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Wisconsin’s offensive line could be the key to deciding LSU matchup

Wisconsin’s young but battle-tested offensive line holds the keys to what figures to be a wildly interesting 2016 season.

Sports: Wisconsin Spring Game Milwaukee Journal Sentinel-USA TODAY Sports

MADISON — The 2015 season for the Wisconsin Badgers’ offensive line wasn’t up to par to the precedent set before them.

Between losing three starters in Rob Havenstein, Kyle Costigan and Dallas Lewallen and the injury bug hitting several of their replacements, depth and continuity—and, ultimately, production—suffered. Wisconsin averaged 150.3 yards per game, just 94th among FBS teams.

Seven different starting combinations of linemen set foot on the field, including a line that solidified at the end of the season utilizing four redshirt freshmen.

The development of the line has progressed, and appears to be headed back to the standard set by the units including Travis Frederick, Gabe Carimi and Joe Thomas. This year’s starting five—left tackle Ryan Ramczyk, left guard Micah Kapoi or Jon Dietzen, center Michael Deiter, right guard Beau Benzschawel and right tackle Jacob Maxwell—have now combined for 34 career starts, but for the third straight year, Wisconsin’s offensive line will have to prove itself in its season opener.

The LSU Tigers come to Lambeau Field on Saturday as the No. 5 team in the nation. This marks the third straight year the Badgers have faced an SEC powerhouse, and the second in three years they will face head coach Les Miles and the Tigers. For redshirt sophomore center Michael Deiter, who redshirted in 2014 but was close to playing during the season, preparing for a highly-regarded team is the norm.

“It’s been really exciting to get the opportunity to go out and play one of the best colleges every year,” Deiter said on Monday. “It’s exciting. You can’t really take that time to be kind of lull in your approach. You got to be prepared for game one. There’s no growing, really—if you want to win and start the season off right, you have to be prepared because you’re playing a top-tiered program right away.”

Despite losing redshirt senior Dan Voltz to retirement last week, dealing with injuries during fall camp and facing an LSU defense under the guise of former UW defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, the Wisconsin offensive line continues to coalesce. The still-young, but not necessarily inexperienced, offense line will get its chance to show its development this weekend against an FBS heavyweight.

It takes time to mold an offensive line into a cohesive unit. Snap after snap, linemen learn their calls, but they also need to adapt to those next to them and their respective playing styles. Yet, the above-mentioned injuries struck. Maxwell (left foot), Ramczyk (left ankle), Dietzen (head injury) and Benzschawel (shoulder) all fought ailments over the past three weeks.

"I like the work that they’ve been doing and the time that they’ve been putting in,” head coach Paul Chryst said on Monday. “I think it’ll continue to evolve. Even if they would have been at every practice this fall camp, I didn’t think we’d get to that point that ‘we’ve arrived.’ I do like the way that they’ve been approaching it."

"I like where they’re at with the cards that have been handed to them, but we still gotta keep going. It’s critical. It’s fun to see when everyone knows what the next guy next to them is thinking and saying, we just gotta keep working away at that."

For a young position group, continuity is key, though some of the offensive line has started to gel before this season, notably on the right side.

“It usually takes a good chunk of camp, but guys that I’ve been playing next to now for awhile like Maxwell and Deiter, we’ve kind of had that solidified for a while,” Benzschawel said. “We know how to play next to each other and what they need to help on, like if we’re combo [blocking]—giving them a little bit more pressure then come off—but I think it really takes reps. There’s not exactly a set number. It just takes time.”

Heading into game week, however, it appears all of the projected starters have worked their way back to begin preparing for LSU.

“It’s been nice this past week in just getting everyone back,” offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Joe Rudolph said on Tuesday. “Getting Ryan [Ramczyk] back, and getting Jacob [Maxwell] back and really getting Beau [Benzschawel] back to right guard and just kind of letting things settle in a little bit as the week progressed.

“I think you need that. That communication of who’s next to you is huge. I think we need to keep heightening our preparation all the way through the end of the week.”

Wisconsin’s offense will face a significant battle against a talented LSU defense that boasts Aranda as its “Mad Scientist” of a defensive coordinator to Miles’s “Mad Hatter.” Last year, UW led the nation in scoring defense (13.7 points per game), was second in total defense (268.5 yards per game) and ranked in the top 10 for rushing and pass defense as well.

Aranda’s success at Wisconsin is well documented, but the offense does have some experience facing the attacking, 3-4 scheme it encountered in each practice for the past three seasons.

