Wisconsin Badgers: Offensive line preview

The Wisconsin Badgers have always had a reputation for having a top-notch offensive line and producing several fantastic pro prospects.

Mike Webster was a key member of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers dynasty and is enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Mark Tauscher spent 11 seasons blocking for Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay. Joe Thomas has earned notoriety as one of the best left tackles in the game despite playing in the NFL’s black hole of Cleveland.

Consider that since 2007, the year Thomas was selected third overall by the Browns, nine Badger offensive linemen have been drafted. Though the results have been somewhat spotty aside from Thomas, the NFL continues to pay special attention to the behemoth Wisconsin line.

Badger alum Joe Thomas has developed into one of the top offensive linemen i the NFL.

Badger alum Joe Thomas has developed into one of the top offensive linemen in the NFL.

The 2014 draft marked the first time since 2010 that a Badger offensive lineman was not selected. However, guard Ryan Groy did sign as an undrafted free agent with the Chicago Bears.

With just one graduate, Wisconsin will return four of its five starters from last season—tackles Tyler Marz and Rob Havenstein, guard Kyle Costigan and center Dan Voltz.

Redshirt junior Ray Ball is the early favorite to replace Groy at guard. Despite never starting in his career, he has appeared in 17 games across two seasons. He was also listed as the top backup to Groy on Wisconsin’s depth chart last year.

Offensive line is one of the most difficult position groups to evaluate because of the lack of widely accepted statistics. Therefore, the only way to truly assess offensive line performance without using advanced sabermetrics is to do so indirectly.

Quarterback sacks allowed may seem like a direct correlation to the line, but there are other factors involved that have nothing to do with the big men up front. Quarterbacks can hold onto the ball for too long when they should throw it away, and talented secondaries can prevent any receivers from getting open.

That being said, last year’s line allowed only 16 sacks in 13 games. It gave up multiple sacks in only three games—three in a loss to Penn State, three in a win against Northwestern and two in a loss to Ohio State.

On the ground, the line was fantastic in run blocking. Melvin Gordon and James White became the best single-season rushing duo in NCAA FBS history, combining for an astounding 3,053 yards. It was the 11th consecutive year the Badgers had at least one running back surpass 1,000 yards rushing.

With Gordon returning and sophomore Corey Clement now stepping into an expanded role that he is more than capable of handling, the rushing attack will be the focal point of the offense once again. However, the true test for the offensive line will be providing stability for whoever winds up playing quarterback for the Badgers.

Joel Stave is the returning starter, but because of wild inconsistency and a nagging shoulder injury suffered in the Capital One Bowl, the job is now open for competition. Redshirt sophomore Bart Houston is a former four-star recruit but has thrown just one pass in his collegiate career. True freshman D.J. Gillins is a dual-threat quarterback but is unlikely to start ahead of more experienced candidates.

Tanner McEvoy, a former junior college transfer that played safety last season for Wisconsin, moved back to quarterback for spring practice and impressed coaches with his accuracy on deep throws. It appears McEvoy is the primary competitor for Stave.

Regardless, a stable offensive line is essential for the Badgers this fall. It will maintain the powerful rushing attack and give enough protection for a young and inexperienced passing game.

Related: Wisconsin running back preview

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