Wisconsin tries to regain supremacy in the trenches under its 4th O-line coach in as many years

Thu, May 2, 2024

Wisconsin tries to regain supremacy in the trenches under its 4th O-line coach in as many years

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Wisconsin's offensive linemen understand what's expected at a program that prides itself on controlling the trenches.

"A lot of people consider it 'O-line U,'" right tackle Riley Mahlman said. "In the past few years, I think we've been a good o-line. I don't think we've been necessarily great."

That hasn't been good enough. It helps explain why the Badgers fell to a combined 27-19 the last four seasons after going 63-19 from 2014-19.

Wisconsin spent spring practice trying to re-establish its superiority on the line of scrimmage while adapting to its fourth offensive line coach in as many years.

"You grow up playing offensive line, you look at a school like Wisconsin, you think, 'That's where I want to be,'" left guard Joe Brunner said. "We've always been dominant. We've produced. We've developed. As an offensive lineman, that's what you want to do. That's what you want to be."

Wisconsin hasn't dominated quite as often lately. An issue is a lack of stability.

New offensive line coach A.J. Blazek, a former Iowa lineman, arrived from Vanderbilt this year to take over the role Jack Bicknell Jr. had in 2023, Bob Bostad in 2022 and Joe Rudolph in 2021.

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All that change makes it tough to establish a rhythm. Blazek emphasizes the positive by noting how much players learned from each coach.

"There's things that Rudy did well," Blazek sad. "There's things that Bo did well. There's things that Jack did well. The (players) kind of have a really good toolbox."

Wisconsin's offensive line features plenty of experience, though it lacks depth. Brunner is expected to make his first career start in the Aug. 31 opener against Western Michigan, but the other four first-team linemen (left tackle Jack Nelson, center Jake Renfro, right guard Joe Huber and Mahlman) have each made at least 19 starts.

Badgers coach Luke Fickell said the offensive line might be "the group that made as big a leap as anybody" this spring.

"I don't mean that as just one guy or two guys," Fickell said. "I just meant as a unit, as a whole."

Blazek has tried getting to know his linemen as quickly as possible.

"He invites us up to his office," Huber said. "Every week he has a meeting sign-up sheet, which I've never seen before from a coach. He just encourages us to come and talk with him as much as he can. You come up and just go up by yourself and watch film, ask questions."

Brunner says those one-on-one office sessions have helped the linemen appreciate Blazek as if they've worked with him for four years rather than four months. Sometimes he's teaching manners. Other times he's asking players how they're feeling.

"Going up there and learning from him every single day has allowed me to become not only a better football player but a better man as well," Brunner said.

They believe Blazek's ability to build relationships quickly will assure that Wisconsin's offensive linemen don't suffer from all the recent coaching turnover. Getting a full season from Renfro at center also would help.

Renfro has played just one game over the last two seasons because of multiple injuries. Renfro returned for Wisconsin's Reliaquest Bowl loss to LSU and believes he has regained the form he showed while helping Cincinnati reach the College Football Playoff in 2021.

"I think I can be even better than that," Renfro said.

Wisconsin's also expecting plenty from Renfro.

"He's like the glue out there, really," Blazek said. "He's a vocal guy. He's an optimistic guy. He brings a little bit of verbal energy and it kind of spreads throughout. Huber's not going to say a whole lot. Riley's not going to say a whole lot. The two on the left, they're going to bring a little gas to the fire and have a little energy when they play. He's the guy that ties the whole thing together. I think that's going to kind of be his role in the room.

"An o-line's like a bunch of super heroes. They've all got to have different roles. His is going to be gluing it together."

The Badgers hope that togetherness helps their line go from good to great.

"I think we're definitely working back toward that," Mahlman said. "I think there's a high standard here, and we're always looking up at it."


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