MADISON, Wis. — The average football play from snap to whistle lasts about six seconds. In that time, dozens of technical decisions ping through the head of a player who can make or break its success.
For offensive linemen, the first second or two is especially critical. One mistake, and a defensive lineman or linebacker is invading the backfield to blow up the play.
Wisconsin left tackle Michael Deiter is learning just how precious those initial milliseconds are during fall camp. Deiter, who has started the team’s last 27 games over two seasons, spent that time focused exclusively on playing center or guard. When he opened this fall at tackle, it was almost as though he needed to re-calibrate his football mind on who to block, how to block and when to block.
“There’s still a lot of challenges that I’ve got to grow with,” Deiter said. “It’s not all there yet. I would say the biggest thing right now is getting used to covering all that space and just the body type difference that you see out there on the edge.
“It’s the quick-twitch speed. Stuff like that has been giving me more fits because I just wasn’t used to it. But it’s getting there.”
Deiter’s plight demonstrates that even a 6-foot-6, 320-pound three-year starter can experience growing pains. How quickly he adjusts to his new role will go a long way toward determining the success of not only the Badgers offensive line, but the fluidity of the entire offense.
Deiter practiced at tackle for only three days in the spring before coaches opted to move him there full-time to help shore up Wisconsin’s tackle depth. This fall, he has struggled at times during Wisconsin’s 1-on-1 pass-rushing drills against outside linebackers Leon Jacobs and Garret Dooley. Jacobs in particular has produced some of his finest moments of camp in those drills, beating Deiter to the ball with a spin move or bull rush.
Deiter, a redshirt junior from Curtice, Ohio, said his biggest area of emphasis was making sure he instinctively thinks like a tackle. There have been occasions this fall in which he shot out of his stance to pass protect like a center or guard rather than preparing for the edge rusher he would face at tackle. But he noted many of those issues were contained to the first week of fall camp, and he has quickly improved through practice and film study.
“You just have to change your technique is all,” Deiter said. “You really have to be a true tackle. When I first got out there, I was still doing some guard stuff in pass [protection]. I’ve changed that. You really have to be tackle-specific in your technique because that’s what it’s built for is faster guys, more athletic guys. So I would say that’s mostly where I’ve been working.”
Despite some of Deiter’s early issues, he has a couple of advantages as he makes the transition. His ability to quickly learn technique and scheme impressed coaches when he arrived on campus in 2014; it was one of the reasons he earned a starting job as a redshirt freshman in 2015. He also is far more athletic than many linemen.
“Deiter kind of jokes around that he gets all nervous when speed rushers are coming at him,” Badgers right tackle David Edwards said. “But if there’s a big guy, he’ll lock him up. One thing I think Deiter has that’s different than everybody else his size is how good his feet are, how quick he is.
“I think that was partly the reason why he got switched. Everybody had confidence that he’d be able to move well enough to block speed rushers and power guys. No one’s really surprised he’s doing well.”
In an effort to increase his foot speed, Deiter said he worked to lose some weight. He played at more than 330 pounds when he started at center. But Deiter estimated he now weighs roughly 320 and would like to slim down to 315 to gain even more quickness.
The fact Deiter is even attempting to switch positions with such an open mind has resonated with his fellow linemen. The move helped fortify the offensive line and allowed Wisconsin to shift its line rotation. Redshirt freshman Tyler Biadasz took over for Deiter at center. Edwards was able to slide from left tackle back to right tackle, where he started seven games last season and will protect left-handed quarterback Alex Hornibrook’s blind side.
“He’ll do whatever he can for the program,” Edwards said of Deiter. “He’s still making calls as a left tackle. Typically a center makes the calls, but he’ll still make calls, so I think his willingness to do whatever has helped.”
Added right guard Beau Benzschawel: “He’s definitely very unselfish. He’s going to make the team better, and really you’ve got to tip your cap to him for that because not a lot of guys are going to do that.”
Deiter has been tasked with attempting to replace former Badgers left tackle Ryan Ramczyk, who was among the best linemen in the FBS last season. Ramczyk earned All-America honors and was a first-round NFL draft pick of the New Orleans Saints.
According to Pro Football Focus, Ramczyk had the best run-blocking grade among all FBS tackles. And he was exceptional at containing the best edge rushers in the Big Ten. PFF noted Ramczyk allowed only 1 sack, 3 hits and 8 pressures all season — and never more than 2 pressures in a single game.
But Deiter certainly has the talent to help fill the void. PFF graded Deiter on all 1,007 of his snaps last season and determined that he allowed 16 total pressures and finished with the best run-blocking grade among returning Big Ten centers.
Badgers offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Joe Rudolph recognized there would be challenges associated with Deiter playing a new position, but he had confidence in his new tackle. After all, Deiter has 16 career starts at center and 11 at guard and has the football acumen to adjust. So far, Rudolph has liked what he’s seen.
“I think you kind of grow when you’re doing something a little bit different,” Rudolph said. “You can’t fix everything at one time. He’s cleaned something up each practice. I think he’s playing at his best right now, which is pretty good. He’s doing a really good job.”
Deiter noted that he is proud to say he can play every position on the line. He enjoys learning and realizes that a new trick gained at tackle could help him at center or guard in the future, particularly in the NFL. But for now, his focus remains on being the best tackle he can be, and he’s excited about his potential.
“I expected it to be super hard, so I think that’s why it’s not as hard as I thought because I had such a high expectation going out there,” Deiter said. “But it’s still offensive line. There’s a lot of similarities.”