Deep, Competitive Offensive Line Group Gives Wisconsin Options
MADISON, Wis. – Joe Rudolph has seen a lot of different incarnations of Wisconsin’s offensive line since becoming its position coach in 2015, groups that were short on depth, short on experience or - in some cases - a combination of the two.
But when breaking down the group of 17 players at his disposal this spring, the talent in the room stands out.
“In one word, competitive,” Rudolph said Wednesday. “This is about as competitive a group for jobs as we’ve had.”
The Badgers enter 2021 returning four starters from the Duke’s Mayo Bowl, but the depth the coaching staff has created by hitting it big on the recruiting trail over the past several cycles has allowed for plenty of position flexibility and different combinations to be utilized over 15 spring practices.
Example, senior Tyler Beach started six games at right tackle last season but is working at left tackle with sophomore Logan Brown. Beach didn’t take any reps on the left side in last year’s pandemic-shortened season but practiced at both spots in 2019, allowing him to transition to the other side with few side effects.
“Personally, the biggest thing I learned (from playing right tackle) was getting the pace of the game,” Beach said. “It was my first time playing, starting multiple games in a row, so just getting a feel for the conditioning that was required for that. With the consistency part, I feel like I’ve learned to be more consistent.”
Senior Josh Seltzner is working at left guard and being backed up by junior Cormac Sampson, who was Wisconsin’s No.2 center last season. Seltzner started three games at the spot last season, including the final two games.
“They have been battling for position,” Rudolph said of left guard. “Both have been doing pretty well so far this spring.”
The move of Sampson to guard was helped in part by senior Kayden Lyles being fully recovered from a MCL tear/tibia break against Indiana and sophomore Tanor Bortolini stepping into the position the final two games of the regular season.
“I definitely feel like with the time that I’ve had to fully recover, I feel like I am at 100 percent right now,” Lyles said. “No doubt that I’m progressing.”
Although senior Logan Bruss is the defacto leader of the position considering his age and experience (32 games/25 starters), Bruss is working at right tackle this spring ahead of redshirt freshman Trey Wedig, a move that allows redshirt freshman Jack Nelson and junior Michael Furtney to work at right guard. Nelson and Wedig - both in-state prospects – were UW’s two highest-ranked prospects from the 2020 recruiting class that Rivals ranked 28th in the country.
“Jack, there’s a physicality, an explosiveness, a let-it-loose mentality that is infectious, and I think that is what really is pushing him into the opportunity,” Rudolph said. “His athleticism shows up because he’s going a million miles an hour. There’s definitely some things from a standpoint of technique, fundamentals that he needs to clean up to be consistent.
“Trey Wedig, there’s a ton of things that show up on tape that he does naturally. For such a big person, the way he steps off the ball, the way that he sets, just some things that he makes looks are surprising. The thing he needs to do is let it loose a little bit more, and I think that will be the area he needs to show in these last 11 practices.”
Rudolph added that the third group includes true freshman Riley Mahlman working at the tackle spots, redshirt freshman Ben Barten working at guard, redshirt freshman Dylan Barrett has been at guard and center and senior Blake Smithback working at the No.3 center.
Brown – one of the more decorated high school offensive linemen to commit to Wisconsin – is slowly developing. He was sidelined his redshirt season with shoulder and bicep injuries and missed valuable time last spring when practices were canceled due to COVID. Brown managed to play in three games last season and got extended reps in the bowl game.
“There are some things that you’re like, ‘Wow, Holy Crap,’ and then there’s some inconsistency of play you just can’t afford to have,” Rudolph said.
The depth being cultivated now should pay dividends in the fall considering Wisconsin’s line looks to be the strength of the offensive unit, bolstered further by having position flexibility and leadership. Those who spoke to the media pointed to the soft-spoken Bruss becoming the vocal leader of the group.
Rudolph called him the group’s more consistent performance who has a “cut-it-loose, difference-maker type of ability” while Beach said it was Bruss’s goal to make sure the group was more connected off the field after COVID prevented that bonding a year ago.
“When he wants his voice heard and he speaks, he’s going to speak,” Beach said. “I think that’s where his leadership comes in.”
Bruss chuckled when asked about his new peppy attitude, but said it comes with the job of being a veteran of a group that has the potential to be really good in the fall.
“You get to your senior year, you feel a responsibility that it’s your time to take over the reins,” Bruss said. “I think we have a good group of senior guys and a lot of guys with a lot of experience. Just being able to lead with those guys together, I think we have a real good thing going now, and I’m excited to see where it goes.”