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How Wisconsin is reconstructing its offensive line

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Separating fact from fiction when we talk about the recent history of the Badgers’ o-line.

NCAA Football: Cotton Bowl-Wisconsin vs Western Michigan Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Touchdown, Melvin Gordon! 56 yards. 7-0, Wisconsin
Touchdown, James White! 9 yards. 21-10, Wisconsin
Touchdown, James White! 1 yard. 28-10, Wisconsin
Touchdown, Montee Ball! 16 yards. 35-10, Wisconsin
Touchdown, Montee Ball! 9 yards. 49-10, Wisconsin
Touchdown, Montee Ball! 57 yards. 56-17, Wisconsin
Touchdown, James White! 68 yards. 63-17, Wisconsin
Touchdown, James White! 10 yards. 70-24, Wisconsin

The 2012 Big Ten Championship Game. Behind the offensive line of Ricky Wagner, Ryan Groy, Travis Frederick, Kyle Costigan, and Rob Havenstein, the Wisconsin Badgers put a shellacking on the Nebraska Cornhuskers, 70-31. With five hundred thirty-nine rushing yards among the Badgers’ three future NFL backs, Wisconsin football seemed to be clicking on all cylinders. Sure, quarterback issues helped lead them to five losses, but all of that seemed trivial watching the Bret Bielema-led Badgers impose their physical will on Nebraska en route to an embarrassment on a nationally-televised stage. The Badgers were back and headed to their third straight Rose Bowl. (Ohio State and Penn State were both banned from postseason play during the days of the Legends and Leaders divisions.)

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, it all came crumbling down. Bielema announced shortly after the game that he had accepted the head coaching position at Arkansas. While “the Don” Barry Alvarez coached the team by players’ request in the Rose Bowl, he hired Utah State head coach Gary Andersen, who had nearly orchestrated an upset of the Badgers earlier in the season. While it was suspected that things would go on as usual, it was a bit of a surprise, philosophically, when Andersen was chosen. Andersen’s teams typically utilized a spread, finesse style offense.

Before we get into the Andersen era, there are three distinct areas to acknowledge that consist of various facts and fictions regarding what happened to and what changed what Wisconsin was doing on the offensive line, and how they’re being modified with a traditional “Wisconsin guy” back in charge entering year three with Paul Chryst.

Those areas? Offensive line philosophy, Andersen and recruiting/injuries, and strength and conditioning.

Preface

Here’s the part where I tell you some stuff y’all already knew.

Wisconsin was, for lack of a better alternative, a Big Red Machine throughout the 1990s and up until around 2012.

Not this Big Red Machine, but there’s a fair resemblance.

Like Kane, the Badgers came at opponents with unapologetic physicality and aggression. They were massive. An ESPN graphic once showed that on average, Wisconsin’s offensive line was taller and heavier than the average Green Bay Packers’ unit.

This obviously came about through using surroundings to advantage. Wisconsin is full of large people. Everywhere you go, you’ll see big people. So why not use that to advantage? There aren’t a ton of kids running 4.4-second 40-yard dashes, but there are a bunch of 6’5, 320-pound guys. If motivated to head in the same direction, they can be hard to get through.

Welcome to Wisconsin football.

As mentioned previously, this carried forward until around 2012. Then Bielema headed south to yell, “Woo Pig Suey,” and offensive coordinator Matt Canada and co-defensive coordinators Chris Ash and Charlie Partridge all went elsewhere.

This led to Andersen’s hiring and with him came Andy Ludwig and Dave Aranda. Aranda’s contributions are well known, I won’t bore you with that. The offense however, was going to change.

To the untrained eye, not a ton changed. Wisconsin still ran it a lot with a good running back behind that good Wisconsin offensive line, hardy har. It was pretty clear, however, that things were far from the same. While utilizing Bielema’s recruits, Andersen and Ludwig slowly but surely were adjusting the offense. Joel Stave was still at quarterback, but there were much fewer counter and 12/22 personnel power formations and more spread, three-wide receiver, 11 personnel formations. The plays looked fairly similar, but the identity was changing.

The Andersen experiment ended after two seasons, bookended by embarrassing losses in his final season. 2014 started by blowing a 24-7 halftime lead against LSU and was capped by a 59-0 ass-kicking from Ohio State’s third-string quarterback (and current NFL quarterback) Cardale Jones in the Big Ten Championship Game.

This led to Chryst coming back home to Madison, and the initial results have been very encouraging. Sitting at 21-6 over his first two seasons, the Badgers are headed back to the levels they were at during Chryst’s last seasons in Madison when the Badgers were bludgeoning opponents into submission with unrelenting rushing attacks.

