The University of Wisconsin offensive line, arguably the Badgers' strongest position group, entered the final week of its offseason with one of UW's few remaining undecided position battles.
Every member of that line returns from a year ago, but junior Jon Dietzen and sophomore Cole Van Lanen continue to compete at left tackle. While Dietzen, with the majority of first-team reps in his pocket, appeared to be the instant leader when fall camp began, offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Joe Rudolph maintained last week that neither has secured a starting role.
"It would be Dietzen-Van Lanen, Van Lanen-Dietzen - alphabetically, reverse and forward," Rudolph said. "I've got great confidence in both those guys. I think those two guys know they're going to need each other, and I think as a team we know we're going to need both those guys."
Last year, Michael Deiter occupied the spot Dietzen and Van Lanen continue vying for. Deiter shifted back to his more natural position of left guard this offseason, while Dietzen went the other way after starting 20 games at left guard over the past two years.
Now Dietzen, at an unfamiliar position, must battle the promising Van Lanen for the final spot on an offensive line with potential to be one of the nation's best.
Dietzen missed part of camp with minor injury issues, and Rudolph's been limiting his participation after Dietzen underwent surgery earlier this offseason to repair a torn labrum in both hips. That's left the door open for Van Lanen to snatch up more first-team work over the last couple weeks.
"I think both of them - Dietzen and Cole - are competing really well at that spot," center Tyler Biadasz said. "It's obviously going to be a coach's decision, but when Dietzen went out the other day, or whenever he does come out, (Van Lanen) fulfills his duties. ... He's absorbing the knowledge that we're giving him, and he's not putting the same mistakes on film twice. So he's taking advantage of his opportunities."
Rudolph revealed the line's top eight last week. It included Dietzen, Van Lanen and right-sided starter David Edwards at tackle, with Jason Erdmann and Micah Kapoi backing up starters Deiter, Biadasz and Beau Benzschawel on the interior.
Rudolph wouldn't, however, give a timetable on his decision to name a starting left tackle. When asked earlier this month if rotating the two were a possibility, Rudolph said, "I'm not against it, especially if it can keep us fresh."
"I have no clue," Van Lanen said last week on when Rudolph might officially name a starter. "Right now I just know we're splitting reps. I don't know what's going to happen from here, so we'll see. ... I think I've improved 100 percent. Even from the start of camp, I think I've grown a lot. I just have to stay on that pace and keep growing for the season."
Much may depend on Dietzen's health. He said earlier this month that he played the entirety of last season in need of that labrum surgery. That's why Dietzen and Erdmann ultimately formed a rotation at left guard.
When practicing this camp, Dietzen's been the one taking the bulk of first-team reps, and he's built up much more experience than Van Lanen, who's snaps were scarce last season. Van Lanen also looks to be the backup at right tackle, and even if he can't displace Dietzen, he'll be vital to the Badgers' depth this year.
"Dietzen's coming off an operation, and for me to be foolish and say, 'Hey, go take every rep,' because he would do it for us," Rudolph said. "I've got to be smart with that. ... I feel confident with both those guys in that position, and I kind of look at it that way right now."