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March 5, 2013

Spring preview: Offensive line





We've made our way through the offensive skill positions so far in the run up to spring camp, so it's time to talk about the offensive line. Much of Wisconsin's reputation was staked on excellent offensive line play last season, so it was a surprise when the Badgers rushed for just 2.9 yards per carry through their first two games against FCS Northern Iowa and Oregon State.

The Badgers also scored just one rushing touchdown during those two games, and former head coach Bret Bielema pulled the trigger and removed offseason hire Mike Markuson from his job as offensive line coach. The Badgers then promoted Bart Miller as the interim position coach, and by the fourth week of the season the Badgers had more or less found their stride.

The Badgers averaged 5.49 yards per carry after Miller's promotion, to go with 37 rushing touchdowns. There were hiccups against the likes of Michigan State and Nebraska, but for the most part the Badgers didn't have to worry about their running game for the rest of the season.

That in itself makes this an interesting spring for the offensive line. They have open positions to fill, and will be working with their third position coach in the last year. The Badgers have a talented stable of running backs, but we found out last year it's hard for them to get going when the offensive line isn't playing well. Only time will tell if the Badgers can keep their ground game rolling.

Who will fill out the No. 1 unit?

The Badgers lost center Travis Frederick and left tackle Ricky Wagner to the NFL during the offseason, so finding players who can fill their big shoes will be a top priority for new offensive line coach T.J. Woods. The Badgers are actually a little understaffed on the offensive line right now, too. Head coach Gary Andersen said he prefers to have 15 scholarship offensive linemen on his roster, and during the spring the badgers will have just 12.

Of those 12 Ryan Groy, Kyle Costigan, and Rob Havenstein should all return to their starting roles next season. They might just be playing at a different position. Havenstein could switch to left tackle, but at 6-foot-8 he's almost too big for the blind side.

Groy is an interesting case, because he played left guard for almost all of last season. But he filled in more than adequately for Wagner at left tackle when the senior missed time during the Big Ten season. Groy is also one of the more athletic linemen, and a move to left tackle could work out very well for him. In that scenario, it's possible Costigan would move to left guard, but he played so well on the right side last year the coaching staff might be hesitant to move him.

Other than that, Dan Voltz looks like Frederick's likely heir apparent at center. Voltz redshirted last season but got all of the No. 2 reps at center. He had some snap issues last year, so spring camp will be a good time to see if he has hammered those out.

That leaves one spot open at one of the guard slots. Zac Matthias started at guard four times for the Badgers last year, so he's probably the top candidate to fill the opening. However, don't sleep on Ray Ball or Dallas Lewallen. Tyler Marz could also compete with Groy for the left tackle spot.

How will Woods and the players work together?

It might not be a very big question, but it's one the Badgers will have to answer eventually. Markuson's shadow still hovers over this position a bit, and it'll be important to see exactly what kind of playing style the Badgers will use on the line in 2013. Markuson taught a different style than the Badgers were used to under Bob Bostad, and it backfired big time and ultimately cost him his job.

The current roster is built for a power-run team, with guards pulling away from the line of scrimmage and blocking for their running backs up field. Woods has said he won't be tinkering much with what made the Badgers successful recently, but Markuson said the same kind of thing. How well Woods and the linemen take to each other in their first camp together could determine if the Badgers hit the ground running next fall or if their offense starts out stuck in neutral.

For more Wisconsin Badgers news, notes and discussion, follow John on Twitter.


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