Offensive Line Philosophy

As my good friend Charles McDonald (@FourVerts on Twitter) once said, “No one plays offensive line on purpose.” While I disagree, his point is a strong one. Offensive line is the least glamorous, most physically demanding position in football. So attitude and mindset is everything in the trenches.

Wisconsin had—and is regaining—an identity up front. Wisconsin Badger offensive lines featured big, nasty maulers who road-graded any opponent in front of them and when their opponent was down, they put their proverbial feet on their throats and ended it. Badger offensive linemen (sans Joe Thomas) weren’t overly athletic, their bodies didn’t always look great, but they were gigantic humans who were bullish in both strength and mentality. They were there to put a hurtin’ on the defensive line in front of them. Wisconsin thrived on this for many years.

However, when Andersen came from Utah State, he attempted to modify this. In reality, it set the unit back for longer than he’d be in Madison.

To be fair, it’s not entirely his fault. Despite what fans will tell you—Wisconsin’s offense runs itself, just use what works—coaches are creatures of habit. They go with what they know, because normally what they know has gotten them to where they are. So when Andersen came to Wisconsin, he began to shift the methodology of Wisconsin’s offense to the one which he had just had at Utah State.

The Aggies are by no means a recruiting powerhouse, so you have to get creative. Andersen’s teams were built on junior college transfers and undersized linemen on both sides of the ball. He constructed his teams’ identities around that. Being out west, Andersen was exposed to the Pac-12 style of play and that was what he was looking to turn Wisconsin’s offense into.

This is more or less an “NFL-style” identity with offensive lines that can both run block and be sound in pass protection, the one thing Wisconsin offensive lines hadn’t always excelled at.

“In my opinion, Andersen was trending towards the offensive lines you see in the Pac-12, minus Stanford and USC,” Rivals.com’s Jon McNamara said. “I think he envisioned a leaner, more athletic group—very different from the maulers Wisconsin was known for under Alvarez and Bielema.”

This was evidenced by the Badgers’ increasing use of spread formations, and while most people wouldn’t realize this, spread offenses force offensive linemen into space a lot more than Chryst’s offense does. Wisconsin o-linemen are often referred to as “phone booth” players, meaning they’re better in confined space. When linemen are more athletic, they’re better suited to being on the move and out in space. This is what Andersen and Ludwig were looking to move towards.

Chryst is moving towards reversing the damage done in this department, but it is still a work in progress.

Gary Andersen, Recruiting and Injuries

While I am the farthest thing there is from a Gary Andersen apologist, it’s ignorant to discard some of the things he did as head coach and what his intentions were.

A common theme is to blame Andersen’s recruiting for the lack of depth and talent at the position that Chryst inherited. He hated the in-state kids and recruited small linemen!

Andersen recruited differently than the previous regime at most positions, but offensive line was one where—while the philosophy may have changed—the results stayed the same.

In 2013, putting the finishing touches on Bielema’s final class at UW, Andersen kept Jackson Keeler, Matt Miller, and Hayden Biegel in Madison. Bielema leaving also cost the Badgers David Knevel, the starting right tackle for Nebraska last season.

2014 brought more of the same, as Andersen stayed in-state for four of his six offensive line recruits. Jaden Gault, George Panos, Beau Benzschawel, and Jacob Maxwell were all Wisconsin kids who stayed home. Andersen even flipped Maxwell, a Northern Illinois commit at the time, after his performance against Gault in the state championship game. Michael Deiter and Micah Kapoi were the two out-of-state options.

2015 saw more of the same, bringing in Jon Dietzen, the state’s top recruit. Andersen also brought in Kevin Estes, David Moorman, and at-the-time tight end David Edwards. Chryst finalized the class, but these four were committed prior to Andersen leaving.

As you can see, recruiting remained mostly the same for the offensive line.

“I don’t know if his recruiting philosophy was all that different, because he still took big kids from inside the state like Panos, Gault, Maxwell, etc.,” McNamara said.

Lost before Andersen even got there, the Badgers missed out on Kyle Dodson (Ohio State) and J.J. Denman (Rutgers) due to coaching turnover within Bielema’s staff. The Badgers also missed out on Keith Lumpkin, who started three full seasons at left tackle for Rutgers and had a cup of coffee on an NFL practice squad, in the 2011 class.

The much bigger theme for the Badgers—and this is not Andersen’s fault—has been pure attrition at the position.

Linemen Who Stopped Playing Under Andersen/Chryst

Class Lineman Hometown Notes
Class Lineman Hometown Notes
2011 Ray Ball Westerville, Ohio Left program prior to 2015 season
2012 Jake Meador Whiteland, Ind. Back injury
2012 Walker Williams Tacoma, Wash. Concussions, left after 2015 season
2012 Dan Voltz Barrington, Ill. Stopped playing prior to 2016 season after ACL injury
2013 Jackson Keeler Barrington, Ill. Concussions, 0 games played
2013 Matt Miller Toledo, Ohio Concussions, 0 games played
2013 Hayden Biegel Wisconsin Rapids, Wis. Concussions, Started 5 games
2014 Jaden Gault Monona, Wis. Personal issues, left after a couple months
2014 George Panos Hartland, Wis. Shoulder, other injuries

This is a substantial list, especially for a position as dependent on development as the offensive line.

