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Wisconsin Is the NFL Draft’s ‘O-Line U.’ Again

The Badgers’ offensive line pipeline has five NFL-caliber players this season, including a one-time high school quarterback who has first-round potential. Plus, Missouri QB Drew Lock looks to make his first-round case against a stacked Kentucky secondary

The two players featured on Wisconsin’s gameday flip card for last week’s homecoming game weren’t playmakers. They didn’t go with an offensive star, like thousand-yard rusher Jonathan Taylor or quarterback Alex Hornibrook. Nor did they choose highly touted senior linebacker T.J. Edwards. Nope, the coverboys were Michael Deiter and Beau Benzschawel, both 300-pound offensive linemen. Only at Wisconsin.

Back in 2011, Russell Wilson’s lone season in Madison, the Badgers featured four future NFL starters on their O-line—Travis Frederick, Ricky Wagner, Kevin Zeitler and Peter Konz—plus current Rams right tackle Rob Havenstein was a backup on that team. This year’s version might rival that group. Wisconsin has the best O-line in college football, and all five starters have NFL potential. Right to left they are David Edwards, Beau Benzschawel, Tyler Biadasz, Michael Deiter and Jon Dietzen. They won’t all leave Madison for the 2019 draft, but it’s very likely they will all be drafted over the next three years.

Wisconsin's front five: Jon Dietzen (67), Michael Deiter (63), Beau Benzschawel (66), Tyler Biadasz (61) and David Edwards (79)

Wisconsin's front five: Jon Dietzen (67), Michael Deiter (63), Beau Benzschawel (66), Tyler Biadasz (61) and David Edwards (79)

Edwards might be the most intriguing prospect, as scouts have a wide range of evaluations for him and he has the most interesting background of the bunch. At 6' 7", 315 pounds, the redshirt junior has the body of an offensive lineman, but deep down he’s a quarterback. When Wisconsin recruited Edwards out of Downers Grove North (Ill.) High School he was an option QB, and he still likes to remind his teammates that he’s ready to go as the fourth-string quarterback should the situation ever arise. “Worst-case scenario, just put me in shotgun and I’ll catch a snap,” he laughs.

Growing up in the Chicago suburbs, Edwards watched two of his older cousins star at quarterback at Downers Grove North. He was so obsessed with being just like his cousins that six-year-old David got his own helmet and painted it purple to look just like theirs, bringing it to every game. When he got to North as a freshman, he was finally free from the youth football weight limits that forced him to play on the offensive and defensive line. Already 6' 3" and 190 pounds, he knew he was destined for the offensive line, but he wasted no time seizing the opportunity for quarterback glory. As an option QB, he only threw about 20% of the time. “We didn’t have a great quarterback coming up and he really wanted to follow in the tradition of his cousins,” says John Wander, who was Edwards’ head coach at Downers Grove North and coached both of Edwards’s cousins. “He was probably the biggest option quarterback this state has ever seen.”

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Edwards was thinner back then but taller than every guy on his offensive line and had to stoop underneath his center to get the snap. The Trojans’ split-back veer offense used Edwards’s length to their advantage. The team’s center, who was the brainiac on the roster, worked out a calculation that all the offense needed to do was create a one-yard hole for Edwards and then have him fall forward. Repeat that three times, and with Edwards’s impressive reach, they’d have a first down. The play call was con veer blast quarterback left. “The offensive line would block down, the running back would kick out the end man on the line of scrimmage and I would just ride the wave,” Edwards says. “We ran that play a lot, and it worked just like he calculated.”

Wisconsin recruited Edwards as a tight end, but it didn’t take long for the coaching staff to switch him to tackle. “He was taller than us on the offensive line, so we were like, O.K., we'll see how long this guy is going to be at tight end,” Benzschawel says. “We saw it coming.”

Now in his third season at right tackle, Edwards’s inner-quarterback has been quelled, but Deiter still picks up on his quarterback tendencies. “He does his hair nice,” Deiter says. “I don’t know why, but I expect quarterbacks to be concerned with their hair. He’s always looking good.”

“He just kinda acts like a quarterback, you know?” Benzschawel adds. “It’s his leadership skills and the way he goes about business. He is very professional.”

At the last practice of the season, during bowl game week, the Badgers switch jerseys with a teammate. Edwards always wears No. 12, quarterback Alex Hornibrook’s number. He even copies Hornibrook’s habit of wearing a sweatband on each wrist. “He looks exactly like him,” Deiter says. “He just looks like a really overweight quarterback.”

