John Moffitt and Gabe Carimi were two of Wisconsin’s best players last season.
They were also two of the team’s greatest leaders.
But in a few weeks, those two offensive linemen will hear their names called in the NFL draft and the Badgers will need to find adequate replacements to step in.
The importance of Wisconsin’s offensive line can’t be overstated. That big group of five is the foundation. They pave the way for one of the nation’s top running games year after year and any offensive success starts with them.
Fortunately for UW, there is never a shortage of offensive line talent in Madison, and the competition for those starting positions will be the intriguing battle to watch all spring.
As of now, three established starters return along the offensive line.
Pete Konz and Kevin Zeitler will be back at the center and right guard positions respectively.
Ricky Wagner impressed the coaching staff with his athleticism at right tackle last season, and he’ll make the switch to left tackle to replace the position Carimi is leaving behind.
Wagner has big shoes to fill as the Badgers’ last two left tackles – Joe Thomas and Carimi – brought home the Outland trophy as the nation’s top lineman during their careers at UW, but Wagner knows his starting spot is secure.
That leaves two critical openings along Wisconsin’s vaunted offensive line – left guard and right tackle.
Let’s start with left guard.
The front-runner for the job appears to be redshirt sophomore Travis Frederick, who head coach Bret Bielema said was pound-for-pound the strongest player on his team.
Frederick became the first ever true freshman to start a game on the UW offensive line in 2009 when the Badgers needed him due to injury, but he played sparingly throughout the rest of that season and redshirted the following year.
The UW staff knows they have a good one in Frederick and everyone in the program is itching to see him get back on the field.
But while Frederick was redshirting last season, Ryan Groy was playing.
After redshirting his freshman season, Groy forced his way onto the field in 2010. The 6-foot-5, 307-pounder saw action at fullback early in the season and played along the line in jumbo packages down the stretch.
The staff has two talented and somewhat-experienced options to replace Moffitt at left guard in Groy and Frederick and there is more work to be done at right tackle.
The competition to start on the right side could go all the way until the season opener.
Many assume redshirt senior Josh Oglesby will take the reins but his health has been an issue.
Oglesby – who came to UW as the No. 1 offensive line prospect in the nation – began the 2010 season as the starting right tackle, but a knee injury forced him out of the lineup. Wagner took over and didn’t miss a beat.
Now, after offseason knee surgery, Oglesby will be limited in spring camp but should be able to participate in individual drills.
That opens the door for Casey Dehn and Rob Havenstein to step in and impress.
Dehn has the edge in experience, but Havenstein stands above all with his size – and that’s really saying something at a place like Wisconsin.
Havenstein comes in at 6-foot-8, 350-pounds.
If the Maryland native can improve his footwork and technique, Havenstein’s size and strength could be too much to overlook.
Expect Dehn and Havenstein to go at it all spring as they work to earn first team reps with Oglesby unavailable for contact drills.
Oglesby will have his hands full with those two as they progress in the spring and we’ll have to see how the former five-star prospect responds once he’s able to practice at full strength.
He better be at his best, because line coach Bob Bostad knows he has a deep position group and he will play his best five lineman – however experienced they may be.
It’s all part of what makes the O-line battles so intriguing.
Come on, this is Wisconsin football we’re talking about here.
This isn’t some kind of pansy, Mickey Mouse-spread-offense kind of team you’d find elsewhere on the college football map. This a team with a long and proud tradition of playing near to the game’s roots: the trenches.
Blocking, hitting, shoving and muscling all the way to the endzone and flexing your muscles once you get there — that is Wisconsin football.
As such, when recent departures Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt hear their names called at the NFL Draft, Badger fans and sports pundits alike should revel in the enduring success of the Wisconsin offensive line lineage.
Their departure to the NFL should be seen as a sign the program is still working. And no disrespect to Carimi, Moffit or fellow-departure Bill Nagy (who filled in admirably as a guard and center), but nobody should lose too much sleep over the Badger O-line taking too many steps back. That unit is coached well and will continue to be a rock for the University of Wisconsin’s offense.
The real intrigue of this offseason’s positioning battle lies in the defensive backs, instead.
Far away from the trenches, defensive backs have a pretty nice lineage themselves at Wisconsin, starting most memorably with NFL-great Troy Vincent in the 1980s.
But there hasn’t been too much hype in the secondary since Jack Ikegwuonu departed in 2007. Since then, UW’s last line of defense has typically been described as the defense’s weakness.
One specific word makes this unit’s offseason engaging: progress. UW’s secondary loses two starters, safety Jay Valai and Niles Brinkley, from last year, but the remaining pool of D-backs still features a healthy amount of experience and natural talent.
And why should progress be expected? Because Chris Ash, defensive backs coach and newly appointed defensive coordinator-in-chief (who earns the “chief” tag because he’s calling the plays and not Co-D.C. Charlie Partridge), is entering his second year with the Badgers.
Ash, who’s known for being an intense, in-your-face coach, achieved impressive progress with Aaron Henry last year. In one season, Ash whipped the former underachieving cornerback trying to come back from injury into to a Second-Team All-Big Ten safety.
So along with Henry, Ash continues his retooling of the defensive backs and he’s actually got plenty to work with. Returning starter Antonio Fenelus is coming back from a First-Team All-Big Ten year at cornerback.
As of right now, Devin Smith is expected to take over at the other corner spot. Smith played all 13 games last year and started all 13 games in the 2009-10 season.
He only has three interceptions and 13 pass deflections over that time, but don’t be surprised if Ash gets things clicking for him in his senior season. Ash already seems to be making progress with senior Marcus Cromartie, who has enjoyed “one of the best winter conditioning sessions of our entire team,” according to head coach Bret Bielema.
There’s quite a bit more untapped talent in the secondary for Ash to refine as well. Fleet-footed redshirt junior Shelton Johnson can run with anyone and seems to have the strong safety position already locked down, while redshirt sophomore Dezmon Southward is an interesting wild card.
Bielema expressed excitement at the prospect of watching Southward get into the fray more this year. His athleticism earned him Division I football offers, despite playing high school football only in his senior season.
Bielema said his techniques are “very, very raw,” but also mentioned Southward might be the most athletic player on the team. With some more coaching, he could become a sufficient dime or nickel back, but with big-play potential.
So clearly, the fiery Ash has plenty of experience and raw talent to mesh during this offseason. With two starters returning with conference accolades, the unit could improve to the point where defense has no weakness.
If Wisconsin can deny their opponents’ air game, well, wish them good luck in the trenches.