The Wisconsin Badgers football team has a storied tradition of churning out talented offensive lineman dating back to Mike Webster in the 1970s, Paul Gruber in the 1980s, Joe Panos and Chris McIntosh (as well as many others) in the 1990s, oh and that Joe Thomas guy wasn’t too shabby either in the 2000s.
In fact, last year nine former Wisconsin offensive lineman were rostered in the NFL, with two recent alumni (Jon Dietzen and Cole Van Lanen) hoping to join them with the Packers as of this off-season.
With a high amount of success along the line, NFL teams have taken notice and so have recruiting services. For example, during the past three completed recruiting cycles (2019-2021), the Badgers have landed at least two four-star linemen in each class, including three in the upcoming 2021 group that will all be on campus this summer.
While that trend is noteworthy, it doesn’t take away from the fact that in general Wisconsin is known for developing their offensive linemen. For example, if you look back at the mid-2000s, some of the Badgers best offensive linemen weren’t seeing the field until after their first few years on campus because of the glut of talent standing in front of them.
However, there has always been rare instances where a talented prospect lands a starting spot early in their career along the line. Most frequently those players make a big jump following their first year on campus, and go on to have wildly successful careers. Here is just a handful of recent examples:
- Joe Thomas (2004) —> Starts at left tackle as a sophomore after playing sparingly as a blocking tight end as a freshman. He was drafted No. 3 overall in 2007, and is a sure-fire Hall of Famer.
- Gabe Carimi (2007) —> Starts at left tackle as a redshirt freshman, and goes on to win the Outland Trophy as a senior before being selected in the first-round of the 2011 draft.
- Peter Konz (2009) —> Starts at center as a redshirt freshman, and goes on to become a freshman All-American. He was later selected by the Falcons in the second round in 2012.
- Michael Dieter (2015) —> Starts at left guard and center as a redshirt freshman, before playing all over the line with the Badgers. He was drafted by the Dolphins in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft.
- David Edwards (2016) —> Started seven games at right tackle as a redshirt freshman, and wound go on to start 31 games for Wisconsin. He was picked in the fifth round by the Rams, as has been a multi-year starter with them since.
- Tyler Biadasz (2017) —> Starts at center as a redshirt freshman, and was a three-year starter for the Badgers. He is now the starting center for the Dallas Cowboys after being drafted in the fifth round of the 2020 draft.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, for example both Jon Dietzen and Beau Benzschawel started games as redshirt freshman along the line and had great careers with the Badgers. However, for the sake of brevity it is pretty apparent that starting early can be a strong indication for future success. This is no different for other positions as well, however given all of the finer technicalities involved with offensive line play, it is oftentimes harder to crack into the rotation at a young age.
That circles us back to this past spring, where redshirt freshman Jack Nelson received the bulk of first-team reps at right guard.
The choice by Joe Rudolph to plug the redshirt freshman into the starting rotation didn’t just happen due to a lack of able bodies around him. No, the former five-star recruit that wowed folks at the Army All-American Game, made tremendous strides in the weight room and with the playbook that made his inclusion in the starting five necessary. He has high upside athletic traits that when paired with his size don’t normally just happen.
Last season he was listed in the two-deep at right tackle as a true freshman, a feat rarely seen at Wisconsin on the offensive line. Now that he has had a full year to add weight, strength, and obtain a greater understanding of the playbook, he could be the next in a long line of second year starters that become a valuable contributor for the Badgers. He could even be the top of high round draft pick that some of his predecessors were.
Time will tell for Nelson, as he hasn’t started a game, however the proper trajectory is there. Especially when you add in the lofty expectations he had exiting high school and the athletic ability he has.
Fans should be excited about the young lineman could become, and what it could mean for the overall complexion of the offensive line.