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Saturday, June 10, 2023

Despite uncertainty on O-line, Badgers not worrying

Only at the University of Wisconsin can you repeatedly lose All-American offensive linemen and go into the next season with as much confidence in the unit as years’ previous.

Two Wisconsin offensive linemen were selected in last April’s NFL draft: guard Kevin Zeitler and center Peter Konz. The Cincinnati Bengals selected Zeitler in the first round, while the Atlanta Falcons took Konz in the second. Both were first-team All-Americans according to the American Football Coaches Association and Pro Football Weekly.

Don’t forget the illustrious 2010 season either, when tackle Gabe Carimi was a consensus All-American, Wisconsin’s second Outland Trophy winner—an award given to college football’s top interior lineman—and was selected in the first round of the 2011 NFL draft by the Chicago Bears. Additionally, guard John Moffitt was a first-team All-American according to the Associated Press and was selected in the third round by the Seattle Seahawks.

And then there is perhaps the most decorated offensive lineman in Badgers history in tackle Joe Thomas, who came out of the 2006 class. Thomas is a three-time Pro Bowler with the Cleveland Browns and was drafted No. 3 overall in the 2007 NFL draft. Thomas earned All-American honors twice at Wisconsin and won the Outland Trophy in 2006.

And what do each of these former “big uglies” have in common?

To put it simply, nobody knew who they were when they took the field for the first time, which is something head coach Bret Bielema remains very proud of.

“When Kevin Zeitler played his first game, everybody was worried about who he is and what he was,” Bielema said. “Gabe Carimi [took over] at the left tackle spot. No one knew who he was because Joe Thomas had commanded it for so long. And both of them are first-round draft picks for the NFL.”

So when news broke loose a week ago of redshirt junior offensive lineman Casey Dehn not returning to Wisconsin’s roster, fans had a right to be concerned. Dehn appeared to be the No. 1 right tackle to emerge from spring practice, and the right guard position seems to be up in the air as well.

Amid the uncertainty, Bielema remains as confident as ever, and it appears everyone else on the team is as well.

“We have guys in our program right now who have never started a game that I believe can play at [an NFL] level,” Bielema said. “We’ll just have an opportunity now to put people in place.”

The left side of the line and the center position appear to be much more stable. Redshirt senior tackle Ricky Wagner, a former 6-foot-5, 235-pound walk-on tight end, is on the preseason Outland Trophy watch list. He now sits at 6-foot-6, 330 pounds. Senior center Travis Frederick made the list as well.

“I think we’re going to be fine,” Wagner said. “I think the depth is fine. I’m just excited to see who fills those right guard and right tackle spots, and I think [the open spots] will make [the offensive linemen] play even harder this camp.”

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A tailback’s success lies largely in the offensive line’s performance, so one would expect senior running back and 2011 Heisman finalist Montee Ball to be worried about the state of the offensive line, right?

Think again.

“It doesn’t worry me at all,” said Ball, who is playing at 215 pounds this year, nine more than last season’s weight. “What I’ve been seeing in the weight room and how focused the offensive linemen are, every day I go to the weight room and I’ll see them outside working on steps, working on blocking. And it is something I’m not worried about because I can see that they’re just going to be the same as last year.”

The long-standing tradition of excellence on the offensive line benefits current players in the film room.

“I still watch [Carimi] on film,” Wagner said, who also noted that Thomas worked out in Madison during the NFL lockout. “We have great resources, we just go up to the tape room, watch left tackles like Joe Thomas or anybody. We have that all up there to look at.”

With the way things are going for Wagner and the consistent success the “big uglies” have had in program history, expect future Badgers to be watching Wagner on tape in just a few years, especially with his “show and prove” mentality.

“I think I lead more by example and try to work hard on the field and show the young guys how to practice,” the quiet Wagner said. “Never take practices for granted because that’s where games are won.

“This competition is really going to show what we’re made of.”

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