Jon Dietzen wouldn’t classify himself as nervous for his first practice as a tackle last week. “A little fear of the unknown,” he said, was perhaps a better explanation of his mindset when taking the field Aug. 1.
Many were skeptical when University of Wisconsin offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said this spring that Dietzen, a junior who’s started 20 games at left guard for the Badgers over the past two years, would compete for a starting spot at left tackle. And while Dietzen entered fall camp confident in his own versatility, actually lining up across a speedy edge rusher for the first time introduced a whole new world than the one he experienced at guard.
"I’ve taken the set on air 100 times over the summer,” Dietzen said, “but does that mean I’m going to feel the same when I’ve got a guy coming at me?"
Those worries faded within the first day, and the Black Creek native has continued to impress at the position throughout the last week and a half. He’s now taking nearly every first-team rep and looks extremely likely to earn a starting spot over sophomore Cole Van Lanen.
Quickness and mobility concerns were reasons why some believed a switch may not pan out, but Dietzen’s 2017 tape wasn’t an accurate indicator of his athletic ability. Dietzen revealed during UW’s local media day last week that he played the entirety of last season with a torn labrum in both hips. He split time with Jason Erdmann at left guard but downplayed his injury situation whenever asked.
Rudolph knew the truth, and he knew what a healthy Dietzen could be capable of at tackle.
“I had seen enough of him that I thought, if Jon’s healthy, I thought he had the feet to be able to do it,” Rudolph said. "Now, it’s a big curve. There’s a lot you’ve got to put together before the season, but I know that he has the physical attributes to be able to do it, and he’s shown that so far. I think as long as we keep him healthy, he’ll help us."
Dietzen’s making the same jump that All-American Michael Deiter did a year ago. Now that Dieter’s back at left guard after returning for his senior season, it’s up to Dietzen to become the final piece of an offensive line with expectations of being one of the nation’s best.
He sat out the entire spring after hip surgery, but by March, Dietzen knew he’d be playing tackle. He watched the position closely while sidelined, mentally preparing himself for when August rolled around.
“I was trying to take as many mental reps as I could,” Dietzen said. "It’s still a little bit different, but definitely way more comfortable than I was at first. It’s a whole new thing to have a guy like (Andrew) Van Ginkel or (Zack) Baun on your outside rather than stepping down to Olive (Sagapolu) or someone like that."
Rudolph said Monday that he doesn’t have a timeline for officially choosing a starter at left tackle, and he wouldn’t be opposed to rotating between series like he has with the offensive line in past years.
Dietzen still hasn’t experienced the challenge of facing a myriad of defensive looks. He’s only faced his own team’s defense at this new position, and it wasn’t until this week that the Badgers even began venturing away from their base package on that side of the ball.
Rudolph’s spending extra time with Dietzen after practice watching film and walking through different looks he may come across once the season actually begins.
"There’s a learning curve to the position,” Rudolph said. "It’s getting comfortable in a game when everything’s happening, being able to see and asses the edge and communicate it down. So I think it’s going to be growth every day. I think Michael being next to him will really help him.
"I don’t know what the curve is, but it’s as mental as much as physical, and I think we’ll get there."
From the infirmary
Offensive lineman Logan Bruss (right leg) missed Friday’s practice, while cornerback Madison Cone (left leg) also sat out after exiting Thursday’s practice early. Inside linebacker T.J. Edwards (right leg), offensive lineman Jason Erdmann (right leg), kicker Rafael Gaglianone (right leg), defensive end Isaiahh Loudermilk (left leg) and tight end Zander Neuville (right leg) remained out.
Inside linebacker Griffin Grady (right arm), safety Patrick Johnson (illness) and outside linebacker Christian Bell (dehydration) took the field after leaving Thursday’s practice early. Wide receiver Jack Dunn was no longer limited.
Center Tyler Biadasz did not participate in team drills for the second straight day, but per a UW official, it is not due to an injury.
The group of players returning kickoffs was cut to four Friday — A.J. Taylor, Aron Cruickshank, Kendric Pryor and Faion Hicks. ... Sophomore Caesar Williams continued to take all first-team reps at cornerback alongside projected starter Dontye Carriere-Williams. ... True freshman Isaac Guerendo worked with the wide receivers Friday after beginning camp as a running back.