As the college football world knows, Wisconsin football is justly famous for cranking out pro-level offensive linemen, blockers who during their college years are well-coached, athletic and just plain large. With the return of pro-style offense savant Paul Chryst as head coach and former UW guard Joe Rudolph as his offensive coordinator, the tradition and consistent production of Wisconsin's offensive line, the program's very modus vivendi, only figures to continue.
There are questions in 2015, as whichever group of five players that starts each game will include at least three who haven't done it before this season. Then again, going into 2014, Wisconsin's line was thought to be a notch or to below the standards set by the lines of recent vintage, including those that weren't necessarily coached by none other than Chryst himself, but most certainly superintended by him.
First, though, for starting and even finishing the season relatively unheralded, let's have a look at that 2014 unit.
2014 in Review
As was recapped earlier this week in B5Q's running backs preview, 2014's rushing numbers are nothing short of mind-blowing:
- No. 5 nationally in rushing offense at 320 yards per game (all higher-ranked teams ran triple-option systems)
- No. 2 nationally in yards per carry at 6.92(!)
- The record-breaking duo of Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement gained 3,536 combined yards (breaking Gordon and James White's record from 2013)
- Tanner McEvoy's UW quarterback rushing record of 574 yards (at an eye-popping 8.83 yards-per-carry clip)
- And, of course, Gordon's single-game record of 408 yards (I know, for one week), his second-all-time 2,587 total rushing yards, his 7.54 yards per carry and 185 yards per game.
The 2014 line even helped converted cornerback Dare Ogunbowale rush for 193 yards at 5.58 per carry and vault himself into contention for real playing time in 2015. The performance against Western Illinois (who did, after all, rush nine and 10 players every snap for the better part of three quarters) notwithstanding, the final rushing stats simply jump off the page. If the line was average in any facet, it was in pass protection as the Badgers gave up 37 sacks in 14 games -- although just how many of those were on the quarterback, whoever was playing the position, or perhaps the receivers?
The line was also fortunate on the injury front, 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 title game, when Voltz simply couldn't go on and was replaced by Lewallen as reserve Ray Ball stepped into his shoes at left guard. The same happened in the Outback Bowl, where some observers took special note of Ball's solid performance. With Costigan and Lewallen rarely, if ever, at 100 percent, the staff was fortunate to have preserved the redshirt of Michael Deiter, from whom much is expected this season on the interior.
As it turned out, Havenstein, who was drafted by the St. Louis Rams in the second round, was voted first-team All America by the AFCA and was consensus a first-team All-Big Ten selection. Costigan was also a consensus first-team All-Big Ten selection, while Marz and Lewallen were consensus Big Ten honorable mentions and Voltz was a Big Ten honorable mention per the coaches. Not too shabby for a line that was considered by many below recent UW standards.
LT Marz (RS SR), C Voltz (RS JR), G Ball (RS SR), T Walker Williams (RS JR).
Starters Havenstein, Costigan, and Lewallen; walk-on Trent Denlinger, who was likely slated to provide depth, also had to retire from football due to injury.
Additions to position
Jon Dietzen, 6'5, 330 pounds, Seymour, Wis.; David Moorman, 6'5, 275 pounds, Northville, Mich.; Kevin Estes, 6'5", 270, San Marcos, CA (San Marcos). All have four stars from at least one recruiting service, with Dietzen having the most (and who was also a January enrollee).
Battle to Watch: Right tackle between Hayden Biegel and Walker Williams (and maybe more)
Even though UW will be replacing at least three starters on the line, the biggest intrigue is likely to be at right tackle, from which the highly decorated Havenstein departs. Redshirt sophomore Hayden Biegel was listed as the backup throughout 2014 and was featured there during the spring game. Williams, one of the few remaining scholarship holdovers from the Bret Bielema regime (the group was decimated by career-ending injuries -- see Jake Meador, Jack Keeler, Matt Miller), hasn't done much to earn playing time, but this might the year for the redshirt junior-to-be. He also saw time at guard in the spring game.
Williams (class of 2012) was presumably recruited with substantial input from Rudolph and (probably) Chryst, so it is possible we'll see things from him we haven't yet, but the spot should be the most important offseason battle on the line.
Another player to potentially watch is redshirt freshman Jake Maxwell, who also played extensively, including at the tackle spots, in the spring game.
Prediction for starters: Marz, Ball, Voltz, Dieter, Biegel
Left tackle Marz, a moderately decorated senior, has consistently improved in both run blocking and pass blocking every year. Center Voltz, so long as he recovers from injury, was just beginning to live up to his vast potential (he's been in the program for two years, I know, but he was in Tom Lemming's national Top 100 players). Both have all-league potential. Beyond them, it gets a bit interesting, if only because UW 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 Deiter 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 line coach T.J. Woods. Ball has generally been in the top tier of interior backups the last two seasons and has seen extensive time in special packages; he should fill in capably for Lewallen as he did against Auburn, even if there will be an adjustment to being a full-time starter.
With these four positions set, the 2015 line 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).
It does appear that Biegel came out of spring as the starter at right tackle, but whomever wins the job will not hold experience in an actual game. The position is probably the most concerning for the staff given its criticality to such a run-heavy team like Wisconsin.
If there are injuries, look for Williams as well as redshirt freshmen George Panos and Micah Kapoi (interior), and Beau Benzschawel and Jake Maxwell (tackles) to be the primary depth. Dietzen may surpass one or more of these players with a fall as strong as his spring was. Wisconsin has improved its depth significantly after the attrition of the last few years (Meador, Keeler, Miller and the star of the 2014 signing group, Jaden Gault, who still hasn't played football at UW but is still in school and on scholarship). The limb of faith in Rudolph and Chryst is pretty strong, but if UW isn't as fortunate as it was last year injury-wise, all of these players are unproven in game situations.
The 2015 line might see a slight dip in production from the resoundingly stellar 2014, but with UW having re-stocked its depth and having brought in two first-tier developers of offensive linemen, the future looks quite bright indeed.