There are a lot of maybes standing in front of University of Wisconsin’s football team this year as they embark on their 2014 season.
The wide receivers are looking for someone who can step up and replace Jared Abbrederis, the starting quarterback job is still being fought over and the defense is looking to replace the majority of their front seven from last season, including All-American Chris Borland.
Ready to push through these obstacles, however, are group of five players who have solidified their place as the calling card of the football program: the offensive line.
Despite battling injuries in spring practices, the Badgers’ offensive line has returned to familiar form and appears to be one of the steadiest positions on the field for the team as they head into the 2014 season.
The 2014 offensive line returns five players that started at least six games in 2013. A year ago, the same group paved the way for Melvin Gordon and James White as they broke the single-season FBS record for rushing yards by teammates with 3,053 yards. Wisconsin also ranked second in the country in yards per carry at 6.62, while also being the only team to claim two 1,000-yard rushers and a 1,000-yard receiver. UW’s 3,689 total rushing yards in 2013 set a new school record, as well.
All those numbers came behind an offensive line that had two players win All-Big Ten honors. Both All-Big Ten honorees, along with three more starters from 2013, return in 2014 and give the Badgers offensive line a total of 75 career starts coming into this season.
It will be that experience from the offensive line that could prove crucial as the Badgers fill in the pieces of the puzzle going into the 2014 season.
Left Tackle – Tyler Marz
Marz returns at left tackle for the Badgers in 2014 after starting all 13 games in 2013. A redshirt junior, Marz was named preseason first-team All-Big Ten for the 2014 season after earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors last season.
Marz, who was named UW’s Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year in 2011, will once again be trusted to protect the quarterback’s blindside in 2014, while clearing the way for Gordon and Corey Clement in the backfield. He and Rob Havenstein, the right tackle, started all 13 games for UW last season.
As Marz heads into the season at left tackle, he said he’s hoping to improve on his protection of the quarterback – whether it be Tanner McEvoy or Joel Stave.
“Improving [pass protection] in general is a big one for me personally,” Marz said. “Especially last year we had some breakdowns and some struggles, including myself. So improving my pass protection is a big goal for me.”
Left Guard – Dallas Lewallen
Left guard is the lone position that lost its starter from 2013, as Ryan Groy graduated and went to the Chicago Bears this spring. Lewallen, a 6-foot-6 fifth-year senior, will step in at left guard for the Badgers in 2014. Despite not playing left guard last season, Lewallen still started seven games at center. His first career start came in Wisconsin’s opener against Massachusetts in August 2013. However, the Berlin, Wisconsin, native suffered a knee injury in week seven and missed the final six games of the 2013 season.
Lewallen missed spring practices, as well, after undergoing knee surgery in the winter, but he’s ready to step in at the left guard spot in 2014. He accredits the guys around him as a big reason why the switch to left guard has gone well.
“It’s been going really well,” Lewallen said. “I’ve got a nice left tackle in Tyler [Marz], and Dan [Voltz] is a good center that makes the right calls for me, so it has been a smooth transition.”
Center – Dan Voltz
Voltz, a promising sophomore, takes over as the season’s starter at center. After starting the final six games at center for the injured Lewallen in 2013, Voltz played well enough for the Badgers’ coaching staff to permanently keep him at center and move Lewallen to guard for 2014. As a redshirt freshman last season, Voltz’s play in only six starts was enough for him to be named first-team All-Freshman in the Big Ten.
Expectations continue to rise for Voltz in 2014. In May, the Barrington, Illinois, native was selected for the Rimington Trophy watch list. The annual award for the nation’s top center, named 64 players to the watch list, with only five of those picks, including Voltz, coming as sophomores. Voltz was also part of the preseason All-Big Ten team.
But as the auspicious center heads into his sophomore campaign, Voltz is looking to be more consistent, which could bode well for the offensive line in 2014.
“I think I had a lot of ups and downs last year, some good games and some bad games, so I’m just trying to play well every game,” Voltz said. “And every practice as well, which hopefully carries over to the games.”
Right Guard – Kyle Costigan
A fifth-year senior, Costigan comes into 2014 as the starter at right guard after starting the final 12 games of last season at the position. Costigan, who came into the program as a defensive lineman, switched over to the offensive line in the spring of 2012 after suffering a season-ending injury in 2011.
In 2012, Costigan jumped right into his new position, playing in 12 games with nine starts. He even started the Badgers’ Rose Bowl game against Stanford on New Year’s Day at the end of the season.
It should not come as a huge surprise that Costigan found success right away on the offensive line in 2012, as he was the winner of UW’s Badger Power Award.
Coming into the 2014 season, Costigan was selected to the preseason All-Big Ten first team, bringing even more experience to the offensive line. For Costigan, who has missed his fair share of time due to injury throughout his Badger career, staying healthy is his, and one of the offensive line’s, biggest goals for 2014.
“I just want to stay healthy and play up to my potential,” Costigan said. “For the line as a whole, it’s just playing up to our potential. We have three guys that have had a lot of injuries but a lot of experience as well. If we make sure all five of us stay healthy all year, the sky’s the limit if we do that.”
Right Tackle – Rob Havenstein
Havenstein is the Badgers’ most experienced offensive lineman, starting the last 27 games at right tackle while playing in 40 games throughout his UW career. Those 40 games from Havenstein are the most among active Wisconsin players coming into the 2014 season. In 2013, the Mount Airy, Maryland, native was a second-team All-Big Ten selection by the coaches while also being voted as an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection by the media.
Heading into 2014, Havenstein’s preseason awards list is about as lengthy as the tackle’s 6-foot-8 frame. Havenstein was named to the Lombardi Award watch list, which is awarded annually to the nation’s top offensive or defensive lineman. He was also added to the Outland Trophy watch list, an annual award for college football’s top interior lineman. Furthermore, Havenstein was selected to the preseason All-American fourth-team, as well as first-team All-Big Ten heading into the 2014 season.
Over Havenstein’s last 27 starts, he has blocked for three 1,000-yard rushers in Montee Ball, James White and Melvin Gordon. In 2014, Havenstein and the rest of the experienced offensive line are hoping to give Gordon another 1,000-yard season while also paving the way for Clement.
“Having some guys back is a plus, obviously,” Havenstein said. “Getting through fall camp and all of us staying reasonably healthy, except for a couple nicks-and-nacks. But it is good to have the guys back, having played around the guys for a while. It won’t be the same starting five [from last season], but we had a good fall camp.”