What has for years been a model of consistency for the Badgers is arguably the team’s biggest question mark heading into the 2015 season-opener.
Wisconsin’s offensive line has been plagued by injuries during the preseason, making it difficult for new head coach Paul Chryst and new offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph to even get a grip on what they have at the position, let alone what combination of players will be in the starting lineup for Saturday night’s game against Alabama.
While junior center Dan Voltz and senior left tackle Tyler Marz are returning starters, the rest of the line is inexperienced and has been battling injury after injury over the past month.
“I think you're frustrated for them as much as anything,” Chryst said during his Monday press conference. “These kids put a ton of time and work into this, and the last thing they want to do is not participate. All the guys that missed some time, there's not one — the first thing is you felt bad. But you see the look on their face — you guys see it when you're with them — and they want to participate and they want to be able to play.
“Yet we all know it's part of it, and not just football. It's part of sports in general. And our job is to help them get through it and help them recover as best you can, and also there's opportunity to present it and it's our job to help those others take advantage of those opportunities. Absolutely you'd like to have every one for every practice. I tell the team all the time, we're best when we have everyone, and yet that seldom happens, but that's the goal.”
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Wisconsin’s depth chart, released Monday, had a starting line that looks like this: Marz at left tackle, redshirt freshman Michael Deiter at left guard, Voltz at center, junior Walker Williams at right guard and sophomore Hayden Biegel at right tackle. Redshirt freshmen Jacob Maxwell and Micah Kapoi also appeared on the two-deep along with senior Ray Ball. Kapoi reportedly still has a chance to start Saturday, still fighting for a starting spot this week with both Williams and Biegel.
Marz and Voltz have combined for 47 career starts, but the rest of the offensive linemen on the roster have a combined zero. Throw in the injuries that disrupted jelling during camp, and there could be a bit of an adjustment period for this new-look O-line.
“You would have liked to have had more snaps, absolutely,” Chryst said. “But at the same time, they are going through it together, and I think that there can be some benefits from that, as they go through and watch the tape. Bottom line is they've all got to communicate, and that's where I feel very fortunate with Dan Voltz at the center spot. You've got a guy that's got great knowledge of what we're trying to do, played in big games, and I think that we're in pretty good shape right there with Dan directing it. But absolutely, we've got to — they've got to continue to talk and continue to develop the chemistry, and that you hope is kind of ongoing really until they're done playing here.”
Wisconsin’s offensive line has been a nationally known strength on annual basis. It’s one of the key reasons the Badgers have produced such successful rushing seasons year in and year out over the past decade. Nine former Badgers offensive linemen are currently playing in the NFL.
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And while these inexperienced and banged-up guys could certainly blossom into the next great offensive line in Madison, it will undoubtedly take time. That’s something the Badgers don’t have as they head into a game against Alabama, one of the best programs in the country, the current No. 3 team in the AP rankings and a team that perennially boasts one of the most fearsome defenses in America. This year’s front seven for the Crimson Tide is no exception, and that will be an incredible test for an offensive line still looking to come together.
“I think they are a really good defense, and I think that depending on when you're looking at it, if you're looking at the run game, you see the strength of their defense is their front seven,” Chryst said. “Then you look at the passing, and you say, the strength of their defense is — more what looks to be like they are doing some shuffling — but it's the D-line, the linebackers, the secondary, they have got guys coming back. And they are replacing one in the defensive front line, one at the linebacker spot. All those guys have played a lot of football. I think it's a really good defense.
“I think it's a good defense, certainly schematically, and also I think their players understand what they are doing and they are talented. Our players recognize that, and I think that's what also gets them excited to play a team in a defense like we are going to face Saturday.”