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MADISON - The sight was probably as comical as one would find on a Madison-area golf course nearing the end of summer.
The vision of grown men, all over 300 pounds, wedging themselves into golf carts and driving every which way to find their golf ball was a reality just before Wisconsin football started fall camp, but senior Ryan Groy figured a little lineman bonding was in order … even if the course record wasn’t in jeopardy of being broken.
“Probably a six-way tie for the worst golfer,” said junior Kyle Costigan. “Me, Walker Williams, Jake Keeler were all terrible.”
“I play “whack-dang it” golf,” added junior Rob Havenstein. “I walk up, whack it, yell dang it after it goes five yards and hit it again. I play for that one shot you hit really good.”
Bonding among position groups isn’t uncommon in sports but it certainly was needed by the Wisconsin linemen. Considering all the turmoil they were put through last season, a group that was already close continues to grow closer with each team-building opportunity.
“I don’t know how many other places do that,” said Costigan of the golf outing. “Whether you are a golfer or not, it wasn’t about that. It was about showing up, being around each other and cracking jokes on each other. It was pretty special.”
Change was a given when offensive line coach Bob Bostad told his players that he would be leaving following the 2011 season to join Paul Chryst’s Pittsburgh Panthers staff. After being involved with the program for six seasons and coaching the offensive line for the last four, members of the line said they were bracing for a different approach.
What they weren’t prepared for was a major technique overhaul by Mike Markuson, who spent 12 seasons coaching under Houston Nutt in the SEC. Markuson’s teachings, rooted deeply in spread offenses, weren’t a hit with Wisconsin’s pro-style attack. Members of the offensive line put on a happy face and said it was a process, but the reality was the group was taking steps backward.
“It was bad,” said one offensive lineman. “Really bad.”
Wisconsin won its season opener last season, 26-21, over FCS opponent Northern Iowa, but the run game was sluggish with the veteran line unable to fully execute the new game plan. The issue became worse a weak later after a 10-7 loss at Oregon State that caused then-head coach Bret Bielema to make a change; finally recognizing UW’s line was suffering in execution because of the new technique.
Markuson was dismissed and graduate assistant Bart Miller – a disciple of Bostad – was promoted to offensive line coach. It was around this time the group decided that no matter what happened they needed to play for one another.
“We went through so much stuff – a coach leaving and us struggling – that we had to band together,” said Havenstein. “We all rallied around each other and the leaders of the group.”
UW was better under Miller (averaging 247.5 rushing yards and eclipsing the 450-yard barrier three times), but the line still wasn’t consistent against premier fronts like Michigan State, Ohio State and Stanford. When new coach Gary Andersen replaced Bielema, Andersen brought in his offensive line coach from Utah State, T.J. Woods, instead of retain Miller, who had become a favorite among the linemen.
But unlike the last offseason hire, the upperclassmen felt good about Woods’ philosophies. Not only did Miller give Woods a good recommendation, he told the returning linemen that a lot of the same things the group learned from Bostad were going to stay the same.
“With a head coaching change, you are going to have a lot of the personnel change,” said Havenstein. “Coach Woods came in and we were ready to buy into the system of what he wanted. We were all excited to get on track. There is a lot of mutual respect between the older guys and the younger guys.”
Groy was one of the first linemen to find that out. After Woods got settled, Groy brought some of the old Wisconsin playbooks and sat down with Woods for hours to come up with a game plan.
“We talked about what we did in the past, what he has as far as calls, technique wise,” said Groy. “We figured it out. It made me happy knowing we were going to go back to the original stuff.”
Woods has been described as a “technician,” a coach who focuses more on fine tuning the little aspects of the position rather than overhauling the basic concepts. Initially focusing on technique, physicality and assignments, Woods quickly transitioned into executing the offense and being consistent every play, something that was missing last season.
“The offensive line doesn’t come down to hidden secrets,” said Havenstein. “Everyone knows you need to get your first two steps in the ground, play with low pad level and with your hands inside. I think last year guys got away from it.
“Everything Woods coaches is very similar to what Bostad did,” added Costigan.
Because of the similarities, Wisconsin has been able to cope with fleeting numbers. With season-ending injuries, early departures to the NFL and bumps and bruises, Wisconsin’s once vast depth at the line shrank to as little as 10 scholarship linemen during fall camp.
No problem for Woods, who was able to put different guys in different positions along the line to build depth, chemistry and a back-up plan should something arise during the season. It’s a process that wouldn’t have gone over well last year, but has been embraced by a group who has worked smoothly together since the spring.
“It takes 11 guys,” said Woods. “One guy screws it up for everybody. That’s the way offense is played. Being able to execute every single play, every single drive and do their job is really the focus. We’ve had a lot of time now together and it’s been good. They are a hardworking group, they love the game of football and they want to get better. These guys are close. They understand the importance of chemistry, importance of relying on each other and being able to work together.”
“Last year we had to fight to get to where we needed to be,” added Groy. “I think we came in, worked really hard this summer by ourselves and go to where we expected to be at the beginning of camp where we knew everything going into it instead of having to learn it. We did the extra work to become better.”
The 2010 offensive line was comprised of three senior leaders - John Moffitt, Gabe Carimi and Bill Nagy –who were all good friends who brought their own type of energy to the group. Two years ago Kevin Zeitler and Peter Konz were the voices in that meeting room, while Travis Frederick was the vocal leader and Ricky Wagner was the on-the-field leader last year.
Combined with his experience, versatility and age, Groy knew it was his turn to lead a group that was small in numbers, but close in friendship. It’s one of the main reasons Groy organized many lineman-only activated to cultivate the friendship.
“It’s something where you can really involve the incoming freshmen and get everyone to know the group,” said Groy, who also invited the linemen over to his house for a big summer cookout. “It’s important to get the camaraderie going.”
Groy got the idea for the first annual offensive line golf outing when playing with Havenstein during their summer free time. At the end of the summer, Groy and his linemates went to Sun Prairie, separating the groups to have a mixture of older guys and newcomers to the program.
“That was really helpful, bringing the whole offensive line together and have a day together,” said Costigan. “He did a great job keeping everyone together and we have a tight-knit group on the offensive line.”
It’s not only a group that works hard together, but has no problem razzing one another. Costigan complained that Groy – far and away the best golfer of the unit – put together the outing so he can show off his dominance to the other. Havenstein complained that since Groy’s team won the scramble event by two shots that it was fixed.
When asked if he put together the golf outing as a chance to blatantly show off, Groy demurred, citing that he put four linemen - Costigan, Zac Matthias, Walker Williams and Jack Keeler - on his team who had never golfed before.
“It was fair,” said Groy. “I am not sure how it was rigged. He can look at it how he wants, but we won fair and square.”
Whether the fix was in or not on the golf course is up for debate amongst the players. What’s agreed upon from the group is simple: things are much better in the trenches thanks to an offensive line coach focused on technique, good leadership at the top and a group that wants to play for one another.
“We’ve gone against so many different looks where we screw up here and there, but we play hard, we play physical and we play the Wisconsin way,” said Groy. “These guys get it on the field, how to play in practice and it’s fun to play with these guys.
“It’s a great group. We have no guys playing for themselves. We have a group that is working for the betterment of the team.”