As fall camp 2015 winds down with the last of open sessions now complete, injuries on what would already be an inexperienced Wisconsin offensive line have taken center stage. Every day, it seemed that a new lineman was added to the injury report.
Prior to camp opening, however, the line was actually just one area among several that concerned fans and observers. The potential trouble spots then were the perennially underwhelming receiver group, running back depth, the quarterbacks (starter and the identity of the top back-up) and a largely inexperienced tight end group.
Other than injuries piling up along the line, and most critically so at the open spots, there are some signs for optimism in those other areas, even if prudence requires it be a tad guarded.
About that offensive line, though. There are legitimate reasons explaining why the group has occupied so much attention and angst. Left tackle and center are set with returning starters Tyler Marz and Dan Voltz, respectively. Redshirt freshman Michael Deiter, although having no actual game experience, has done enough for the staff to have locked down one of the guard spots and a top reserve spot at center as well. Beyond that, it has been murky at the very best.
News from Camp
Stave, Musso impress during Tuesday's practice
Consistency has been the key for Joel Stave so far during Badgers fall practice.
News from Camp
It's been well documented that the top competitors at right tackle, redshirt freshman Beau Benzschawel and redshirt sophomore Hayden Biegel, have been out for weeks; Benzschawel won't practice again until after the season starts. Fourth-year swingman Walker Williams had been competing with presumptive starter Ray Ball at the left guard spot, but was moved to right tackle -- until he, too, was sidelined with an injury and redshirt freshman Jacob Maxwell began taking first-team snaps there.
Ball was replaced by redshirt freshman Micah Kapoi and then he (Ball) was injured; top incoming freshman Jon Dietzen was in the mix at left guard, too, until he was also hurt and missed a week.
The situation is less than ideal, even if the first opponent wasn't the Alabama Crimson Tide and the generationally spectacular defensive line it'll bring. Still, Wisconsin's offensive line talent is obvious, and the players will be developed by Joe Rudolph and Paul Chryst, two widely acclaimed coaches of o-line talent. Two very recent pieces compared the current situation to that of 1997; that season was the springboard to consecutive Rose Bowl championships in 1998 and 1999.
If you're really into optimism, the most apt comparison may well be Ohio State's o-line last season, when the Buckeyes began with four new starters, all of them as inexperienced as Wisconsin's. After they were befuddled by Virginia Tech in the Ohio State's only loss, they came together quite nicely, especially by the postseason. The players may have been rated higher as prospects, but are Rudolph and Chryst any less skilled as coaches than Ed Warriner or Tom Herman? Plus, much like the Buckeyes last year, the Badgers' schedule lightens considerably for several weeks after Alabama. The comparisons might not be on all fours, but the valid ones are at least somewhat reassuring.
Set against the offensive line's uncertainty, Tanner McEvoy's apparent seizure of the top wide receiver spot opposite Alex Erickson has been a top storyline of fall camp. The possibilities presented by his size, speed, and ability as a ball carrier are intriguing. If he is the real deal, his presence and play should mitigate the other continuing concerns at the position, namely further injuries to Rob Wheelwright (who has returned) and Reggie Love, and the inability of younger receivers -- George Rushing, Krenwick Sanders, and even Jazz Peavy -- to distinguish themselves to this point.
McEvoy won't be a legend of two-way football, but he is the first Badger in years to log significant time on both sides of the ball over his career; he will likely do so again this year. Last year, he set the program record for rushing yards by a quarterback and he played extensive minutes at safety in both 2013 and 2014. We'll always be left to wonder what could have been with him, but now that he's focused primarily on wide receiver, his final year at Wisconsin could be special.
The guy throwing passes to McEvoy this season, Joel Stave, could also finish what's been nothing less than a strange career at Wisconsin with a flourish. For the first time ever at UW, Stave did not have to win the starting quarterback job, and he was reunited with Chryst, the coach who first recruited him as a former walk-on. Chryst's work not just with previous Badger quarterbacks, but more recently at Pitt with journeymen Tino Sunseri and Tom Savage, suggests that Stave's potential -- whatever that might be beyond what we've seen -- should be realized if he stays healthy in 2015.
An essential part of the Chryst playbook, running backs Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale will be catching passes from Stave this season as well. Clement is a legitimate Doak Walker Award candidate and should be a pure joy to watch if or when the offensive line gels. Ogunbowale has apparently emerged as his top complementary back, but redshirt freshmen Taiwan Deal, if he can put it together, will provide a more physical presence and could be a key late in games. Even though their lack of experience will show, the staff looks to be comfortable with Ogunbowale and Deal taking some of the pressure off Clement -- an absolute necessity in any event, but especially with this offensive line.
Chryst -- and to a lesser-known but equal extent, Rudolph -- have built a good portion of their reputations on the use and development of tight ends. The recent injury (severity unknown) to Troy Fumagalli, a presumptive new starter, is troubling, but it promoted fifth-year senior Austin Traylor to the top line. Traylor has reportedly put in loads of time with the JUGS machine and has nearly always looked the part. If healthy, both players could have breakout years under this staff.
If the Badgers can get help from highly touted true freshman Kyle Penniston and if Eric Steffes can return to the form he was beginning to show last season before a tearing an ACL, the Badgers should be well stocked in this position group. Referring yet again to the offensive line, the tight ends will be needed more than usual (at Wisconsin and under Chryst) in run blocking and protection schemes. A healthy Derek Watt would add to the production of this group an H-back, in-line tight end or fullback. Against defenses less imposing than Alabama's -- and maybe even against it -- this group of players should be a clinic for offensive football geeks.
That the schedule lightens up after Alabama cannot be overstated. After the opener, Wisconsin does not play a stout defense until opening conference play against Iowa, who has to replace both interior defensive linemen and a middle linebacker. Nebraska will be interesting for a number of reasons, but everyone remembers what happened last season. After that, the saltiest remaining defense is Minnesota -- no other conference opponent should strike any fear into Wisconsin's offense.
This offense may not set any records, but the sky isn't falling. Be ready to be entertained -- if the Badgers can make it out of Arlington in (mostly) one piece, and if the reconstituted line can come together as the season goes on, this offense shouldn't be half bad. To be sure, there's a strong chance it can be quite good.