Kevin Estes is probably the only recruit who actually fits Andersen’s criticisms. A highly-touted kid coming out of California, Estes didn’t participate in spring practices this spring and has been unable to maintain the amount of weight needed to play at Wisconsin. He was left off of the 105-man camp roster last fall and likely will be again if he remains with the program.

So while Andersen’s recruiting left some to be desired at times, blaming him for injuries isn’t quite the best path to head down. This was a program issue more than an Andersen issue.

Strength and Conditioning Changes

These may be the biggest overall changes that occurred, and Chryst & co. are still fixing the effects of them.

When he took the UW job, Andersen brought over Evan Simon to be his strength and conditioning coach. As mentioned earlier, Utah State does not attract blue-chip prospects to Logan, Utah. Because of this, Andersen needed Simon to make his athletes more athletic, a more attainable goal than trying to match physical strength with his opponents.

Obviously, this is not the strategy Wisconsin traditionally employs, looking to out-muscle opponents in order to negate the speed advantage the other team usually has.

“We stretched our bodies a lot more,” former UW d-lineman Warren Herring said at the 2014 Big Ten media days. “They took us to different levels, different workouts that worked on certain parts of the body that we usually don’t get, recovery was a big changeup and we did a lot more than we usually do after those tough workouts. We stressed guys getting into the playbook and watch film a lot more. We want to make sure all the young guys know everything before camp.”

Ultimately, this was where the program failed the most during Andersen’s tenure. At almost any other program in the country, this wouldn’t be considered a “failure,” simply a change in philosophy. But at a program like Wisconsin, whose identity is so entrenched and proven, this change was viewed very negatively.

“Make no mistake that Wisconsin is still trying to recover from the two years of strength training under head coach Gary Andersen, who valued speed over bulk,” Scout.com’s Benjamin Worgull said. “According to Chryst, from the time he left after the 2011 season until he returned last year, the size of the players was ‘significantly different,’ a process the Badgers are still trying to correct and rebuild.”

Consequently, the public-facing stigma around the program became Andersen only recruits small linemen when in reality, the linemen simply weren’t getting as big as in years past.

In 2016, Wisconsin’s offensive line had one starter over 320 pounds: Jon Dietzen. In 2012, Bielema’s last year at Wisconsin, three of the starters were 320 pounds or heavier: Ryan Groy, Travis Frederick, and Rob Havenstein.

State of the Unit Today

The Badgers are slowly but surely climbing back to the levels they once performed at on the offensive line.

In 2015, Chryst’s first season at the helm, the offensive line was, to be blunt, a sore spot. Tyler Marz performed admirably as the group’s lone senior and redshirt junior Dan Voltz helped hold everything together. They came up against a buzzsaw in Alabama and rushed for negative yardage against Northwestern, something rarely seen—particularly for the Cardinal and White.

There was a lot of shuffling and struggles, but in the Holiday Bowl vs. USC, Wisconsin fielded Marz, a fifth-year senior, and four redshirt freshmen. This is not a normal thing.

At Big Ten media days in Chicago last July, a couple of Chryst’s quotes seemed very telling to me. One: “It’s not as simple as putting the helmet on and, ‘Well, Wisconsin has always had great linemen and a great running game,’ it doesn’t just happen.”

Chryst also spoke about how different it was that the current members of the line have played so much so early. “Joe Thomas, one of the best Wisconsin linemen ever, didn’t even start as a freshman.”

This was Chryst dancing around saying, This group has a ways to go, and they probably had to play too early. However, that has led to this point, where heading into the 2017-18 season, the Badgers will likely be starting five guys who have previous playing and starting experience. This is huge moving forward, especially for building depth, as those who have come in following this group of mostly redshirt juniors, the Badgers are stacking up talent like cord wood behind them.

Wisconsin is headed back to playing Wisconsin football. The Badgers won a grinder of a game against LSU and, largely due to their run game, nearly defeated Ohio State in overtime in front of a raucous Camp Randall crowd.

They’re not there yet, but they will be. And when they get there, look out. The Big Red Machine is coming.

On Wisconsin.

Update, May 23: The Leaders and Legends commentary has been updated to reflect there was more than one season with those two divisions.

Update, May 31: The table has been retitled “Linemen Who Stopped Playing Under Andersen/Chryst” to more accurately reflect the various situations for each lineman. The “Notes” for Dan Voltz have also been updated.