MADISON — There is no mistaking the leader of the University of Wisconsin football team’s offensive line this season.
Ryan Groy is the only projected senior starter, as well as the leader in games played (41) and starts (20) among the linemen. He’s also in the mold of past leaders in the line, a guy who isn’t afraid to speak his mind, to teammates or the media.
The Badgers are coming off a remarkable three-year run on the line: Seven players have been drafted in that span, including three in the first round and one in the second.
Gabe Carimi won the 2010 Outland Trophy, four linemen were named first-team All-Americans and seven different linemen earned first-team All-Big Ten Conference.
Groy, from Middleton, could serve as a bridge from a glorious past to an uncertain future, due mostly to a shrinkage in scholarship numbers that has left depth as a major concern.
“To me, the key is the offensive line staying healthy, because the numbers are thin,” UW coach Gary Andersen said. “They’re good players, but those numbers are thin.”
New offensive line coach T.J. Woods said in the spring that he would like to be at 16 scholarship linemen. The Badgers had 10 in the spring — and frequently had only eight healthy linemen practicing — and should have 12 scholarship players and six walk-ons when preseason camp opens.
Woods acknowledged the depth won’t be replenished in one recruiting cycle.
“You try to build the walk-on program,” he said of one remedy. “That’s one of my big goals. This place has a long tradition of walk-on players — not just O-linemen. … It’s awesome for me to be a part of it and I want to try and build that walk-on program back up.”
Until the numbers improve, Woods will plug the holes with versatile players such as Groy, who will fill a vital spot by moving from left guard to left tackle.
One reason Woods didn’t mind being shorthanded in the spring is because it forced players to get comfortable playing multiple spots. In addition to Groy, junior Dallas Lewallen played left tackle and center before settling in at left guard.
“I don’t look at it as a hindrance or a liability that we don’t have a lot of guys,” Woods said. “We’re just preparing ourselves for week eight of the Big Ten season.”
No matter where he lines up, Groy is taking ownership of the group, which is what Woods wanted.
“A position group is only as good as its leaders,” Woods said. “It’s their group. Ryan has his senior year one time; that’s it.”
It’s especially important on the offensive line, where all five players must work together — and successes and failures are shared.
“I think that’s the biggest difference with the offensive line. More than any other position, your fate is tied to four other guys’ performances,” Woods said.
The other returning starters, besides Groy, are junior right guard Kyle Costigan, who missed all of the spring following offseason knee surgery, and junior Rob Havenstein, who started every game last season at right tackle.
Redshirt freshman Dan Voltz, who enrolled early and has gone through two springs, is the projected starter at center.
Lewallen, who has overcome knee problems and made it all the way through the spring, will likely get the first crack at left guard. He could be pushed by sophomore Ray Ball, or possibly senior Zac Matthias, the backup right guard.
Groy smiled when it was suggested to him over the summer that some people think this line may not be as good as recent seasons.
“Oh, yeah?” he said. “I think we’ll be fine. The Wisconsin O-line is not changing any time soon. So we’ll be fine.”