MADISON, Wis. — Last season saw something Wisconsin fans were not used to: an offensive line that was not opening holes for the run game and was not giving the quarterback time to pass.
In summer camp, there were serious concerns about how the front line would rebound after a down year. Then, the group was hit with news that star lineman Dan Voltz was retiring. Luckily for Wisconsin, Voltz decided to stay on the sidelines.
“Dan has definitely been a big help for us,” starting left tackle Ryan Ramczyk said. “You know if coach is busy at all you can always go to Dan. He knows what he’s talking about and it’s nice to have that.”
The play of the offensive line has greatly improved. Any coach will tell you it starts in the trenches, but with Wisconsin’s tough schedule, that cannot be emphasized enough. Voltz’s knowledge of the game, such as techniques and when is best to use them, has improved the offensive line even without him on the field. Just ask Michael Deiter, who has moved already from center to left guard on the first line with Brett Connors starting at center.
“He [Voltz]’s been so helpful; he helped me a ton when I was at center and he’s still helping me at guard,” starting left guard Michael Deiter said. “He helps me get things right schematically, seeing defenses and he’s got a bunch of great knowledge when it comes to using certain techniques in certain situations.”
So far this season, Wisconsin has beaten two top ten ranked opponents, and the offensive line has been one of the reasons why Wisconsin have been able to play past everyone’s expectations.
Through the first four games, Wisconsin’s front line has given up eight sacks and the run game has improved from last year. Something clicked in the unit from this summer coming into the fall and regular season.
“I think as an offensive line, as a group, we’ve come together closer on and off the field and really have gotten more trust in each other,” Ramczyk said. “Just feeling a little bit more comfortable next to each guy.”
When you’re fighting in the trenches, trust is crucial. Having to worry about the assignment in front of you, whether it is a linebacker or a defensive lineman, is quite the task in of itself. When an offensive line lacks trust, the unit starts to worry about the guy next to them and their assignment too.
“You see it in that guys are more confident now and just going out there and trust their talent and letting it go,” Deiter said. “We’re not so worried about getting beat anymore.”
An often overlooked aspect in the blocking schemes, from a fan perspective, is the role of the tight end.
“We try to be as much as we can,” starting tight end Troy Fumagalli said. “We take pride in trying to be an all around tight end and putting that responsibility on us, being able to both block and catch.”
Being able to trust the tight end to be an effective blocker opens up the offense just as if there is another offensive lineman playing.
“He’s basically the last O-lineman on the edge when it comes to blocking,” Deiter explained. “He makes plays go just like the rest of us make plays go. If we have a good block at the tight end it changes the run game tremendously.”
Having all around tight ends is not new to Wisconsin football. Owen Daniels, Garrett Graham, Lance Kendricks, and Travis Beckum were all-around tight ends who helped create holes for running backs like John Clay and Montee Ball.
“In this offense, you have to be complete at the tight end position and their as important as anyone of the five offensive lineman, fullback, second tight end, who ever is in there,” offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Joe Rudolph said.
Fans, though, are not the only ones looking back to the days of dominant offensive line units from Wisconsin, that often rivaled NFL offensive lines in size.
“I grew up watching the 2010 and 2011 teams and those guys were just studs and when I was offered to come here; that’s what Wisconsin is about and the offensive line and how strong they’ve always been historically,” starting right guard Beau Benzschawel said. “It’s just that tradition part of things where you wanna kind of show those guys that we haven’t dropped off and we wanna take those team values that they had to keep excelling.”
But they still have given up eight sacks through four games and the running game still is not to the point it was back in the days of Montee Ball and Melvin Gordon.
All that counts at the end of the day are wins and losses. Fans do not remember a slight screw up in technique or a missed block on the back-end of a play. Being 4-0 to start the year, fans will assume the play is right where it needs to be. But you know who does not think that? Any of the Wisconsin offensive linemen.
“I still feel like we’re not where we could be,” Deiter said. “We could be a lot better we have a lot of things we could clean up. But it’s pretty encouraging to be having some success but knowing we could be a lot better.”
If that mentality holds true and this unit keeps cleaning up the small mistakes that still plague them, Wisconsin might not just be on the cusp of regaining form as a dominant offensive line program, but could be on the cusp of breaking through the Big Ten Conference.
Wisconsin kicks off against Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich. on Saturday. Kickoff is set for 2:30pm CT on ABC.
Photo courtesy of Al Goldis/Associated Press.