At a program renowned for the pure mass of its offensive linemen who often manhandled opponents, more impressive skills such as versatility are often overlooked.
Standing as a testament of each player’s deep understanding of the different techniques and responsibilities of each position, the ability to line up at several spots along the offensive line was a trademark of now departed O-line coach Bob Bostad’s system.
Redshirt junior Travis Frederick, the centerpiece of this year’s line, started 11 games at left guard and two more at center while filling in for All-American Peter Konz last season. Ryan Groy, another returning trenchman who saw serious playing time last year, shared the spot with Frederick’s place at left guard and also lined up at center.
And though the offensive line’s basic scheme and approach will remain nearly identical under new position coach Mike Markuson, this constant rotation of players at different spots likely will not be as commonplace under Markuson.
“I think it’s going to be a little bit less [position changes] than you’ve seen in the past,” Frederick said. “The new coach wants to keep it focused on one position, and get you moving in there.”
As the offensive line looks to fill the voids of three starters in Konz, Kevin Zeitler and former right tackle Josh Oglesby, the Badgers are experimenting with different players at several spots on the line. And though the spring may be a kind of musical chairs among offensive linemen, by August Markuson hopes to have a fairly stable list of his starters for next season’s opener.
Frederick has all but locked up the spot at center — a position his new coach believes suits the Sharon, Wis., native’s intelligence for the game — and though not set in stone, Ryan Groy and Ricky Wagner look like the probable starters at left guard and left tackle, respectively. But along the right side, where Zeitler and Oglesby played last year, the competition is much more open.
“Obviously there’s some depth issues there, but you just got to fight through that, try to get guys in the right position where they can feel comfortable helping the team,” Markuson said. “So that’s why we’re moving around some, experimenting.”
Wagner, who started all 14 games for Wisconsin last season at left tackle, mentioned that his preferred spot is at right guard.
While players say they valued the increased versatility of playing two or three different spots in the same year, many seem to appreciate the fact that they can focus their work on a single position. Rob Havenstein, Oglesby’s backup, explained the extra preparation required when there was the potential of being thrown into a different spot.
“For me last year, I was the backup tackle, so I watched a lot of tackle,” Havenstein said. “But I also knew I could be thrown in there at guard, so watch some film at guard, get your mind right, and then just have technique sound in practice.”
But in a system that has become a breeding ground for NFL-caliber offense lineman, filling in vacated spots has become little more than an annual routine. Havenstein — an early frontrunner for the starting spot at right tackle currently nursing a shoulder injury — noted that he always emulated his predecessors in Oglesby and current tackle Gabe Carimi, now with the Chicago Bears.
This cycle of younger linemen picking up tips and improving their technique by learning from their accomplished predecessors is something Frederick sees as a strength of the program.
“That’s something our offensive line has always been really good at,” Frederick said. “Just having a chance to step up and taking advantage of that, guys that are just stepping up and taking their play to the next level.
“Our group does a good job of fostering that development and moving forward with that.”
Despite all the change taking place around UW’s offensive line, Frederick is pleased with the chemistry he has seen from the newest collection of burly run-blockers.
Among that group there is perhaps no spot more wide open than right guard, the former home of Zeitler. Casey Dehn looks to have a good shot at landing the starting job. However, fifth-year senior Robert Burge, a player who has spent a majority of his career as a special teams player, is also competing for the spot.
This major transition for players comes during an off-season stretch where the Badgers lost their offensive line coach and their offensive coordinator, the two coaches that work most closely with this tight-knit group. But Frederick found a silver lining in all this turnover: The experimentation with different players that comes with a fresh face at the helm has drawn familiarized more players with each other, preparing them for the inevitable moment when someone goes down with an injury.
And at Wisconsin, regardless of how the approach to the game changes under Markuson, the standards offensive linemen hold themselves to remain a bastion of stability.
“I don’t think we’ll be much different, just replacing a couple All-Americans, but every year we kind of fill of those positions,” Wagner said. “Just kind of different techniques, a couple different plays here and there.”