University of Wisconsin fullback Alec Ingold remembers Cole Van Lanen as a tall, lanky 10th grader at Bay Port High School, when the lineman spent the majority of that 2013 season with a giant club on a broken hand he suffered in a September game against Green Bay Notre Dame.
While he may not have quite looked the part yet, a limited, inexperienced and not fully developed Van Lanen still found ways to make his mark on both sides of the ball.
"I just remember him running around with that (club), swinging it around,” said Ingold, Van Lanen’s teammate at Bay Port. "He looked like the most awkward, Gumby-looking dude out there on the field.
“Back in high school I saw how dominant of a player he can be. He took over games every single week. A lot of guys do that in high school, but I was always kind of waiting for him to do it here at the next level because I’ve always known it’s in him. ... It was just a matter of time before it came out."
That time could be now for Van Lanen, a redshirt sophomore at UW. He earned his first extended action at left tackle for the Badgers in their season-opening win over Western Kentucky and made his first career start last week against New Mexico.
Van Lanen showed off his strength in the run game over UW’s first two games and has yet to allow a pressure in 29 pass-blocking snaps, per Pro Football Focus. He enters Saturday’s game against BYU at Camp Randall Stadium as one of the most impactful players on an offensive line chock-full of All-Americans.
The consensus four-star prospect came to Madison already physically ready to compete at the top level of college football. Even as a young prep player he never shied away from contact, according to Bay Port coach Gary Westerman, and Van Lanen’s great feet, natural balance and body awareness were apparent when he won WIAA Division 1 state titles in shot put and discus his junior year.
As a sophomore, Westerman was already telling Van Lanen’s parents he wouldn’t need to pay for college.
"He was never on the ground,” Westerman said. "I think that’s a great quality of an offensive or defensive lineman, is your ability to stay on your feet. It seems like something really simple, but it’s not.
"He’s a really good athlete, really physical at the point of attack, and he’s only going to continue to get better. It’s awesome to watch."
The difference for Van Lanen this season with the Badgers comes from his growth in the mental aspects of the game — understanding exactly what his responsibilities are on each play and doing them without hesitation.
Offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph called Van Lanen’s performance in the spring of 2017 “so-so,” leading the Badgers to move third-year starter Michael Deiter to left tackle and out of his natural home on the interior of UW’s offensive line.
“We weren’t that confident with just throwing him out there,” Deiter, now UW’s left guard, said of Van Lanen. "We thought it’d be better if I played tackle, and it was. I think he was ready, but maybe not all the way there mentally. And the progress he made was huge. He’s playing like an older guy. ... Now we have the confidence to start him any week."
Rudolph said he saw things start to click for Van Lanen during fall camp last season. The redshirt freshman even earned some snaps as a blocking tight end in the Badgers’ final two games against Ohio State and Miami after Zander Neuville tore his ACL against Minnesota.
This spring, with Deiter, Jon Dietzen and a number of other linemen out due to injury, an increased workload pushed Van Lanen over the top.
"I think going through and getting all the first-team reps in spring ball and seeing everything, understanding everything, it really helped me coming into camp, and then that’s where I took advantage of my opportunities,” Van Lanen said. "You need to find confidence when you play. When you do that, things switch in a hurry, and that’s what happened for me."
Dietzen started and rotated with Van Lanen during the first half against Western Kentucky before UW rested Dietzen in the second half.
While that rotation could return at some point this season, Van Lanen had the spot to himself the following week and put himself in position to become the Badgers’ long-term answer at left tackle.
“He treated this whole offseason like he was a guy who was going to be playing, and I think that’s big for him mentally to get it through his own head that he can be a guy for this team,” Ingold said. "Acting a little different, acting a little more mature, growing up. You could tell he’s taking the next steps to try and be a great player here, and I think now you’re kind of seeing that.
“There’s definitely a step you have to make to be a veteran on this team, to really take every detail into account ... and Cole took that step this offseason."
One of the five
Ingold’s first experience with Van Lanen wasn’t a pleasant one. The two lived just a couple blocks from each other and took the bus to intermediate school when Ingold was in sixth grade.
While Ingold always wanted a peaceful ride so he could read a book, Van Lanen’s rowdiness simply wouldn’t allow for it.
"He was just the loud kid in the back,” Ingold said. "Yeah, I was annoyed at him."
Ingold welcomes Van Lanen’s lighthearted disposition at UW, though, and can see his true self coming out more off the field as his confidence increases on it.
"He has a very big personality,” Ingold said. "He kind of came in and was really quiet, very respectful, and I think that’s a big thing for the offensive line for freshmen coming in — you have to learn from the older guys. You have to really kind of pay your time almost and kind of absorb as much as you can.
“Now I’m seeing the little kid come back in him a little bit — a little bit louder in the locker room and everything like that, so it’s pretty fun to see."
Van Lanen entered this season as somewhat of an outsider to the Badgers’ starting unit. He joined three All-Americans from last season in Deiter, right guard Beau Benzschawel and right tackle David Edwards, along with Freshman All-American center Tyler Biadasz.
If Van Lanen continues playing as he did in the Badgers’ first two games, however, it may not be long before he’s simply one of the five.
"I think you take a big leap when you’re playing confident,” Rudolph said. “When that confidence is there, you don’t care who’s lining up next to you. You’re not worried (about) being in there with these four guys. You don’t care. You don’t give a rat’s (expletive). You just are playing, and I think that’s what the guys around him feel like — this guy’s just playing, man. He’s getting after it and having fun."