Wisconsin football 2023: Coaches see a deep, versatile offensive line

MADISON – New offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr. and several members of his unit agree:
Wisconsin has more than five linemen worthy of starting in 2023.
With more than three decades of coaching experience, in college and in the NFL, Bicknell plans to use more than five during games in his first season at UW.
"I think we have a lot of guys that can play,” Bicknell said. “I think we've got good depth so, in my opinion, if we have six, seven, eight guys, even then we'll rotate those guys. You see the defensive line rotating in all the time so it’ll give us a chance to be fresh.”
UW’s projected No. 1 line entering camp is: Jack Nelson at left tackle, Tanor Bortolini at left guard, Cincinnati transfer Jake Renfro at center, Michael Furtney at right guard and Riley Mahlman at right tackle.
Reserves who could fill in on the No. 1 unit, in part because of their versatility, include Cincinnati transfer Joe Huber and Trey Wedig. Huber, who can play guard, center and perhaps tackle, could challenge Furtney for a starting spot.
Wedig worked at left guard and right tackle in the spring. Huber worked at left guard and center.
“I think we have a lot more than five guys that can start at this program,” said Nelson, who started 13 games at right guard in 2021 and 12 games at left tackle last season
Bicknell has a history of giving capable reserves a series or two each week.
“When I was at Ole Miss, we played at least seven (guys) and some weeks eight,” said Bicknell, who coached at Ole Miss from 2017 through 2019. “Then that way you’re not working the guys in the fourth quarter just beat to holy heck. And at the end of the year, you have some fresh guys ready to go.…
“You just try to figure if they’re basically equal. Then they’re going to play basically equal. But if one is way better … maybe somebody gets a series off a half. It’s amazing how much that can help them … being able to be fresh in the fourth quarter.”
Here's what to watch from the offensive line as UW prepares for the season.
Cincinnati transfer Jake Renfro made a quick impression on his new teammates
Renfro missed last season (torn meniscus) but was a first-team all-American Athletic Conference center in 2021. Brought in to replace Joe Tippmann and anchor UW’s line this season, Renfro worked hard in the weight room and during winter conditioning drills to prove to his new teammates he came to Madison to lead by action first.
Although he missed almost of all of spring because of a stress fracture in his left foot, Renfro was a regular at practice and appeared comfortable sharing his thoughts with the players.
“I really tried to make my voice heard, establish that leadership and just let the guys know that I’m here to play,” he said. “Speaking up when I needed to speak up. And listen when I needed to listen. Especially at the center position, you have to be that leader. You have to be that vocal guy and take control of everything. I try to do that in every facet of my life.”
No huddle, no three-point stance and little time to breathe
Perhaps the most discussed change under new offensive coordinator Phil Longo was the pace of UW’s offense.
Delay of game calls shouldn’t happen with Longo’s frenetic, no-huddle offense.
Bicknell believes UW should be able to wear down opposing defensive linemen.
“That is part of the real advantage, I think, because now you’re going to get the defense tired,” he said. “And the D-line, we’re trying to get them to play the whole field. So, they’re running around and you can really get to the end of a drive where the D-line is exhausted. That is the real benefit of it.”
UW players throughout the spring were peppered with questions about adjusting to the change.
Nelson offered an interesting perspective about the line.
“Our previous practices as an O-line?” he said. “We’ve seen a lot worse. We’ve been through a lot worse, that’s for sure. It was interesting to see the new flow of practice. It got you out of breath. But nobody on the O-line was shell-shocked.”
Wisconsin linemen will have more room to roam
Another adjustment the linemen had to make in the spring working with Bicknell and Longo was getting comfortable with wilder splits.
“I want to run off the ball,” Bicknell explained. “I don’t want to just ooze off the ball. For those guys to be able to get running and get going, they need to be able to have some space or they’ll be all over each other.
“I think if we end up too tight then we end up on the back of our own guy and of course we don’t want to do that.”
Did you know, Jack Bicknell Jr. was involved in one of the sport's more memorable plays?
Bicknell was in the middle of one of the more iconic plays in the history of college football.
The date was Nov. 23, 1984. Boston College had a road game against Miami and Bicknell was the starting center for Boston College.
Miami held a four-point lead in the final seconds but Doug Flutie’s 48-yard Hail Mary to Gerard Phelan with no time on the clock gave Boston College a 47-45 victory.
“I played center at 255 pounds,” Bicknell said. “Played in the Cotton Bowl my last game. Ate like crazy to get to 260.
“Today I’m 6-1⅝ and 255. That is what linebackers are (now).
“They wouldn’t even look at me at Division III right now. That is a phenomenon that I just don’t understand. How do these kids get so big? It is just amazing.”

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