Silent impact: A weekend behind the scenes with Wisconsin's offensive line
MADISON, Wis. -- It's sunny and still at 6:30 a.m. outside the Stephen M. Bennett Student-Athlete Performance Center. It’s early August, and a yellow taxi rolls into sight near the Lot 17 parking garage to drop off two young ladies, still dressed from Friday night festivities, who giggle as they search for their car on Wisconsin's campus. A few minutes later, an engine whine buzzes through the air. It precedes the appearance of three large men riding scooters.
Rob Havenstein parks his Yamaha Zuma and swings off a leg. It's like a redwood trunk whipped around by a log crane. Wisconsin’s 6-foot-8, 333-pound right tackle wears a sleeveless high school football championship T-shirt with a bleach stain on the front, wraparound sunglasses and headphones. He is listening to “Hideaway” by Kiesza. He has arrived for the first two-a-day practice session of his fifth and final season with the Badgers.
It is 6:47 a.m. It is early.
“Yeah it is,” Havenstein says.
So begins another day in the life of a Wisconsin offensive lineman. Maybe nowhere else is the position as exalted as it is here. The Badgers program famously went from life support in the late 1980s to a run of 19 bowl games in the last 21 years, including six Rose Bowls, on the strength of a teeth-smashing run game and an anchor chain of mammoth linemen driving it. The line is no less important this fall for a team with a Heisman Trophy hopeful at tailback, a new starting quarterback, a marquee opener against LSU and a schedule conducive to a Big Ten title push.
It is a group completely accepting of its paradoxical existence. This may be the highest-profile offensive line in the country, and this may be the school known for churning out pro prospects annually. Yet the unit’s primary objective is to go largely unnoticed while making as percussive an impact as possible. For two days in August, the Badgers offered a glimpse into how they manage that job.
“We want to be a tough-ass, Wisconsin line,” says Havenstein, a second-team All-Big Ten performer in 2013 and an Outland Trophy hopeful this year. “Once the helmet goes on, once we step into the weight room, whatever it is, it's business. We strap in and get ready to work.”
On this particular Saturday, breakfast is served at 7 a.m. Havenstein downs some fruit and a bowl of oatmeal, staying far away from anything heavy or starchy like french toast or bacon. By 8:30 a.m., the offensive line will sit in a pre-practice meeting. Then it’s on to the field for walkthrough and stretching as Imagine Dragons' “Radioactive” blasts over the Camp Randall Stadium sound system, the prologue to the day's first session.
Between them, Wisconsin's five likely regulars have 75 career starts. There is Havenstein anchoring the group at right tackle; 6-5, 319-pound Kyle Costigan at right guard; 6-3, 311-pound Dan Voltz at center; 6-6, 321-pound Dallas Lewallen at left guard; and 6-5, 321-pound Tyler Marz at left tackle. Near-dawn wakeups and two-a-days are nothing short of necessary to an experienced group. “Every one of those kids, when they came to Wisconsin, they came to be great,” offensive line coach T.J. Woods says. “Everybody knows that group is supposed to be special. It's different every year -- just because it's happened in the past doesn't mean it's going to happen in the future. It's up to us to make it happen in the present.”
For position-specific individual work, the offensive linemen retreat to an area behind the north end zone, away from teammates catching and throwing and running all over. The line is together, but distinctly alone. The players take turns driving a one-man blocking sled at Woods' command. There are eight 45-pound plates on the back. It weighs about 500 pounds altogether. "It's a lot of fun," Marz says.
Once that's done, it's on to what is dubbed the Cage Party. Under a rolling apparatus of red iron bars with a metal mesh roof suspended about four feet high -- the cage -- 300-pound men must keep low through contact and never collide with that mesh above. Don't hit and pop up, or the cage is dancing.
The linemen don't sneer at the work of other position groups. They don't wish to give the impression of aloofness; indeed, in nine-on-nine periods that soon follow, the goal is flawless chemistry with skill players. It's just that the nature of the offensive line's work creates a distinct camaraderie within it. Being isolated, thanklessly pushing stuff around, coiling up under the cage? “It's what makes us good,” Voltz says.
“If I have to run 40 yards, I'm either chasing a pick or running after a touchdown with my hands in the air,” Havenstein says. “Our job description is to move people and stay low. That's what we go do.”
If the endgame is pulverizing things, it nevertheless involves subtlety. Most sideline conversations are brief and technical -- Marz and Havenstein take less than a minute to discuss defenders doing something new on the backside of zone plays, and how to fit it up -- while the linemen off the field lock in to how the on-field group reacts to schemes. Havenstein's streak of 27 consecutive starts gives him some leeway to walk around, clear his mind and crack that the Badgers “gotta start cussing and fighting” when he notices a youth group attending practice.
