INDIANAPOLIS — The running joke among NFL people at the Indiana Convention Center is that Wisconsin does a better version of classic Nebraska than Nebraska does these days, a foundation built from the trenches out. Bib overalls, sledgehammers, and no B.S.
In one corner of the convention center, former Badgers left tackle Ryan Ramczyk is smiling on the podium, playing verbal tennis with the assembled press corps. Some five years ago, he was training to become a welder. Total lunch pail guy.
The NFL loves lunch pail guys.
“(They’re) similar,” Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid, a lunch pail guy and former college offensive lineman himself, told Land of 10 at the 2017 NFL Combine when asked about the ties that bind the Cornhuskers and Badgers. “They just did kind of different areas. But very similar. While they were building that thing (in Wisconsin) up, we saw how that thing turned around over the years.
“So you probably compare it a lot, like you would, to the old Nebraska teams, back when I played. They had guys like (guard) Dean Steinkuhler, and all those guys that just drilled people. And that’s what this (Badgers) crew does.”
It runs in the family. The Badgers’ godfather, Barry Alvarez, played linebacker at Nebraska under the great Bob Devaney in the late 1960s and planted a Big Red seed in Madison a generation later. Strength. Conditioning. Execution. Physicality. Toughness. Walk-ons from here to Wausau. No stone left unturned, no linebacker left unblocked.
From 1981-1992, the Cornhuskers had four offensive linemen taken within the first three rounds of the NFL Draft. Wisconsin had two. In 1990, Alvarez turned up in Madison. In 1993, the draft was compressed to eight rounds and then to its current seven a year later.
From 1993-2004, the Huskers had six blockers plucked in rounds 1-3. Wisconsin had eight.
From 2005-16, the Badgers sent another eight. The Big Red? Two.
“(Wisconsin) wants them big, they want to zone (block), they want downhill, run the ball, shorten the game,” offered Dan Shonka, a longtime NFL scout and general manager at Ourlads.com. “And that’s how they feel they can win at Wisconsin, because there are a lot of big, strong guys in the state of Wisconsin, but they don’t have a lot of fast guys. Iowa’s the same way. Iowa’s not got a lot of speed. They’re big, hard-working kids. And I think Nebraska has got a big farm (type of) kid. I think they just haven’t had the emphasis on the offensive line like they do at Iowa and Wisconsin.”
‘Nebraska’s not getting the talent there’
Through 2016, the Huskers have seen 58 offensive linemen selected in the NFL Draft. But over the last decade, the pipeline of impact blockers has slowed to a soft trickle. Guard Will Shields, the ex-Nebraska mauler, went to 12 Pro Bowls with the Chiefs during a career that spanned from 1993-2006. Tackle Carl Nicks, another former Husker, went to a pair of Pro Bowls with the Saints in 2010 and 2011. In the past 12 seasons, Wisconsin alum Joe Thomas has landed in 10 Pro Bowls and former Badgers center Travis Frederick another three.
“(Scouts) missed on Alex Lewis,” Shonka said of the Big Red tackle who started eight games with the Ravens this past fall after being taken in the fourth round of the 2016 draft.
“That guy was worthy of being a second-round draft choice. They’ve had a few knock around, but yeah, it does make you wonder.
“You know, the funny thing is, Nebraska, you think about it, they have a ton of offensive linemen (in the state). But for some reason, I don’t know, Nebraska has had quite a dearth of offensive linemen — they’re just free agents or late-round guys. No Dave Rimington Award winners.”
The Rimington Award, of course, is named for former Huskers center Dave Rimington, and presented annually to the top center in college football. The last Nebraska player to win it was the first player to ever be awarded the statue: Dominic Raiola in 2000.
‘They changed, (over) the last couple of coaches at Nebraska, their emphasis on stuff.’
— Dan Shonka, Ourlads.com
“I don’t think it’s necessarily a technical issue,” Pro Football Focus analyst Josh Liskiewitz said. “For whatever reason, Nebraska’s not getting the talent there.”
You can’t coach speed. But you can chisel a 2-star guard into a 4-star battering ram, given enough time and elbow grease.
The other corner of the Big Ten West’s holy hog triology, Iowa, has made the meat-and-potatoes approach its bedrock for a almost two decades now, for better or for worse. Since Kirk Ferentz, a venerated offensive line coach in the Hayden Fry Era and a disciple of line guru Joe Moore, took the keys from Fry before the 1999 season, the mantra has been the same: Punch the sucker in the mouth first, ask questions later. The Hawkeyes are the anti-Calibraska, and proud of it.
“Obviously, Nebraska is in a brutal (area), as far as recruiting,” Liskiewitz continued. “They always had great teams, but I don’t know how you get these kids from so far away to pick Nebraska over all these schools in the South, whether it’s Florida, Florida State or South Carolina. Because going somewhere on ‘name’ alone — that just doesn’t work anymore. Notre Dame, same deal.
“I think the evolution of the game itself has made it tough on Nebraska, the direction the game is going. Just because the way recruiting works was always going to work against them.”
‘Where do they get guys like that?’
Consistency — consistency of staff, consistency of message, consistency of identity — has proven to be another thorn, especially when it comes to offensive line development. Since Ferentz was hired at Iowa City, the Huskers have gone through four head coaches and two interim bosses, veering from I-backs (Frank Solich) to the West Coast offense (Bill Callahan) to who-the-hell-knows (Bo Pelini) to more of a spread look (Mike Riley).
While Wisconsin has cycled through three head coaches in the last decade, its core principle — pound the rock till the other guy breaks — has remained the same as it was when Alvarez took the reins before the 1990 season.
And here’s where the family ties come back around again. Alvarez’s first offensive line coach in Madison, a man who helped to build the beast? Callahan. A curse word in Lancaster County.
The same Callahan who vowed to drag the Huskers into the 21st century as head coach from 2004-2007, a gambit that went over about as well as Dijon mustard ladled over a banana split.
“If Bill Callahan would’ve been able to stay there, it would’ve killed (the fans),” Shonka laughed. “He had a couple coaches who were not really good coaches, but he left a lot of good players there for Pelini.
“Bill was, and he is, a great offensive line coach. That might have changed if he would’ve stayed there, because they’d want to run the ball and things. But the whole West Coast offense and zone blocks … they changed, (over) the last couple of coaches at Nebraska, their emphasis on stuff.”
Madison? Madison, not so much.
“Year-in and year-out, they’ll have those guys who are 350 pounds,” offered former Northwestern defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo, who’s seen plenty of both programs. “You’re just like, ‘Where do they get guys like that?’
“Nebraska is usually like that. But in recent years they haven’t, with the coach change. So it’s kind of different personnel. The Badgers are more physical. They’re really on their blocks because of Barry (Alvarez), the athletic director, (is) just really involved and wants to keep that tradition of Wisconsin football.”
Lunch pail guys. Cheeseburger guys. Grinders. Same as it ever was.
“Now because with Nebraska, you’ve still got a good program and there’s that image there of, you know, the offensive line. Big guys,” Reid shrugged. “But they had people there, people coming out of that, that were really good players. Now they’re small. If you brought them back today you’d go, ‘They’re a bunch of small guys.’ But back then, they were big guys.
“Just different times. That’s how it works. I don’t think (it’s) for any reason. I know most of the kids, I would bet, from Wisconsin are from that area there. So whatever the area’s producing, you normally get. And they’ve been producing some big offensive linemen that are pretty good football players.”