There used to be a time when it was a foregone conclusion that a true freshman offensive lineman would redshirt at the University of Wisconsin under head coach Barry Alvarez. Two years ago, however, Joe Thomas was just too good not to get him involved immediately.
Now, the Badgers have two true freshmen linemen — left tackle Eric Vanden Heuvel and left guard Andy Kemp — who have spent all of their first training camp in the two deep. But particularly in Vanden Heuvel’s case UW would prefer not to burn a redshirt year. Given the Badgers’ numbers along the offensive line, though, that may not be an option.
“I hope we don’t have to play him,” offensive line coach Jim Hueber said of Vanden Heuvel. “He’s a true freshman. He’s got a lot to learn. No, I wouldn’t be comfortable if we had to do that.”
UW has 11 linemen on scholarship, and only 14 in training camp, including five offensive tackles. So it was very nearly a foregone conclusion that the 6-foot-8, 325-pound Vanden Heuvel would get a crack at the two deep. The Badgers’ coaching staff decided to thrust him into the mix as the second-team left tackle from the very beginning and he has retained that spot throughout.
“We knew he was a good athlete coming in, he really impressed the strength coaches when he came down to work out during the summer,” Hueber said. “He’s got a long way to go, he’s a got a lot to learn. But he’s a willing soul, so he jumped in there. And we’re pushing him as hard as if he had to start the first game.”
Alvarez said there is a precedent for keeping a true freshman in the depth, but retaining a redshirt: Chris McIntosh, who did just that in 1995, and then spent four years as the Badgers’ starting left tackle.
“I’d like to do that,” Alvarez said. “I don’t know if we’ll have the luxury to do it.”
Assuming Thomas stays healthy this year, do not expect to see Vanden Heuvel in the game during mop-up time. Sophomore Danny Kaye will likely go into the season as the No. 3 tackle, effectively backing up right tackle Kraig Urbik and Thomas. But Kaye has missed most of camp after injuring the patella tendon in his knee early in the practice season, Hueber acknowledged, and is just now starting to ease back into things. Sophomore Mike Van Someren has been the second-team right tackle in Kaye’s place. And sophomore Marcus Coleman has played center during camp, but has dabbled at tackle in the past and could probably play there in a pinch.
With Kaye limited, however, Vanden Heuvel has looked like UW’s top option in reserve at tackle.
“If we don’t have to play him I am (going to redshirt him),” Hueber said. “Barring anything going wrong, knock on wood, we’ve got some guys that don’t have to use up their eligibility. But every rep that he takes now makes him a better player in the future.”
In the spring, Kemp looked destined to be the Badgers’ second offensive lineman to play as a true freshman under Alvarez. Now, Hueber may go into the season looking to redshirt him as well.
“I’m not sure yet,” Hueber said. “I’m not sure where we are with him either. It’s the same thing. All of a sudden we’re getting ready for a game and it’s not spring practice and some things have caught up to him.”
What has caught up to him?
“The speed of the game, different looks that you’re getting,” Hueber said. “You’re being exposed to a lot more things and the tempo’s a lot different than spring practice. There’s an urgency right now.”
Kemp has remained the backup at left tackle throughout camp. And, when UW has chosen to give center Donovan Raiola a breather from his first-team responsibilities, starting right guard Jason Palermo has shifted to center, left guard Matt Lawrence has moved to right guard and Kemp has stepped in at left guard.
Further, when UW has broken into scouts thus far, Vanden Heuvel, Kemp and Coleman have stayed up with the players ‘in the depth’, while Van Someren, Andrew Weininger, Luke Knauf, Mike Lenzendorf and Dirk Watters have run with the scouts.
That has to do more with numbers than who is truly ‘in the depth.’ With 13 healthy linemen, only eight can run with the second unit during that period of practice. Because of this circumstance, when UW wanted to give Palermo and Urbik a breather on the right side Monday, Lawrence and Thomas flipped to those spots, with Vanden Heuvel and Kemp moving into the left side spots.
“We’ve sent a bunch of guys down to the other end for practice, so we only had eight linemen, so everybody’s got to play both sides so guys get a rest during practice,” Hueber explained. “It really has nothing to do with depth or how we want to play.”
Who does Hueber consider ‘in the depth’ at this point?
“Whoever winds up there when we get ready to play,” he said. “Danny Kaye was out with a patella injury for a while. He was in the depth when we started out. Andy Kemp’s been in the depth. Vanden Heuvel’s in the depth, Van Someren’s in the depth, Coleman’s in the depth. I mean there’s a bunch of guys there. Where it sorts out, I don’t know. We don’t have to make that decision. We’re still in camp.”