BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — As a three-year starter at linebacker for the University of Wisconsin, T.J. Edwards has gained a working knowledge of the nation’s best offensive lines.
His list of the top lines includes the one he’s seen the most. The one in UW’s locker room.
“I think it’s tough to say anyone in the country is better, to be honest with you,” Edwards said. “I just think they’re guys who play well together and know their assignments. They’re just strong and tough to beat physically.”
You know, like almost every UW offensive line since Barry Alvarez brought his winning formula to Madison in 1990.
The biggest exception during that time was UW’s line in 2015, Paul Chryst’s first season as coach. Graduation, medical issues and two years of Gary Anderen’s recruiting and coaching had sapped the line of its traditional size, strength, depth, experience and fundamentals.
After injuries hit during the 2015 season, Chryst and offensive coordinator/line coach Joe Rudolph ended up with a unit consisting of senior tackle Tyler Marz and four redshirt freshmen. But while that group took its lumps, the season was also the start of something big.
Two years later, the rebuilt unit is worthy of the ultimate compliment: It looks like a UW offensive line.
“It’s crazy,” redshirt junior tackle Michael Deiter said. “Two years ago, we were average at best. And we were young. You can use that as an excuse, but we just kept working and we’ve gotten better and it’s starting to show. I still think we can be better.”
The process of getting better began in the weight room and on the practice field in 2015 and accelerated when many of the young linemen were forced to play that season. The line made a big jump last season and now has grown to the point where it has restored the school’s reputation for fielding a dominant, powerful group of blockers.
“I think we’re close,” Deiter said. “We should be recognizable as a typical Wisconsin offensive line, but we know we want to be better and be one of the most dominant. That’s what we want to be. We’ve just got to keep working.”
If there is even more growth potential in the line, Saturday would be a good day for it to show. Fourth-ranked UW plays at Indiana and could be without freshman tailback Jonathan Taylor, who is questionable with a leg injury. Even if he does play, Taylor’s carries could be limited, which could be a problem because UW likely will have to put up some points to keep pace with Indiana’s up-tempo offense.
As UW lines have shown over the years, though, they can open holes for tailbacks of all shapes and sizes. This season alone, five tailbacks have carried the ball and only one, Bradrick Shaw, is averaging less than 5.0 yards per carry.
The best way to measure the line’s growth might be the rushing totals. In 2015, UW averaged 150.3 rushing yards per game, the program’s lowest output since 1995. Last season, the rushing attack improved to 203.1 yards per game. This season, it’s 245.8. Meanwhile, quarterback sacks have dropped from 1.9 per game in 2015 to 1.7 per game last year to 1.1 per game this year.
After the rocky 2015 season, the line stabilized in 2016. For the final seven games of that season, the line, from left tackle to right tackle, was Ryan Ramczyk, Jon Dietzen, Deiter, Beau Benzschawel and David Edwards.
This year, Deiter slid out to left tackle to replace Ramczyk, a one-and-done transfer who was a first-round NFL draft pick, and redshirt freshman Tyler Biadasz took over for Deiter at center. Otherwise, the line looks the same.
Benzschawel and David Edwards on the right side have joined Deiter and Biadasz in starting every game. Dietzen has started six of the eight games at left guard despite being plagued by ankle issues. Micah Kapoi, one of those redshirt freshman starters in 2015, replaced Dietzen for two games and former walk-on Jason Erdmann has also filled in admirably there.
There are many reasons for the gains made by the line since 2015, but continuity of the personnel might be the biggest.
“I think it helps a lot,” Deiter said. “We have guys who battled through when we weren’t so good and now we’re starting to have success and we’ve been doing it for awhile. It just makes it that much more special when you have good games and you know where you started with all these guys. It just makes it cooler.”
Deiter and Benzschawel, now in their third year as starters, are the ringleaders of Rudolph’s line. Edwards, who is having a breakthough season at right tackle, was a tight end two years ago. When healthy, Dietzen is a road grader at left guard. And Biadasz is an athletic center who doesn’t play like a freshman.
“I think they’re growing with age and experience and I think that helps us overall,” Chryst said. “I think a guy like Tyler Biadasz, that can fast track him a little bit because they’re with him and they can pass it on. I’ve liked the work they’ve put in. I think they’re more consistent and I think we’re a better line than we were two years ago.”
They are. Just ask T.J. Edwards.
“They’re tough in practice, let me tell you,” he said. “Every day is a challenge for sure.”
On Saturday, the challenge is all Indiana’s.