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Why left tackle will be a critical position for Wisconsin’s 2018 offense

A vital spot in the starting lineup is up for grabs.

NCAA Football: Purdue at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

OK, so this is kind of cheating when it comes to identifying a key “Badger to Watch” entering the 2018 season.

Yet it’s without question that one of the biggest, if not the only, real question for Wisconsin’s 2018 offense is who is going to line up at left tackle come Friday night, Week 1, vs. Western Kentucky?

Left tackle may be the toughest position to play in the Badgers’ offense. Why is that, Owen? Well, you see, the left tackle has to block Nick Bosa and Rashan Gary all by himself. Not easy!

In all seriousness, the competition for the spot will be fierce, with multiple players having something to prove all in contention, offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Joe Rudolph said during an ESPN Madison radio show at a Mendota Gridiron Club golf event on June 27.

Let’s start with the player who fans expect to see win the job: redshirt sophomore Cole Van Lanen. A former four-star recruit and Under Armour All-American, Van Lanen came out of Bay Port High School in Green Bay with big expectations and has the opportunity to live up to them in 2018.

Van Lanen has the prototypical size of a Wisconsin offensive lineman, coming in at 6’5, 311 pounds in the spring. He was entrusted during the Big Ten Championship Game and the Orange Bowl as a blocking tight end, so clearly the coaching staff was looking to get him onto the field. His ability to run block is unquestioned, but the major question regarding Van Lanen moving forward will be his ability to pass protect. If Van Lanen can be a competent pass protector, he’ll win the job.

This brings us to the second member of this competition: redshirt sophomore Patrick Kasl. Theoretically, Kasl brings the most potential, as he’s pretty easily the most athletic of the three candidates. Kasl had the highest SPARQ rating of all offensive linemen in the Class of 2016.

The only meaningful snaps we’ve seen from the Forest Lake (Wyoming, Minn.) native was during the second half of the Orange Bowl, when he replaced David Edwards due to injury. Kasl’s athleticism lends well to his development as a pass blocker, and Wisconsin doesn’t recruit offensive linemen that can’t run block. Kasl also possesses great size at 6’5, 315 pounds. If his run blocking can match that of Van Lanen’s, his higher ceiling as a pass blocker could win him the starting job, though he’s likely just as valuable as a backup to Edwards, as he’s the only lineman on the roster who can match Edwards’s athleticism.

The third and seemingly least likely contender listed by Rudolph is redshirt junior Jon Dietzen. A starter for most of the past two years, Dietzen is the odd-man in this competition to me. A former four-star recruit, Dietzen seemed to be on the fast track to being yet another typical Badger offensive lineman. His inability to stay healthy has hampered him, however.

Dietzen, who has been named as one of the strongest players on the team, is an above-average run blocker but his lack of lateral mobility was the reason I was surprised to hear his name mentioned as a candidate at left tackle. Dietzen would be about as effective a run blocker at left tackle as Michael Deiter was, but Deiter’s athletic advantage over Dietzen makes me think that the Seymour, Wis., native may be on the outside looking in for playing time in 2017, which is odd to say about a two-year starter.

Why this is actually important

Left tackle in the Badgers’ offense until the end of the 2019–20 season is actually the right tackle, because Alex Hornibrook throws with the wrong hand. This makes more sense as to why Wisconsin was comfortable with Deiter playing “left tackle” in 2017, and why I think Van Lanen is in the driver’s seat for this spot. Also, since Paul Chryst has taken over as the head coach at Wisconsin, his left tackle has been arguably the best offensive lineman on the team. That may not continue, but big things will be expected of whoever wins the job.