WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — The first time junior left guard Ryan Groy met interim offensive line coach Bart Miller was in the University of Wisconsin weight room early in 2011.
Miller played for former UW offensive line coach Bob Bostad at New Mexico, then was brought in a year ago to be the offensive quality control coach for the Badgers.
“The day I met Bart, he came in and watched us lift and had his arms crossed, standing next to Bostad,” Groy said. “I was like, ‘Oh, no, his little protege here.’ ”
Miller would be happy to be called a Bostad protege, given the impact his former coach has had on his coaching style and football philosophy.
“I’m a Bostad guy,” Miller said. “I’ve never said I wasn’t. He’s really a huge inspiration to anything I’ve ever done, as a player or as a coach.”
When UW coach Bret Bielema fired offensive line coach Mike Markuson after the Sept. 8 game against Oregon State, a big part of the decision to promote Miller had to do with his ties to Bostad, who served as UW’s offensive line coach from 2008 to ’11.
In addition to being recruited by and playing under Bostad, Miller got his start in coaching in 2010 as a graduate assistant at New Mexico State under another Bostad disciple, Jason Lenzmeier, who is now the offensive line coach at New Mexico.
“I played for Bostad,” Lenzmeier said. “I kind of model myself after him also, kind of what I learned. Obviously, Bart coached with me down at New Mexico State and he was coach Bostad’s G.A.
“He’s got all of the knowledge. He just has to apply it now.”
That’s what Miller has been doing for the past month since his promotion.
Perhaps the biggest test yet of his progress comes today at Purdue, which has a strong defensive line, led by senior defensive tackle Kawann Short.
Plenty on line today
The winner of today’s game has the inside track to represent the Leaders Division in the Big Ten Conference title game in Indianapolis — and the outcome will have a lot to do with the play of UW’s offensive line.
“Really, whoever wins that line of scrimmage is going to win the game,” Miller said.
Miller has attempted to follow the Bostad doctrine, but progress has been slow. UW’s line has shown only flashes of its previously dominating form — mostly in the first half against Nebraska two weeks ago and in the fourth quarter against Illinois last week.
“You’ve got to keep in perspective that the things they had been practicing, working, teaching, and becoming part of who they were dramatically changed after Oregon State,” Bielema said. “I knew at that point it wasn’t going to be something to change overnight, but I knew there would be change and it’s been going in the right direction.”
Miller has returned to many of the Bostad ways, starting with making practices as demanding as possible.
“(Bostad) is a tremendous influence on what I believe in,” Miller said. “He thinks and he really stressed this last year — I feel the same way — the week should be very, very hard, so games are easy.”
Bostad was famous for never letting his linemen take a break during practices and Miller is getting back to that.
“When everyone else is taking a break, or on special teams, we’ll go and hit the sled or do something that will take a toll on our legs,” junior center Travis Frederick said. “Ten minutes later, when we have to go against the (defense), it’s much more difficult for us, than for everyone else. That helps us to focus on the technique and the pad level and everything when we’re tired.”
Pad level has been another issue, which has shown up in the line’s short-yardage woes. Under Markuson, the linemen got away from using the “cage,” which is actually a set of bars. The linemen get in a three-point stance under the bars, which force them to stay low, when they come off the ball.
All of those habits take a long time to form. But during the season, teams have only two heavy practices per week, on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. That means Miller has had only 10 practices to implement things that would have been done in the spring or preseason camp.
Illini game turning point?
Last week’s fourth quarter against Illinois, when tailback Montee Ball carried 11 times for 97 yards, could be a sign Miller’s changes are making an impact.
“It shows what we’re capable of and what we’ve been capable of all along,” Miller said. “It gave our guys a tremendous amount of confidence.
“I hope it gave our staff confidence, too, in what we’re doing and really the fans, knowing we are the Wisconsin of old up front.”
As much as he has tried to follow Bostad’s methods, Miller can’t try to imitate his mentor’s style. Bostad, who is now the offensive line coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, has a single-mindedness, intensity and drive that are hard to match.
“He’s not Bostad, but he wants the same kind of physical play,” Groy said. “Everything Bostad wanted in the end, he’s trying to get there.”
Finding his own way to reach the players might be Miller’s biggest challenge.
“Finding ways to motivate those kids, to make them tough and to be workhorses,” Lenzmeier said. “That’s what Wisconsin has had for a long time. He’s got to get back to it. They’ve got good players, there’s no doubt about that. You’ve just got to get them to do what you want them to do.”