This past season, the University of Wisconsin football team’s streak of 10-straight seasons with a 1,000-yard rusher came to an end. Though the streak’s end can be attributed to injuries suffered by the Badgers’ top three running backs during the 2003-04 campaign, it was a tremendous disappointment for the offensive line, for whom the streak was a source of pride, accomplishment and tradition.
At its core, Wisconsin is a running team and the offensive line has a tremendous effect on the success of the running game.
This coming season, the Badgers return all five starters from last year’s offensive line. Each returning starter felt the disappointment of a sub-par rushing season in 2003-04 and all five come back this season hoping to avenge last season’s shortcomings.
“We want to get our 1,000-yard rusher back,” said junior center Donovan Raiola, who is well on his way to following his brother Dominic’s footsteps in becoming one of the best offensive lineman in college football.
With spring practice underway in preparation for the coming season, fans will get their first taste of what the Badgers will look like next season. On the offensive line, things should look very familiar.
Returning with Raiola are senior left tackle Morgan Davis, senior second-team all-Big-Ten left guard Dan Buenning, senior right guard Jonathan Clinkscale and senior right tackle Mike Lorenz.
The group that started every game last season has a combined total of 109 career starts, bringing a bevy of experience and chemistry to the unit.
“It’s great [having everyone back], I think it’s really good because we all went through the whole season together. We all know how each other play and know each other’s strengths and weaknesses,” Raiola said.
Raiola and company will look to use their experience to improve on last season’s performance.
“It’s always been a big thing for your O-Line to have chemistry,” Buenning said. “I think we had some good stuff going last year and we can build on that.”
However, each returning starter will have to earn his spot in next season’s starting lineup. Junior Jake Wood and sophomore Joe Thomas are both very talented lineman competing for playing time, and either player could push his way into the starting line-up with a solid spring.
“Everybody is fighting for their spot this spring. One thing [the coaches] have been telling us is that nobody has their spot set,” Buenning said. “We are just gonna put the best group on the field that we can.”
Whether last year’s line remains intact or a talented newcomer emerges, the Badgers will have a plethora of game experience returning on the offensive line. As a result, starting a new streak of 1,000-yard rushers looks to be a very attainable goal for UW next season.
Wisconsin should be able to both run over opponents and protect the quarterback. The latter issue may prove crucial this upcoming season as the Badger’s will have a new signal-caller under center.
At the center of the Badgers’ offensive line next season is Raiola, who will anchor the line that may dictate the success of UW’s season. Raiola earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors last season and is viewed by many as one of the best centers in the nation. He has started 14 games, becoming a fixture in the starting lineup.
Raiola may have inherited his abilities from his brother, Dominic, who played for Nebraska and was an All-American in 2000. Dominic now plays in the NFL for the Detroit Lions. Raiola often receives words of advice from his brother, which he believes help him to become a better player.
“He definitely helps me out,” Raiola said. “He lets me know when I have a bad game, or couple of plays here and there. He definitely helps me out and pushes me to be as good as I can be.”
Raiola will look to follow in his brother’s footsteps and one day be recognized as the best center in the nation.
“That’s what drives me, to get better every day,” said Raiola, while looking at the wall of plaques dedicated to Wisconsin’s many All-Americans. “It drives me in the weight room, just thinking about getting a plaque up here on the wall.”
While Raiola strives to be the best as an individual, his main aspiration is for the UW offensive line to be the best in the nation.
“As group and with [offensive line coach Jim Hueber], we’re striving to be the best line in the nation. There is a possibility there if we just show up every week and play like we know how to,” Raiola said.
Raiola believes he and his linemates have the potential to play as well as any offensive line in the country.
“Definitely,” Raiola said of the possibility that UW will have the strongest line in the nation. “I think so and I know everyone else [on the line] thinks so too.”
If Raiola’s predictions prove true, Wisconsin may have a very strong season to look forward to; maybe even one that will end in Pasadena.