Mostly, though, even a proven veteran concentrates on the last series of snaps to eliminate errors. What was that look? What did I do wrong? Do we have to re-ID after that shift? “Practice is business,” Havenstein says. “If we're screwing around, grab-assing out there, that's how we're going to play in the game.”
When backup tackle Hayden Biegel commits a false start, Havenstein instinctively puts on his helmet and races out to replace the redshirt freshman. It's a transgression of the universal law of the line: You're only noticed when you do something wrong. A few periods later, Havenstein relearns that, too.
He drops into pass protection and linebacker Vince Biegel beats him inside. Havenstein lashes his left arm across Biegel's neck, drawing an obvious holding call. Havenstein balls his fists and curses himself after the sequence. He later says he knew Biegel would do what he did and that he should have waited to let the defender cross his face instead of kicking out too hard.
On the very next snap, terrific blitz pickup precedes a deep downfield completion. Still, as with all the linemen, it's not the successes but the conspicuous failures that linger with Havenstein, at least until the afternoon practice session.
“After I don't have the day I want to, whether it's up to my expectations or not -- like [the morning practice] wasn't good enough for me -- I'm actually excited to get out there and do better,” Havenstein says.
First, he'll have to watch it happen all over again.
In the Wisconsin offensive line's film room, four rows of tables and chairs face a giant video screen. Minutes before a 1 p.m. session begins, there are notebooks laid out at every spot.
A trio of hanging portraits features past Badgers heavies, each emblazoned with a keyword: TRADITION. DOMINANCE. GREATNESS. Above the Knockdown Chart on the white board along one wall, a line of plaques honors the program's All-America linemen. It stretches from one corner of the room to the other, at which point it overflows to the opposite wall where, for the time being, a picture of former center Travis Frederick hangs alone.
“Respect is earned in that room,” Woods says. “It's not given. That's very evident in the way the guys handle themselves and the way they go about their business. It's a business-type approach.”
At 12:55 p.m., the linemen fill in around Costigan, who was alone in the room while recovering from a stomach bug with a bottle of purple Pedialyte near his elbow. Everyone heads to their regular seats, veterans in the back. It’s nearly silent when Woods enters last.
“Costigan, you're still alive,” the Badgers assistant deadpans. “That's a plus.”
Film begins to roll and every player stares at the screen. They want to repeat what they did right and examine what they did wrong, hoping to proceed undetected either way. It's painstaking toil. There are 150 calls a Badgers lineman is expected to master, and it’s a language unto itself: Thigh cutoff. Tapping the three. One-set. Two-set. Oz. Trolley. Zelda. Squat the bull. Sit in the chair. This is Mars.
Ultimately, it is up to Woods -- the sort of coach who says he'll chokeslam anyone who steals his training table ice cream from the office freezer -- to notice every ill twitch and correct it in that vernacular.
"You got a base here? We're clicking our heels?"
"Get it done. That means it matters."
It takes but two or three steps to determine whether a play was a success. On each filmed snap, Woods inspects the video for maybe those three steps, then rewinds it, then scans it again, and so on until he has assessed each lineman. A play breaks or breaks down that quickly. Woods has an hour to dissect it, all of it, which turns out to be not a lot of time to make every relevant correction.
“I don't think most offensive lines operate like these guys do,” Woods says. “This room is unique. They want to work. They understand that's what this thing is built on. It's not built on the No. 1 recruits in the country. It's built on guys that come here and work their tails off for five years and the end result shows up.”
Woods, 33, is a California native who began his college career at Iowa State before finishing at Azusa Pacific, an NAIA school where he was an All-America tackle. He deems most good efforts outstanding. He deems most poor efforts something unprintable. He takes his share of blame, too, at one point saying he would work overnight to get Voltz a new call for an exotic defensive look. “I'll get you right,” Woods tells his center.
No one escapes unscathed. Havenstein gets a bouquet from Woods early on for blowing open a play -- “Hell of a job by you, Rob, on cutoff,” Woods says. “Good footwork and we're rolling” -- but the holding call inevitably comes up. The correction is low volume. Woods says Havenstein shouldn't lunge. He says the senior's footwork must be better. Havenstein knows he made a mistake. There is zero condescension from the coach, and it's on to the next clip.
“Plays like that, where it's either mental or my technique is kind of breaking down, especially in the pass game, that's something I've been working on for three years now,” Havenstein says later. “I'm still definitely not close to being good enough.”
It might as well be another motto on the wall. Even after five years, Havenstein strives to eliminate every flinch of imperfection. The line's pursuit of appearing unremarkable demands remarkable care.
Early in his 16-year tenure as Wisconsin's head coach, as he was navigating the Badgers from a 1-10 season in 1990 to a Rose Bowl berth three years later, Barry Alvarez caught wind of an off-field issue involving one of his players. Someone stole something at a party, a Walkman or a CD player. Alvarez might have been forced to investigate had Joe Panos not preemptively volunteered his services.
