Main Story – The Battle at Left Tackle
In the final regular season game of the 2015 season, Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst and offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph trotted out four freshmen to start on the offensive line at Minnesota. It was the combination of lack of upperclassmen, performance and injuries that led to the Badgers rotating through seven different starting combinations that season and finishing 10th in the conference in rushing offense, including a humbling minus-26 rushing yards on 26 attempts in a loss to Northwestern.
Three seasons later, those lumps have turned Wisconsin’s offensive line unit in one of the most formidable units in the country entering 2018.
Wisconsin returns all five starters on the line from a season ago, including three holdovers – right guard Beau Benzschawel, left guard Michael Deiter and reserve guard Micah Kapoi – from that 2015 season finale. Add All-American right tackle David Edwards and sophomore center Tyler Biadasz to the mix and there were few positional question marks entering the Aug.31 opener against Western Kentucky.
That experience (UW used only two starting units last season and the same five players started the final 11 games) has allowed UW offensive coordinator/line coach Joe Rudolph to do some rearranging. After starting all 14 games at left tackle last season, UW rightly moved Deiter back inside to the left guard, opening up a key position battle at left tackle between junior Jon Dietzen and sophomore Cole Van Lanen.
Revealing before camp that he played last season with a torn labrum in each hip that he suffered last preseason, Dietzen gutted through 13 games last season before having the surgery after the season. Spending the spring taking mental reps, Dietzen entered fall camp down 10 pounds and has looked more fluid in his movements. The key will be for him to stay healthy, as his career has been slowed by ankle injuries.
Van Lanen served as Dieter’s primary backup last season and played in all 14 games during his first season of eligibility. An All-American at Bay Port High School, the 6-5, 311-pound Van Lanen has been groomed by Rudolph as Wisconsin’s future left tackle since arriving on campus.
In the opener, Dietzen started the game and he and Van Lanen alternated series in the opening half. However, Van Lanen took over in the second half because the staff wants to limit Dietzen’s workload. On Van Lanen’s first play, the first of the second series, Van Lanen and Deiter combined to clear a path on Jonathan Taylor’s 47-yard touchdown run.
Van Lanen also was spot on in pass protection, a performance that will likely increase his opportunities moving forward.
“I thought Cole played really well,” Chryst said. “He looked relaxed. I thought his purpose, his focus was on… I think that speaks volumes. He is trusting his technique. He is trusting what to do…If that is his starting point, I think that is a good sign.”
Subplot – UW’s Depth
With three multi-year starters, not to mention three All-Americans, anchoring the returning group, there doesn’t figure to be much playing time available for UW’s reserves. That may be a good thing entering the season.
The Badgers do have reserve guard Micah Kapoi, who is more than capable of filling both the left and right spots, returning for his senior season. The Hawaiian has played in 34 games and started 14 of them (10 at left guard and four at right guard). UW also has junior Jason Erdmann at its disposal, as he can fill in at left guard and center.
Erdmann is now on scholarship because redshirt sophomore Patrick Kasl has left to program to focus full time on academics. Kasl played in all 14 games last season and played the second half of the Badgers’ 34-24 Orange Bowl win over Miami at right tackle. His departure means redshirt freshmen Tyler Beach and Logan Bruss will be working on the No.2 unit.
Highly-touted sophomore Kayden Lyles is not in the picture on offense this season, as the staff has moved him to the defensive side of the ball.
For the opener, junior David Moorman and Kapoi were listed as the backup guards, Erdmann the reserve center and Bruss as the No.2 tackle. How they’ll perform if called on if still unknown.
Stat to Know
On the offensive line, Wisconsin returns three All-Americans (RG Beau Benzschawel, LT Michael Deiter and RT David Edwards) and a FWAA Freshman All-American (C Tyler Biadasz). Those four have appeared in a combined seven Big Ten championship games. UW’s five appearances in the Big Ten Football Championship Game since 2011 are the most by any Power Five team in its respective conference over that seven-year span.