MADISON — Following a path is easier when it’s well-traveled.
The path is clear for University of Wisconsin offensive linemen — come in, bulk up, learn several positions, grow into a starting role and potentially carry on the tradition of Badgers in the NFL.
Three Badgers completed the route last season, as Michael Deiter, David Edwards and Beau Benzschawel are all in NFL training camps this August. Jon Dietzen’s path was cut short due to injuries, as the left tackle left the UW program following his junior season in 2018.
While there is always talent in the Badgers’ offensive line group, it’s not going to be easy to replace a quartet of guys who started a combined 164 games and helped the Badgers rush for 273.4 yards per game last season.
“Those are good players,” UW head coach Paul Chryst said of the departed linemen during the July 31 Media Day at Camp Randall Stadium. “We’re going to have to grow through camp and continue to grow as the season progresses. But I like who’s in that room and I like who’s running that room.
“That’s what’s fun about o-line, they’ve got to work together, they’ve got to play together, they’ve got to play off each other. I know they’ll be coached, and they’ll be coached well."
The Badgers have a great anchor in center Tyler Biadasz, the only full-time starter returning from last season. The 6-foot-3, 321-pound junior from Amherst has started all 27 games in his first two seasons after redshirting in 2016.
“Tyler’s a great starting point,” Chryst said. “He’s a heck of a football player and cares a ton about his teammates. He’ll do all he can.”
He’ll need to, as the departure of his former linemates leaves Biadasz as the undisputed leader heading into the Aug. 30 season opener at South Florida.
“I definitely feel a leadership role being kind of the only starter coming back,” Biadasz said. “And Cole (Van Lanen), he’s done a really good job of leading with me. We both have a good way of going about teaching the younger guys coming up.”
That’s how the offensive line group has worked under position coach Joe Rudolph — young guys learn from veterans and eventually develop to the point where they pass that knowledge on to the next group. Chemistry is crucial on the offensive line, as it’s about more than just putting the five best blockers on the field.
“That’s what’s fun about o-line, they’ve got to work together, they’ve got to play together, they’ve got to play off each other," Chryst said. "I know they’ll be coached, and they’ll be coached well. The group is a good group.”
While the Badgers aren’t returning many guys who have started games on the line, it’s a relatively veteran group. Biadasz is in his fourth year in the program, while other potential starters include fifth-year seniors Jason Erdmann and David Moorman, redshirt junior Cole Van Lanen, and redshirt sophomores Kayden Lyles, Tyler Beach and Logan Bruss. All seven have significant playing experience for the Badgers, while Moorman and Beach are the only players who haven't started a game.
“Just because we’re not playing on game day doesn’t mean we’re not used to these guys,” said Van Lanen, who played in all 13 games last year, including starting once. “We practice every day next to each other, we have the camaraderie… now this whole group’s another year smarter, bigger and stronger. I think we’ll be good, we’ll be ready to roll.
“We did lose a good amount, but seeing a lot of bits and pieces of a lot of these guys, I just want to get on the field, play next to them and mentor them. I’m excited to roll.”
The core group has also spent a lot of time together off the field.
“We’re a really tight group,” Lyles said. “We all hang out… we all communicate with each other… I think that’s very helpful. We all love each other, and we’re just a band of brothers. … Whoever’s playing, we all root for each other and try to get each other to be the best we can be.”
That camaraderie isn’t by accident.
“The guys coach Chryst and Rudolph recruit to the room, these are guys that we love to be around,” Van Lanen said. “We love each other, and we don’t just play for ourselves, we play for the man next to you. Knowing if I screw up this play, it’s going to screw up all these guys. … We go through this together, so we have to be close.”
“For a player, the first thing you want to do is you want to play," Chryst said. "Once you play, you want to play well. And then pretty soon, you play a lot and it’s, ‘I’m not worried about myself anymore,’what can I do for the team?'”
When so many linemen leave the UW program with positive experiences, it creates long-term relationships. The offensive line pipeline allows current players to stay in touch with their predecessors.
“I still talk to the four guys that didn’t come back last year, and Micah (Kapoi) is a grad assistant now so I get to hang out with him a little bit more,” Biadasz said. “Everyone’s doing great, and even Dietzen that had to retire, he’s feeling good and everything. It’s awesome to stay in touch and to build that bond. My friendships are going to last forever. It’s truly something special to be a part of.”
“Any time they come back it’s a treat to try to learn from them, trying to pick their brains on what they’ve learned,” Lyles added. “It’s a really good group to look up to and learn from.”
Learning the game
While chemistry is one ingredient, developing technique is still the best way to get on the field.
“It doesn’t change year-to-year,” Biadasz said of the goal of fall camp. “You have the same goals, you have the same mentality coming out. It’s, how can you improve and better yourself each and every day? Better your best. That’s where you have to come out each day and better your technique. … If you can get one-percent better each day, that’s what you strive for.”
As one of the top offensive linemen factories in the country, there's always someone else fighting for playing time. Since it's unlikely the Badgers will have the same five starters all year, Rudolph says there's always more room for talented individuals.
“That’s what camp is all about,” Rudolph said. “I couldn’t be more pumped about guys stepping into new roles and battling."
That effort typically gets noticed, even if it leads to roles outside someone's primary position. Lyles, a 6-foot-3, 321-pound guard, switched over to the defensive line out of necessity last year, while Bruss, a 6-foot-5, 310-pound tackle, started three games as a blocking tight end before starting the final three games at right tackle.
“If you’re busting your butt and you’re working, we’re going to find a role for you," Rudolph said. "We don’t have so many good players ever that guys won’t find the field.”