MADISON - The biggest storyline of the Wisconsin offseason concerning the offense was that the Badgers were losing a special quarterback and getting a Heisman Trophy finalist returning to their backfield. Of course one of the most overlooked positions in college football was one of the most overlooked areas of need for Wisconsin.
The Badgers lose 60 percent of their offensive line from last year’s dominant group – an All-American right guard (Kevin Zeitler), a first-team All-Big Ten right tackle (Josh Oglesby) and a junior center likely to be a first-round NFL draft pick in April (Peter Konz).
But while the right side of the line needs to be overhauled, the Badgers appear to have answers from left tackle to center.
After flipping from right to left tackle prior to last season to compensate for the loss of NFL first-round pick Gabe Carimi, Ricky Wagner (6-6, 322) was a solid contributor to the left tackle position. Earning consensus honorable mention All-Big Ten honors for the second straight year, Wagner started all 14 games and was constantly assignment sound in protecting Russell Wilson’s blindside.
While Wagner stays at left tackle, redshirt junior Ryan Groy (6-5, 322) and Travis Frederick (6-4, 328) will take over the left guard and center positions, respectively. Groy was the line’s sixth man last year, playing in all 14 games with four starts. He made his first career start at left guard against Oregon State when Frederick was out with an injury and he started under center for the first time in his career against Illinois when Konz went down with a leg injury.
Although Groy had been taking reps at center since the previous spring, Groy struggled against the Illini and was flipped at halftime with Frederick. That move appears to have stuck, as the duo kept that lineup for the Penn State and Michigan State game while Konz recovered and have carried that over into this season.
While Groy is the unquestioned starter at left guard with his experience, Frederick is likely the unquestioned leader of the offensive line. Starting 17 of 27 games, Frederick has been on campus since January 2009, is a double major in the computer engineering field and is one of the strongest players on the team. Even with his strength, Frederick is athletic, fluid and possesses strong footwork that will allow him to be just as good, if not better, than Konz in time.
“Travis has played a lot of good football,” said UW coach Bret Bielema.”He's the guy that speaks … but he needs to take a big step in addition to Ryan Groy. Those two guys together really need to be the heartbeat.
“Ricky Wagner has played a lot of good football, but Ricky's kind of a church mouse, a real quiet kid, doesn't say a lot. So I think it's really got to fall on Ryan and Travis to take a step forward, and they definitely have done that. I've been very impressed.”
Although redshirt sophomore Rob Havenstein (6-8, 343) is the huge favorite to win the vacant starting right tackle job after playing in 13 games (one start) last season, his shoulder surgery following the Rose Bowl means he is out for the spring.
Filling in with the first team has been redshirt freshman Tyler Marz, the UW scout team offensive player of the year. Marz is still 6-7, but he has increased his weight from 280 pounds to 319, which is where he weighed in at prior to camp. That comes from Marz being able to put on some of the weight he was unable to put on his senior year recovering from an ACL surgery and simply bulking up in strength and conditioning from coach Ben Herbert’s weight program.
Between Frederick and Marz is redshirt walk-on senior Robby Burge, who played in 12 of 14 games last season on special teams. He’s unfortunately better known for his missed assignments that caused blocked punts in consecutive losses during the 2011 season, causing Bielema to have to reconfigure the personnel on the field.
Even so, Burge (6-7, 320) is a durable player – 27 career games played – and is versatile by being able to back up both guard positions. Burge has a wide-open spot ahead of him in the lineup and is competing with one of the most promising young freshmen linemen Bret Bielema has brought into the program.
The first commitment of the 2012 recruiting class, Voltz enrolled early at Wisconsin so he could get a jumpstart on his preparation. From all indications, it’s been a smart move, as the 6-4, 288-pound four-star recruit has been working at center and right guard to build depth. Voltz is undersized compared to his linemates, but has the natural talent and intelligence to join Frederick as the only two true freshmen to ever start a season opener in school history.
“From the recruiting process to where we are today, (he) has never been anything but a highlight for us,” Bielema said of Voltz. “(He) really does a nice job of whatever you say. Whatever coach (Mike) Markuson says to him, he better say it the way he wants it the first time, because that's the way you're going to get it every time after that.
“He's very detail-oriented. Probably one of the more gifted O-linemen since I've been here that I've ever seen come in and handle things so well from the get go. He's going to be a very, very good football player for us.”
In addition to Voltz, the Badgers have been utilizing redshirt walk-on freshman Jon Coon (6-7, 308) at left tackle, redshirt freshman Ray Ball (6-7, 326) at left guard, redshirt junior Casey Dehn (6-6, 334) at right guard and redshirt walk-on sophomore Riki Kodanko (6-9, 337) at right tackle with the second team.
Dehn played in five of Wisconsin’s first six games last season, but left the team after he and former offensive line coach Bob Bostad disagreed in certain areas. After Bostad left following the Rose Bowl, Dehn reached out to Wisconsin – with the help of some of UW’s current offensive linemen – and the coaching staff is giving him a chance to work back into a roster spot come the fall.
"(Dehn) is on a path that he knows he's got to stay on for him to be here," Bielema said, “and be a part of what we want to do moving forward.”
With redshirt sophomore Dallas Lewallen (6-6, 307) and redshirt junior Zac Matthias (6-5, 318) out while still recovering from injuries and the Badgers needing depth, Wisconsin moved redshirt sophomores Kyle Costigan and Joe McNamara from the defensive tackle position to the offensive line, a position both naturally played in high school.
While McNamara (6-1, 315) was brought in as a defensive tackle, Costigan (6-4, 305) was moved to defensive tackle despite the protesting of Bostad and then offensive coordinator Paul Chryst. But with Beau Allen, Ethan Hemer and Jordan Kohout all making solid strides, Costigan was moved back to the offensive line so he wouldn’t get buried on the depth chart.
“Pound for pound, he’s probably our strongest player,” Bielema said of Costigan. “Really, we just got him back to the home he thought he was going to start at.”
McNamara has been playing left and right guard while Costigan is still overcoming a stress fracture in his foot and has only done individual drills.
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