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Scouts are mixed on Edwards. Several point out that he is far from a finished product, though because of his sheer size and the premium put on the tackle position he will likely still be a first- or second-rounder. Poor performances this season against BYU and Michigan (Michigan’s Chase Winovich and BYU’s Corbin Kaufusi both gave him trouble on the edge) have led some evaluators to question his stock. One veteran scout points to Edwards’s significant increase in size—he arrived in Madison as a 245-pound tight end and was up to 300 pounds by his redshirt freshman season—is now both his upside and his weakness. “He hasn’t been that size his whole life,” the scout says. “It’s like a point guard that grows six inches and is all of a sudden a center. It takes time to get the coordination where it once was, and it takes time to master the technique. He just needs that time to continue to develop, and I’m sure he will.”

Though Edwards received a second-round projected grade from the NFL draft advisory board after last season, several scouts mentioned that he could benefit from returning for his final year of eligibility.

Deiter, a senior, currently plays left guard, but has also started games at center and left tackle during his college career. Scouts see him mainly as a guard but hit versatility is a plus, and Deiter says playing three positions along the offensive line helped him improve. “At tackle, you use a lot more athleticism than you have to at guard and center,” Deiter says. “So when I go back and watch film at tackle, and now I’m playing guard, I realize, Oh, I can be more athletic, I can be quicker, I can be do all this stuff better.”

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Scouts project Deiter as a second- or third-round pick, with Benszchawel, a senior right guard, and junior left tackle Dietzen—if he decides to come out—following close behind him. Benszchawel is a lesser athlete than Deiter, but scouts see him and Dietzen as technically sound guys who are strong and efficient with all their movements. All three consistently win their individual matchups and scouts like Benszchawel’s composure. He’s hard to bull rush and anchors well in pass protection.

The best player along the line might be the youngest: redshirt sophomore center Tyler Biadasz. Though he needs at least one more season in school, one scout gives him the highest of compliments: “He’s an ass-kicker.”

Benzschawel, Dietzen and Biadasz are all native Wisconsinites and were well aware of the school’s storied offensive line history when they were recruited. Benzschawel likes to joke that there isn’t much room left on the walls of the offensive line meeting room. “Quarterbacks have like four plaques on their wall, we have like 40,” he says. Since 1990, the year Barry Alvarez took over the Wisconsin’s football program and turned it into a perennial powerhouse, the program has had 25 offensive linemen drafted, and nine of those draft classes included more than one Badgers offensive lineman.

For Deiter, an Ohio native, the task of upholding that Wisconsin tradition felt daunting at first. “I always felt nervous that you better be good or you’re not gonna be a Wisconsin offensive lineman,” he says. “When I was young, I’d always be like, Well, what if I’m not as good as [Rams right tackle] Rob Havenstein and [Bengals right guard] Kevin Zeitler? But then you hear from coaches what they did and you think, Oh, that’s totally possible. You see guys like that and the work they did to get there and it makes it easier, it’s almost like a blueprint.”

Just like so many Wisconsin O-linemen past, this season’s group is following that blueprint to the NFL.

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Missouri QB Drew Lock vs. Kentucky secondary
There has been plenty of buzz in the media, as well as in scouting circles, already this fall about Kentucky outside linebacker Josh Allen, and rightfully so. But all that attention has overshadowed one of the nation’s best position groups—Kentucky’s defensive backfield. While Allen is undeniably one of the most improved and impactful players we’ve seen this year, his teammates in the secondary are similarly responsible for the No. 12 ranked Wildcats’ surprising 6-1 start.

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It is rare when the top five players in any position group are all seniors, but that’s exactly what the Wildcats have this year in the cornerback trio of Lonnie Johnson, Derrick Baity, and Chris Westry and the safety duo of Mike Edwards and Darius West. The combination of Johnson, Baity, Edwards and West have started all seven games so far this season, with Westry rotating in on the perimeter.

