MADISON, Wis. - The Wisconsin Badgers filled several major needs with their 2014 recruiting class, where they signed 25 scholarship players and announced five preferred walk-ons. The vast majority of them will join the team over the summer to start their conditioning program, but it would be hard for any position group to make Gary Andersen and his staff sigh with relief the way their six offensive line signees will when they get on campus.
Offensive line depth has been a problem for the Badgers ever since Andersen took over as head coach last winter. At the time the Badgers were dangerously thin up front for a team that relies so much on having big, bruising linemen to pave the way for their rushing attack. Andersen said early on in his tenure that he'd like to have about 15 scholarship offensive linemen on campus at all times, but the Badgers had just 12 at the start of spring practice- and not all of them were completely healthy.
But the Badgers signed six scholarship offensive linemen in their 2014 class, including several in-state standouts, so Andersen and the coaches can breathe a little easier. Jaden Gault, George Panos, Beau Benzschawel, Jacob Maxwell, Micah Kapoi and Michael Deiter all faxed their letters of intent in on Wednesday morning, making them an official part of the team and getting Andersen close to a number he feels a little more comfortable with.
"[We were] able to get those young men in here," Andersen said. "It's a good number. The goal is to get that to 16 scholarship players. We made good progress in that area, some tremendous young men there."
The Badgers were fortunate to fill their need up front, too, because they lost two young players to career-ending injuries. Jackson Keeler and Matt Miller both signed with the Badgers last year, but head injuries have reportedly cut their careers short before they could even see the field for the Badgers.
Keeler and Miller's departures mean that the Badgers will still be a little thin on the line during spring practices, which start in early March. They'll still be at 10 offensive linemen thanks to Gault and Deiter deciding to enroll early, and Andersen said both players would likely see a lot of reps during the spring as a result.
"Jaden will be in the mix," Andersen said. "Michael may be the starting center with the injuries at this point to Dan (Voltz) and to Dallas (Lewallen). So that is a tremendous opportunity for a young freshman at the center spot. Very challenging, but a great opportunity."
According to Andersen, Voltz and Lewallen could have played through their injuries this spring, but the team decided it wasn't worth the risk. Andersen also said Gault, Deiter and Panos are all physically ready to compete for reps, while Kapoi, Maxwell and Benzschawel all need time to put on some extra weight before they could crack the rotation.
Gault, Benzschawel and Maxwell are all expected to start their careers for the Badgers as offensive tackles, while Panos, Kapoi and Deiter will play on the inside of the line at center or guard. And while the Badgers aren't expecting any of them to start once the 2014 season starts at the end of August, knowing that help is on the way is enough for Andersen and offensive line coach T.J. Woods for the time being.
But with three scholarship linemen set to graduate after the 2014 season, the Badgers will have their work cut out for them again on the recruiting trail if they want to finally reach Andersen's magic number of 16 scholarship linemen.
John Veldhuis covers Wisconsin football, basketball and recruiting for BadgerBlitz.com on the Rivals.com network. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnVeldhuis.