MADISON, Wis. — Joe Rudolph just might have the most difficult job and the most enviable job all rolled into one — figuring out not only who will play on Wisconsin’s offensive line next season, but how much.
Rudolph, the Badgers offensive coordinator and O-line coach, constantly preaches the idea of putting the five best linemen on the field, regardless of position. But as Wisconsin works through spring practice, it’s become clear the Badgers have far more than five linemen capable of playing. In fact, Wisconsin possesses an embarrassment of riches on the offensive line, as deep and as talented as any of the team’s best units in recent history.
“We’re returning three All-Americans, and we could have more on there next year,” Badgers left guard Jason Erdmann said. “We have no idea how good we could be. I feel like we could be the best O-line in the country, and we’re going to do great things this year.”
Added left tackle Cole Van Lanen: “I think this line can be one of the best that’s ever been in our history.”
Before anybody scoffs at such a notion as mere hyperbole, it’s worth considering just how good Wisconsin’s line is entering the 2018 season.
Michael Deiter has 41 career starts and was a second-team All-America selection by the Sporting News for his work at left tackle last season, which isn’t even his best position. Beau Benzschawel has started 36 consecutive games, the last 30 at right guard. He was named to multiple All-America teams last season. David Edwards has played in 26 games, with 19 starts at right tackle. He also was named to multiple All-America teams.
All three players came back to school and put on hold for one more year the possibility of earning millions in the NFL. The last Wisconsin offensive line to feature three All-Americans was in 1921. The Badgers have never returned that many All-Americans the following season.
But that only begins to scratch the surface for a unit that returns its entire two-deep off last season. Tyler Biadasz earned freshman All-America honors after he started all 14 games at center last season. Jon Dietzen has played in 23 games, with 20 starts at left guard. Erdmann has played in all 28 of Wisconsin’s games the past two seasons. He primarily plays guard but filled in for an injured Biadasz at center against Iowa. Van Lanen and tackle Patrick Kasl played in all 14 games last season. Coaches also are extremely high on Kayden Lyles, who has taken center reps with the first-team linemen.
For an idea as to how talented Wisconsin’s offensive line will be, consider that guard Micah Kapoi is a senior who has played in 34 career games with 14 starts. He could be the eighth- or ninth-best lineman in the group.
“We have guys that are backups that, if they were at different schools around the country, they’d be starters there, too,” Erdmann said.
Given the competition for playing time, not every spot has been solidified. But the biggest question involves where Deiter will wind up playing. He projects as an interior lineman in the NFL, and moving from tackle back to guard played a factor in his decision to return to school.
If Deiter opts to move inside, however, it means one of the starters off last season’s 13-1 Orange Bowl-winning team could lose his job. If he rotates to left guard, then Dietzen could shift to left tackle or become a backup. Or perhaps Kasl or Van Lanen will earn the starting left tackle spot. Deiter is out for the spring with a right leg injury, while Dietzen is out with injuries in both legs, so the answers won’t be known until fall camp.
Van Lanen and Erdmann have been the biggest beneficiaries of their teammates’ absences. During practice Tuesday, Van Lanen plugged in as a starting left tackle, with Erdmann at left guard.
“I’m taking this spring as a huge opportunity,” Van Lanen said. “I just really need to prove what I can do. Rudy’s going to play the best five. That’s the end goal is to try and make it into that top five.”
Erdmann said he believed he could push for a starting spot because he has more strength and confidence, as well as a better awareness for the game and how to react to defensive rotations given his playing experience.
“Depending on who plays where, Deiter could end up back at left tackle, he could end up at left guard, he could end up at center,” Erdmann said. “It’s the best five guys out there. Rudy’s got to find the right combination for it. I can’t really control that. I can just do the best I can and leave it up to him where he plays him and where he plays me.”
Rudolph noted one of the most important facets to developing his line will be cross-training them at multiple spots. He said Deiter was cross-trained last year at guard and tackle. Van Lanen and Kasl will play left and right tackles. Deitzen will play guard and tackle on the left side.
“That helps give you some leeway,” Rudolph said. “You try to position in a way that you know you’re going to get the best five out of it. But I would say that’s always got to dictate it a little bit.”
Wisconsin has produced some incredible offensive lines over the past decade. Perhaps the most formidable lines came in 2010 and 2011. The 2010 line consisted of Outland Trophy winner Gabe Carimi at left tackle, left guard John Moffitt, center Peter Konz, right guard Kevin Zeitler and right tackle Rick Wagner. Carimi and Moffitt earned All-America honors that season. Carimi and Zeitler became first-round NFL draft picks, while Konz went in the second round, Moffitt the third round and Wagner the fifth round.
In 2011, Wagner moved to left tackle for Wisconsin, while Konz remained at center and Zeitler at right guard. Travis Frederick, a future first-round pick, played left guard. Josh Oglesby played right tackle and earned consensus first-team All-Big Ten honors. Zeitler and Frederick earned All-America status.
Rudolph isn’t ready to proclaim the 2018 group on that level yet but said the Badgers will have a chance to stake their claim among the best if everybody works toward improving. He noted one of the first projects he asked of his offensive linemen was to determine their goals for the upcoming season. He had the linemen watch tape of their best clips and their worst, then write up what they saw.
The standard on Wisconsin’s offensive line is high, and Rudolph said eliminating those mistakes will be critical. And if it doesn’t happen, somebody else will be more than ready and willing to take his place.
“When you see yourself take a bad step on the back side of a cut-off and not get it done, you don’t see it once that week when you’re watching film,” Rudolph said. “You don’t see it twice. But you’ve got to watch it 25 times if that’s something that stayed with you and that’s something that you need to improve. And then we try to tie it in. … If we get better, yeah, I’m excited for this group.”