“I think there will be some confidence,” Rudolph said. “They see everything—like this year in camp and last year in camp when Dave was here—you see multiple fronts, multiple pressures. Boy, the volume of that you can get lost in.

“That’s where I think this group’s grown. Their understanding’s better. It’s not being on the right guy, it’s about how you’re fitting it. It’s about your technique. It’s about seeing the bigger picture and then concentrating on the details, so I think it will help.”

Ramczyk, who earned WIAC all-conference honors playing at UW-Stevens Point before transferring to Wisconsin, will play his first Division I game against a top-five program in a stadium many in-state players like himself dream of stepping foot on. According to multiple reports, he received rave reviews from the likes of former outside linebacker Joe Schobert when he played on the scout-team offense last year, and he quickly slotted into the starting left tackle spot during spring practice.

The Stevens Point native admitted he may have some nerves for his first FBS game, but the excitement of playing in front of over 80,000 fans—about 20 of them family members coming to the game—trumps any anxiety.

“We’ve definitely hit a lot of film,” Ramczyk said on Tuesday. “We watched some of Aranda’s defense when he was here. We watched LSU’s spring game and other things. We’ve definitely hit the film hard and got after it there.”

The Tigers return eight starters on defense, including 2015 second-team All-SEC defensive tackle Davon Godchaux and third-team all-conference defensive end Lewis Neal. Wisconsin will also have to attempt to move 6’4, 356-pound JUCO transfer Travonte Valentine, who was reinstated to the program following a lengthy saga following his arrival in Baton Rouge as a five-star commit in the 2014 class.

Outside of the defensive line, first-team All-SEC linebacker Kendell Beckwith (84 tackles, 10 tackles for loss) and second-team all-conference safety Jamal Adams (67 tackles, four interceptions) could also give Wisconsin’s offense some problems.

“They’re definitely athletic guys over there,” Ramczyk said. “Obviously, we got athletic guys here, too, so it’s been good practicing against some guys here. It’ll be a challenge, but I’m excited for it. I’m ready.”

There are still some question marks for the position group, most notably at left guard. Wisconsin’s depth chart notes both redshirt sophomore Micah Kapoi and redshirt freshman Jon Dietzen as co-starters. Rudolph acknowledged on Tuesday that he wouldn’t be surprised if both played the position on Saturday.

Deiter acknowledged Dietzen is more of a bruiser between the two guards, but the former four-star recruit also missed some time during camp with the head injury. Kapoi can slide in at both left and right guard when called upon, playing in 12 games last season, and starting 10.

“I feel confident with either one of them going in, playing, stepping up,” Deiter said. “I’m confident in all of it.”

There’s also an issue of depth. Voltz’s retirement after battling several injuries the past few years depleted Wisconsin’s two-deep, which now includes Kapoi as the second-team right guard and redshirt sophomore Brett Connors as the backup at left tackle, right tackle and center. That doesn’t include the losses of other linemen in the past few seasons, including Hayden Biegel, Walker Williams (both head injuries) and offensive tackle Jaden Gault (personal).

Connors, at 6’6 and 306 pounds, has displayed a versatile skill set during fall camp. With Ramczyk injured at times, he’s slid across the line to provide stability when called upon. Rudolph said on Tuesday that he thought the New Berlin native has done a “nice job” of juggling multiple positions.

“He’s kind of special in that aspect because he can play truly any position,” said Deiter, a Rimington Trophy watch list candidate. “He’s probably best at center, but he can still go out and play tackle. Those are true really different positions. For him to be able to do that, it’s really exciting and we trust him a lot.”

As Rudolph said on Tuesday, the line will continue to prepare this week for the known and unknown. Chryst cautioned they can’t create “ghosts” in over-preparing for what is predicted to be an intriguing defense led by Wisconsin’s former coordinator. Adjustments will have to be made when needed during the game, and quickly if Wisconsin hopes to keep up and ultimately upset a top-five team in the nation.

The talent of the offensive line, along with the experience gained with last season, should help the Badgers react to the adversity they’ll see on the field this weekend. Deiter, the leader of this once rag-tag offensive line, is confident with what’s been accomplished heading into game week.

“I think we’ve laid a great foundation throughout camp, and now we’re really kind of really honing in on our LSU game plan,” Deiter said. “I’m really excited to see this team go out and play. Obviously, we need to clean up a few more things and we have time to do that this week, but I think we’re right where we need to be, and it’s going to be a lot of fun.”