Offensive line coach T.J. Woods looks at the depleted ranks for the University of Wisconsin football team at his position and sees only opportunities, not obstacles.
Woods felt that way at the start of spring practices and hasn’t changed his tune, even after injuries continue to limit the players he has available.
The Badgers returned from last week’s spring break with eight healthy offensive lineman and one of them, junior Dallas Lewallen, was unable to finish practice on Monday, though it appeared to just be leg cramps.
That would be understandable, given Lewallen is one of several players getting reps at multiple positions, working at left tackle, left guard and center.
“Never at the concerned level,” Woods said after practice. “If we’ve got five, we’ll be all right.”
The latest injury is to redshirt freshman tackle Walker Williams, whose left knee was in a brace after he hurt it during a scrimmage in the final practice prior to break. It does not look like he will be back soon.
Of the eight available linemen, two are walk-ons who were recently moved from the defensive line in junior center Jacob Ninneman, a former Oregon athlete, and redshirt freshman guard Trent Denlinger.
The good news is the only projected starter who has been out is junior right guard Kyle Costigan (knee), who will be out all spring.
“I think we’ll be fine,” senior left guard Ryan Groy said. “We have a solid crew in there now that can get it done. We can get a lot more reps and get better with the low numbers. We’re still having fun.”
Groy, the line’s expected leader, has tried to set an example with his consistency. He said it’s important for him to be on the field for every repetition he is needed, helping set a standard for the young players.
“Very important, for the young guys to see, I’m still doing it, no matter what,” Groy said.
Groy got his first snaps of the spring at left tackle for part of the practice. He started last season against Minnesota and Purdue at that spot, due to an injury to Rick Wagner.
“Musical chairs,” Woods said of moving Groy. “Like I said all spring, it’s going to be back and forth, a lot of different guys playing a lot of different spots.”
Groy has expressed a desire to stay at left guard, but also accepts he must go where the team needs him.
“I think we’re just kind of seeing where it goes, testing the waters and seeing what our best five are right now,” he said.
UW coach Gary Andersen went into spring practice saying he wanted to build back up the scholarship numbers in the offensive line.
Ideally, Woods said he would like 16 scholarship linemen. The Badgers currently have 10 and signed another three in February.
The only injured player expected back soon is junior walk-on Riki Kodanko, who had a minor “tweak,” according to Woods. In addition to Costigan and Walker, the other injured player is redshirt freshman Jake Meador.
Woods knows building the line back up won’t be accomplished in one recruiting cycle, although the Badgers could sign as many as five linemen in 2014. Another key for Woods is maximizing the walk-on program.
“To me, that’s a special deal,” Woods said of the program’s past walk-on success. “It’s awesome for me to be a part of it and I want to try and build that walk-on program back up.”
For now, the issue is making it through the final eight practices, which includes the spring game.
Lewallen, who had been at left tackle with the first unit, moved to left guard when Groy moved outside. The rest of the line had redshirt freshman Dan Voltz at center, senior Zac Matthias at right guard and junior Rob Havenstein at right tackle.
Groy said the linemen are using the current adversity to toughen them for the fall. “We’ve had low numbers before, but not this low,” he said.
Woods knows he won’t come out of the spring with a starting five with Costigan out, but is hoping to identify the top eight players. Since injuries happen every season, this is preparing the linemen for what they likely will face down the road.
“It’s just an issue of not having enough players,” Woods said. “I don’t look at it as a hindrance or a liability that we don’t have a lot of guys. We’re just preparing ourselves for week eight of the Big Ten season.”