MADISON — It was towards the end of the Wisconsin Badgers’ 33–24 win over the Northwestern Wildcats when redshirt freshman Cole Van Lanen found out he would see the first Big Ten action of his collegiate career.
Wisconsin was backed up deep in its own territory, up by 14 points in the fourth quarter. Onto the field came the former four-star prep standout, in place of team captain Michael Deiter at left tackle.
“I believe it was after that field goal in the fourth [quarter], my name was called and I was going in,” Van Lanen said on Tuesday. “I went on the drive when we were on the six-yard line and, yeah, he just said my name, and I was ready. Took some reps, and I was ready to go.”
Van Lanen played in that series, a three-and-out, before Deiter returned for the next drive with Wisconsin now up only 31–24 after Northwestern surged back to make it a close contest.
He would take the final snaps of the game in victory formation as the seconds ticked away to the win, but the former Bay Port High School star’s brief performance against a Big Ten West division rival earned compliments from his offensive coordinator and position coach.
“Michael had an ankle [injury] that he was kind of nursing a little bit from the BYU game, and we didn’t know if Cole was going to have to maybe go a big chunk of the game,” offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said on Tuesday. “It got later in the game right there, and I was just watching Michael. We got Cole in, and he did a good job. He did a good job when he went in as he has this whole year, so I like how he’s progressing.”
The 6’5, 307-pound Van Lanen redshirted his freshman season after a heralded prep career that included consecutive first-team all-state honors and participating in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. There, he played as a senior with some of the nation’s best high-school players.
Van Lanen admitted he has taken “big steps” since his first season in Madison, in particular becoming faster and trusting his technique.
“When you first get here it’s learning, like learning everything, and it’s a lot of technique,” Van Lanen said. “Then it comes to the point where you trust it, and I feel like I wasn’t trusting it, so i was playing a lot slower to make sure I was getting my stuff done. But now it’s more of trusting it, play fast and play physical, and that’s what I’ve been doing.”
His teammates, most notably those in the trenches with him on the offensive line, have seen the development.
“Basically since the start of camp, I’ve seen him get exponentially more physical and just so much more aggressive off the ball,” redshirt sophomore guard Jon Dietzen said. “With that, playing more confidently. I think I’ve just seen overall improvement in him.”
Redshirt sophomore right tackle David Edwards believed the week leading up to Wisconsin’s 40–6 win over BYU was when Van Lanen excelled further.
During those practices, he saw the Green Bay native playing physical and winning a lot of his one-on-one drills.
“He understands, ‘This is what I have to do, here’s how to do it,’” Edwards said on Tuesday. “‘Now I just got to cut it loose and trust myself, and I think that’s what kind of happened with BYU.’”
Against the Wildcats, Van Lanen got a taste of conference action. According to Dietzen, his initial snap with the first-team offense was a positive one.
“The first play in, he had a pretty good play. Popped somebody pretty good,” Dietzen said. “I think he did a good job, first time getting in, getting a little nervous like that. He held his own and head wasn’t swimming or anything like that, stayed pretty calm, so I think he did a good job.”
Being thrown into the fire during competitive action could jar a player, but it didn’t appear to phase the second-year tackle who has already built up relationships on the line.
“I go with the ones sometimes in practice. The chemistry’s there,” Van Lanen said. “I live with [starting center] Tyler [Biadasz], I’m with him every day. I just feel like the preparation in practice has really helped. When I go out there, I just go and play as hard as I can, and I was just really happy I could contribute in any way I could.”
Rudolph mentioned earlier this week that there’s confidence in Van Lanen to handle whatever role may come to him, saying he’s also fighting for playing time.
That role may come in relieving Deiter, who admitted after Saturday’s win that his ankle was sore. Van Lanen’s development from a year ago is apparent, and as he has progressed to become Wisconsin’s No. 2 left tackle, he knows he has to be prepared.
“That’s not what you want to think about, but injuries are real and you got to be ready,” Van Lanen said. “That’s all I’m focused on—being ready and hopefully, if for some reason, anyone needed to come out and I come in, there’s no step back and hopefully I can play at the same level as they do and contribute.”