The experience in this fivesome is incredible, as they have collectively started 138 games heading into Saturday’s showdown with SEC East rival Missouri. From a communication standpoint, the familiarity this group has is invaluable, but when you also factor in the actual talent into the equation that’s what makes this a special group for the college level. Here is a brief breakdown of each senior in the Wildcat secondary:

• Edwards: returning first-team All-SEC…9 career INT…good athlete…very instinctive…good feel playing in the slot…aggressive blitzer…NFL teams will like his nickel/FS position flexibility

• West: loose athlete for a safety…aggressive downhill player…can tackle in space…good awareness reading the QB and feeling threats in the backend…has interchangeable FS/SS skill-set

• Johnson: intriguing press-man tools…can turn and run and shows a gear-change when he needs it versus vertical routes…his length shows up when he plays around WR and finishes

• Baity: length is top attribute…efficient in transition for taller CB…flashes good catchup speed…staff thinks he will run fast at combine…scouts want him to be more physical

• Westry: started every game as true frosh in ’15…lost starting spot to Johnson this year…also runs track for Kentucky…hard-to-find combination of length/speed will get him a chance in NFL

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When Missouri quarterback Drew Lock watches tape this week, the first thing that will probably stand out is the sheer size of the cornerbacks. Johnson, Baity, and Westry are all listed at 6' 3" or taller. Scouts are always looking for tall, longer-bodied corners and all three of these guys fit that profile.

One of the big reasons why NFL teams covet length so much is because they are difficult to throw over downfield, thus it is hard to hit explosive chunk plays against them. Kentucky’s corners will test Lock’s deep accuracy and trajectory this week. A key for Lock will be putting enough air under the ball on deep throws to get over the “defensive radius” of guys like Johnson, who most scouts believe will be the first Wildcat DB taken in April’s draft. The term “catch radius” is frequently used to describe the expansive target area of bigger receivers and defensive radius is just as important for defensive backs who are charged with defending bigger receivers like Missouri senior wideout Emanuel Hall, who has missed time with a lingering groin injury.

Without Hall stretching the field on the perimeter, Lock has taken fewer vertical shots in recent games and last week he did an excellent job of getting talented redshirt sophomore TE Albert Okwuegbunam involved (6 catches, 159 yards, 3 TD). With a disruptive pass rusher like Allen coming off the edge, look for Lock to get the ball out of his hand fast to Okwuegunam, and for safeties Edwards and West to play critical roles in pass coverage down the middle of the field on Saturday.

In a draft class where none of the top-rated QBs have clearly separated themselves this year, Lock can help himself with a good game against a secondary with potentially four or five draft picks. Strictly based on arm talent, which we saw firsthand last summer at the Manning Passing Camp, Lock should be in the first-round conversation throughout the pre-draft process.

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Clemson CB Mark Fields vs. Florida State WR Nyqwan Murray
Murray is a super explosive WR who will be challenged by the natural athleticism and cover ability of Fields, who needs a strong second half of the season to challenge for a Senior Bowl roster spot.

Cincinnati DT Marquise Copeland vs. SMU OG Nick Natour
Copeland and Natour are both undersized in the interior but have impressive movement skills to make up for it. This is a battle the NFL and Senior Bowl scouts are very interested in watching.

N.C. State OC Garrett Bradbury vs. Syracuse DT Chris Slayton
Bradbury was spotlighted last week for his matchup with Clemson’s Christian Wilkins and he will be put to the test again against the powerful Syracuse 3-technique Slayton.

Miami DT Gerald Willis vs. Boston College OG Chris Lindstrom
Willis’s swim move has terrorized offensive linemen all season, so we are interested in seeing how the technical and experienced Lindstrom handles it. This might be the first tape that NFL decision-makers watch in draft meetings on both players.

New Mexico State LB Terrill Hanks vs. Texas State TE Keenen Brown
If Hanks’ ankle is good to go, he will be able to showcase his NFL potential against Brown, who is taking advantage of his graduate transfer season coming from Oklahoma State. Both players are getting buzz on the road among scouts.

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All times Eastern…

No. 20 Wisconsin at Northwestern, 12 p.m., FOX: A battle for the Big Ten West. Sure, Northwestern had a three-game losing streak earlier this season, but the ‘Cats have bounced back and are right there with Wisconsin with just one conference loss, also to Michigan. Now that you know all about the Badgers’ offensive line, tune in to see them open up some insanely wide lanes for Jonathan Taylor.

No. 9 Florida vs. No. 7 Georgia, 2:30 pm, CBS: This rivalry game is the first top-10 matchup for these two SEC East teams since 2008. This game has College Football Playoff implications, as well as SEC East consequences, as both teams are tied with Kentucky atop the division.

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