Panos was originally a walk-on but grew into a 6-3, 300-pound team captain, a second-team All-America lineman in 1993 and one of the best leaders Alvarez ever had. After this particular incident, Panos came to his coach. He said he knew the culprit’s identity. He said he would handle it.
“Which he did,” Alvarez says. “Actually, then he delivered the guy to me. He called it a Code Red.”
Alvarez, now the school’s athletic director, looked at the players drawn to his first Wisconsin camps -- eighth- and ninth-graders standing 6-5 or 6-6 and seemingly built out of hay bales -- and concluded he could recruit “big guys that could maul you.” But that decision alone doesn't forge a quarter-century-long tradition.
Empowering those big guys like Panos -- making them a big deal inside his program's walls even if they were virtually anonymous everywhere else -- was the critical building block. “When the offensive linemen are your leaders, then you have something,” Alvarez says. “Guys listen to them. They're unselfish. They know about work. They're not going to get a lot of praise. When they're the leaders of your team, it's special. Guys carry that on year to year.”
The message has spread region to region. Of the Badgers' likely line starters in 2014, three are from outside state lines. Havenstein is a Frederick, Md., native who says he received his offer and immersed himself in Wisconsin's track record of preparing linemen for the NFL. “As a kid coming out of high school, that's pretty cool,” Havenstein says. “You're like, 'Oh my god, I'm going to be the next best offensive lineman.' Which, if you don't have those dreams, you shouldn't be out doing it.”
On this weekend, Sunday brings a scrimmage open to the public -- not to mention three NFL scouts watching the Badgers line warm up -- and the first-team offense watches the second-stringers take the initial reps. “Let's go twos!” Havenstein barks from the sideline. Throughout the day, he is just about the only audible lineman, and one of the only audible offensive players. And that’s not just because the music blasting makes it difficult to hear outside a three-foot radius.
This is part of the program's architecture: One of the players who will speak the loudest also leads the group that will affect the team’s fortunes most. Late in the scrimmage, freshman receiver George Rushing hauls in a touchdown pass from quarterback Tanner McEvoy, after which Havenstein lifts McEvoy in the air and shakes him up and down in semi-serious jubilation. On the sideline, Havenstein spots Rushing. “[Bleeping] big-time, baby!” he bellows at the young wideout.
“If it's wrong, he's going to let you know, whether you're a defensive back, a defensive lineman, a linebacker or his fellow offensive line that plays right next to him,” Badgers head coach Gary Andersen says of Havenstein. “He's become a tremendous leader for this team. He is definitely the voice of the offense, quite frankly.”
The day ends with McEvoy hitting tight end Austin Traylor for a score behind the second-string offensive line, the second straight snap on which the Badgers passed on first down from the 12-yard line. It’s another shot of confidence for an offense in search of answers in the passing game.
“Whoooo!” Havenstein calls as he walks on to the field. Everyone else can get the credit, but no one seems to enjoy this more.
In the Wisconsin team dining room, a cafeteria-style space inside Camp Randall Stadium, the offensive line has its own table, closest to the buffet line. No one else is allowed to sit here. Yet when Marz arrives three other Badgers teammates are occupying the table.
The left tackle drops his bag one table over and proceeds to fill his tray from a menu including barbecue pork shanks, pan-seared chicken breasts, jambalaya, Romanoff potatoes, corn on the cob and collard greens, plus a sandwich station. By the time he's done, a few other linemates have arrived.
The intruders are, uh, politely asked to leave.
As the group digs in, football drifts away. Costigan has seen the video of Tony Stewart crashing into and killing Kevin Ward Jr. during a dirt track race. Opinions are offered. The group is surprised by how good former pro wrestler Dave Bautista was in “Guardians of the Galaxy,” and Havenstein especially liked the part when the regenerating Groot danced at the end. They talk about setting up another visit to Prime Quarter, a cook-your-own-steak restaurant on the east side of town. They talk about the late-night pizza offerings at local staple Ian's. (Havenstein prefers the macaroni-and-cheese slice; Marz is partial to the Smokey the Bandit, which features barbecue chicken, bacon, ranch dressing and cheddar cheese.)
It's 2:30 p.m. now, and Havenstein announces he wants to catch a nap before film, when every member of the line gets three grades on every play of the scrimmage: One for technique, one for assignment and one for effort. The group buses their trays and heads down the tunnel back to the locker room. Not long from this moment, they’ll line up against LSU in Reliant Stadium in Houston with an opportunity to set a College Football Playoff trajectory, to spring running back Melvin Gordon’s Heisman campaign and to make life easy on McEvoy, who spent 2013 playing safety and reportedly earned the starting quarterback job in August.
Everyone will watch. The best the Wisconsin offensive line can hope for is to hardly be seen at all.