The play of the offensive line this season, likely more than the play of the quarterbacks, will dictate how effective the Wisconsin Badgers' offense is in 2016. In a program built on physicality and large people pushing other large people out of the way for running backs, offensive line play is paramount to the success of Wisconsin.
This year's group should be much improved from a year ago, a welcomed sentiment after the most lackluster rushing attack Wisconsin has produced since 1995. A season after Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement set the NCAA record for rushing yards between two teammates in a season -- which was after a season where James White and Melvin Gordon set the NCAA record for rushing yards between two teammates in a season -- it was a baffling sight to see the Badgers struggle to run the ball so mightily at times. This wasn't due to a lack of talent at running back, it was a result of the offensive line struggling to gel after heavy losses at the position.
After realistically being a position of weakness a season ago, the unit should be the most consistent on the offensive side of the ball in 2016. The big guys up front run about seven or eight deep, which is a very good problem to have.
Returning from 2015:
LG Dan Voltz (Played center for seven games in 2015)
C Michael Deiter (Started at left guard for seven games, six at center)
RG Beau Benzschawel (Played right tackle for six games in 2015, final two at right guard)
RT Jake Maxwell (Started three games at right tackle)
OG Micah Kapoi (Started last six of seven games at left guard, and four games at right guard)
LT Ryan Ramczyk (Sat out 2015 after transferring from UW-Stevens Point)
LG Jon Dietzen (redshirt)
C George Panos
OL Brett Connors
OL David Moorman
OT Kevin Estes
OG Logan Schmidt
OL Ian Dretzka
OL Jason Erdmann
OL Ben Hemer
Tyler Marz (graduation), Walker Williams (head injuries)
Additions to position:
Cole Van Lanen (Green Bay, Wis.)
Patrick Kasl (Forest Lake, Minn.)
Tyler Biadzsz (Amhert, Wis., could play defensive line also)
Likely starting lineup:
LT Ryan Ramczyk, LG Dan Voltz, C Michael Deiter, RG Beau Benzschawel, RT Jake Maxwell
When asked at the NFL Scouting Combine who the toughest lineman he had faced last season was, Joe Schobert answered with Ryan Ramczyk, the Badgers' offensive scout team's left tackle. While this isn't common, it speaks glowingly of the Stevens Point native, who Schobert named over departed senior Tyler Marz, now on the Tennessee Titans, Alabama left tackle Cam Robinson, a likely top draft pick in 2017, and Alex Lewis, a fifth round pick of the Ravens from Nebraska. Ramczyk is making a big jump in competition, but has received rave reviews from the coaching staff.
Easily one the of the oddest position changes in college football this season, is Dan Voltz, who was an NFL prospect as a center, voluntarily appears to be moving to left guard to leave Michael Deiter at the pivot -- after Voltz was so impressed with the redshirt freshman's play over the last five games and throughout spring ball. Voltz, coming off of an ACL injury suffered during the Illinois game, was a four-star guard prospect in high school, however, and he'll likely remain rock solid. Deiter is already on the Rimington award watch list, given to the top center in college football. This is an impressive honor to give to someone who's only played five games at the position, even if it's just a preseason watch list.
Beau Benzschawel and Jake Maxwell will look to carry forward the success that they had as a duo on the right side in the last two games of the season. While it may have seemed like just another starting lineup in a season full of experimenting on the offensive line, this move flew under the radar but was as important as any. Benzschawel was solid at right tackle, and if he was athletic enough to hang against pass rushers on the outside, moving him inside, while not sacrificing size, or run blocking ability, is invaluable to this offensive line in springing long runs by getting interior blockers on second level defenders. Jake Maxwell will round out the starting lineup, but that doesn't make him least in any sense. He's extremely solid, and showed impressive continuity with Benzschawel at the end of the season.
Expect the offensive line to be a calming presence during the season opener in Lambeau against LSU. They'll be ready for former defensive coordinator Dave Aranda's exotic schemes. After a disappointing season running the ball by Wisconsin standards, the consistency should return to the trenches on Saturdays in Madison.