Last season, the Wisconsin offensive line struggled to perform at a high level, a departure from the Badgers’ usual dominance in the trenches. Comprised of mostly freshmen, the Badgers cycled through various combinations due to consistently poor play.
However, with the addition of former Division-III standout Ryan Ramczyk, and the assumed growth of the freshmen into sophomores, this year’s offensive line looked like they had the potential to be great. That hasn’t been the case.
Ramczyk has been as good as advertised, and could very likely leave UW to head to the NFL. But the lack of improvement from the sophomore linemen has caused the Badgers’ offense to struggle.
The Badger line has run-blocked well of late, however, the rushing statistics can be deceiving. Most of the Badgers’ big runs against Nebraska were due to missed tackles, or Corey Clement’s stiff arms, not spectacular performances by the linemen. The group’s pass blocking, on the other hand, has been less than subpar.
“Right now we’re better at run blocking than we are at pass blocking, and that can’t be the case, you have to be able to do both to the best of your ability,” redshirt sophomore lineman Michael Deiter said. “There’s gonna be days where the run’s not there and you’ve gotta throw the ball, and if you can’t protect, you’re not gonna win games.”
Deiter also recognizes that weak pass protection could lead teams to blitz more aggressively. According to Pro Football Focus, redshirt freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook is the second-most pressured QB in the nation, facing pressure on 44.4 percent of his snaps. Hornibrook has shown flashes of brilliance, but it is hard to consistently deliver crisp passes when he is under pressure as much as he is.
“It really takes a toll on them [the quarterbacks],” redshirt sophomore lineman Beau Benzschawel said. “Because they might not see the reads like they can, getting a little gun shy back there so I think that’s the biggest thing for us to improve on.”
The Badgers’ offensive line has also been the victim of a lack of personnel consistency. The Wisconsin coaching staff has constantly tinkered with who is on the field, sometimes going with three or four different line combinations in a single game. This includes the same players playing multiple positions, making it difficult for players to acclimate themselves to one position.
Deiter was one of the team’s best linemen last season while playing center. He started the season strong at center, but struggled when he was moved to guard. Against Nebraska, Deiter moved back to center and his play improved.
“Getting back to center was nice, I’m comfortable there … It was nice to go back to one position and just stay in there at one position,” Deiter said.
It goes deeper than just the individual level, though, as the constant switching can create chemistry issues. When a player doesn’t know who he’ll be playing alongside, he doesn’t know his tendencies or his weaknesses.
The line hasn’t improved the way people have hoped, but there are still four games left this year, as well as potential postseason games. There’s still time to find one group, stick with it and develop it into the dominant line that Wisconsin is known for. For now, though, the offensive line is just another question mark on an offense full of unknowns.