When evaluating University of Wisconsin offensive linemen as an NFL assistant, Jack Bicknell Jr. knew a few boxes were going to be checked before he turned on the tape.
Offensive linemen were going to be big enough to play pros, and they were going to be well-drilled.
“It’s kind of, like I said, 30 years of sitting here looking at Wisconsin and saying, ‘Man, that’s a good offensive line,'” Bicknell told reporters last month. .
The veteran line coach gets his first chance to coach in the Big Ten conference as he takes charge of the program front, a group full of talent and looking to regain the game dominance he once claimed .
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Bicknell’s main task when spring training opens on March 25 will be installing the new techniques needed to operate offensive coordinator Phil Longo’s Air Raid system. Bicknell says the blocking style is similar to what UW has had, but smoothing out any issues in installing the new scheme needs to happen in the spring to set up real competition for roles in the fall.
In this series, BadgerExtra will examine three important issues facing a handful of position groups before these practices begin, and with the offensive line, Bicknell’s concern may be having too many options.
1. What to do at the guardhouse?
UW enters spring training with six players who could compete for starting guard spots. The leaders of this group with junior Tanor Bortolini, senior Michael Furtney and junior Trey Wedig based on their experience, but young talents such as JP Benzschawel and Joe Brunner were pushing for snaps late last year . Brunner played in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl and helped propel a touchdown. There’s also the addition of transfer junior Joe Huber (6-foot-5, 310 pounds), who played tackle for UW coach Luke Fickell in Cincinnati but might be a better fit at UW. on guard.
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Many of the responsibilities guards had last year – pullovers, double shifts, etc. – are transferred to the Longo system. However, during the stops in North Carolina and Mississippi, the offensive lines used wider splits than those used by UW. This space between linemen will place more emphasis on guard point speed, as guards need to close gaps and lock onto a defender in their first two steps.
The accelerated pace of the attack will create enough snaps that Bicknell could see just about any combination of guards he needs to see. Don’t expect jobs to be won in the spring, but seeds will be sown for the fall.
2. Who supports Renfro?
Jake Renfro is another transfer from Cincinnati to UW that looks like a shoo-in for the starting center role. He was a 2021 All-AAC first-team pick before a training camp injury sidelined him for the 2022 season. His experience and talent will help solidify a spot that lost the starter two-year-old Joe Tippmann and had no obvious replacement.
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But finding a replacement for Renfro should be on Bicknell’s checklist this spring. Renfro told BadgerExtra he feels healthy and ready to play this spring, but coaches will be watching his return to contact closely. Some options to be second-team center include moving Bortolini from guard — especially if the guard position is as deep as advertised — or last year’s backup center Dylan Barrett.
UW expects to throw the ball more often in the airstrike, so having multiple centers capable of making line calls and setting protections properly is important for the offense as a whole.
3. Does Rucci adapt better to this system than the previous one?
Former five-star tackle Nolan Rucci’s recruiting win was a big part of the Class of 2021, the highest-rated group in program history. But Rucci has only played 28 attacking snaps in two years and needs to win a positional battle this year to break through the starting lineup. UW’s best starting tackles from last season, Riley Mahlman and Jack Nelson, are still on the list, and Rucci’s 6-foot-8 frame makes play at any other position but difficult tackle.
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A hang-up for Rucci to earn snaps was bound to add weight as he struggled to ground himself and stop the bull rushes of some of UW’s top roster frontrunners. He weighed 297 pounds last season, up from 294 in first year. A spring football slate with updated metrics is expected to be released on Monday.
Bicknell had his tackles lined up in two-point positions at North Carolina. If that carries over to UW, it may help Rucci use his lateral quickness more easily than unrolling from a three-point position.
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