2020 was a year of unusual things happening and the Badgers offensive line not being dominant wasn’t normal. While the offense was hot to begin the season, it cooled down; and while there were multiple issues, the offensive line shares some of the blame. The rushing attack regressed badly from 2019. Graham Mertz had five touchdown passes against Illinois and, while Wisconsin did dominate a talented but underachieving Michigan team, the offense was frozen the rest of the year. The rest of the games that were played were a disaster offensively, including the 42-point explosion in the Mayo Bowl. It took four interceptions to aid them because they were held to 266 total yards.
Graham Mertz struggled tremendously after the Michigan blowout and, while the skill positions were a part of that, the offensive line didn’t give him the protection he should have had. Additionally, the running game didn’t get going like it usually does, thus putting more pressure on the pass attack.
The Badgers will be losing Jon Dietzen and Cole Van Lanen to graduation. Losing Van Lanen hurts the most because he was an All-American and two-time All-Conference lineman. He was arguably the Badgers’ most consistent player along the offensive line in 2020.
Despite the off year, there is plenty to be excited about with this group. With spring practice now in session, Wisconsin looks to get back to their dominance up front.
After filling in very well in relief of Dietzen in the Mayo Bowl, the left tackle position is Logan Brown’s to lose. The former five-star recruit will most likely be anchoring the left tackle spot for the next two or three years. The Badgers haven’t had a player of this caliber at the left tackle position since 2016 with Ryan Ramczyk.
Josh Seltzner and Kayden Lyles also return to man the guard and center positions, respectively. Although they did get some playing time next each other, a full spring practice will help them going forward.
Although Lyles is the favorite to be the starting center, don’t be surprised if Cormac Sampson or Tanor Bortolini at least challenge him. Both provided admirable play at center in place of Lyles. Even if Lyles retains the starting job for his final season, the Badgers will have a nice sneak peek at the future.
A freshman to pay attention to in spring camp is five-star recruit, Nolan Rucci. Rucci is the second highest-rated recruit ever in program history. Rucci was ranked 36th in the ESPN 300 list of recruits and the seventh-best tackle. With the physical tools he brings, he just might see some playing time in his freshman season.
Outside of that group, the Badgers have a mix of youth and experience in the offensive line room. Joe Tippmann, Michael Furtney, Jack Nelson, and Trey Wedig should be competing for playing time soon. Tippman also could be moving to center as he has taken reps at the position in practice.
In recruiting, Wisconsin had quite the hall. Aside from Rucci, they were able to land four-star recruits in JP Benzschawel and Riley Mahlman. Mahlman and Benzschawel are both ranked in the ESPN 300 as the 21st and 22nd best tackles for the class of 2021. Besides Rucci, I’m not expecting any freshmen to compete for serious playing time, but the promise is there.
Overall, this unit will rebound from an inconsistent 2020 and will be more athletic up front. With the young talent that’s been recruited the past few years working their way up the depth chart, the sky is the limit for this group.