, however, looks on paper and Hudl clips like one of the best in years. Dietzen is a Wisconsin-bred offensive linemen straight from central casting and a high three-star recruit on 247 Composite rankings, while both Moorman and Estes declined numerous major offers and transcended traditional geographical committing boundaries (see: Michigan) to sign with Wisconsin.

The future still looks bright, especially under well-regarded offensive sages like Chryst and Rudolph, even if 2015 might see a slight dip in production from the resoundingly stellar 2014.