Former University of Wisconsin quarterback Scott Tolzien vividly remembers what it was like standing behind the team’s offensive line during the 2010 season.
“I just look left to right and all of the guys that played in front of me,” Tolzien said, going back in his mind to that season. “It was like playing in front of a fortress.
“You could throw (tight end) Lance (Kendricks) into the blocking mix, too, because he did enough of it. That’s like the Great Wall of China.”
It didn’t stop there, either. Everywhere Tolzien looked on offense that season, he was surrounded by NFL talent.
Three years later, it’s almost startling for him to hear the roll call.
With the selection of former Badgers offensive tackle Rick Wagner in the fifth round of the NFL draft by the Baltimore Ravens last weekend, every preferred offensive starter from 2010 was either drafted or signed as a rookie free agent.
“I knew we were talented,” Tolzien said. “But where I’m at now, looking back in hindsight, I didn’t know we were that good.”
‘Couldn’t be stopped’
Tolzien is heading into his third season with the San Francisco 49ers, the defending NFC champions, who lost to the Ravens in the Super Bowl in February.
Tolzien, who signed as a free agent after being released by the San Diego Chargers, spent the past two seasons as the No. 3 quarterback but will battle Colt McCoy this season for the backup job behind Colin Kaepernick.
But Tolzien is just one of many NFL stories off UW’s 2010 offense — which might be the best collection of offensive talent on one team in school history.
Based on the list of preferred starters for that season in the UW media guide, only three have yet to be on an NFL regular-season roster: wide receiver Nick Toon, tight end Jake Byrne and Wagner.
Toon, a fourth-round pick of the New Orleans Saints in 2012, spent last season on injured reserve with a foot injury but is healthy and expected to contribute this season.
Byrne spent the 2012 preseason with the Saints before being released and will get another chance after signing this offseason with the Houston Texans.
Wagner is expected to make the Ravens’ roster this season.
The 2010 offense set what was then a school record for scoring, averaging 41.5 points per game, scoring 70 or more points three times.
“We just felt we couldn’t be stopped,” said David Gilreath, a senior wide receiver on that team. “Everything was clicking, the pass game, the run game, every phase.”
Depth of talent
While the 2011 offense was more prolific, thanks in large part to Russell Wilson at quarterback, it hasn’t matched the previous year for NFL talent.
Every preferred starter from 2011 has been drafted or signed as a free agent except for wide receiver Jared Abbrederis, who will be a senior this fall and is likely to be drafted.
However, at least one starter from that team for sure won’t make an NFL regular-season roster: Right tackle Josh Oglesby, who battled knee injuries, was released after a short stint with the Washington Redskins and is now a UW graduate assistant.
But the big difference in the two offenses is the overall depth of NFL players in 2010.
Using the depth charts for the respective Rose Bowls, the 2010 offense had 14 players (out of 26 listed) who were NFL draft picks or signed as free agents.
The 2011 offense features nine players (out of 23 listed) who have gone on to the NFL so far. That number will continue to grow, but it’s unlikely it will close the gap with the previous season.
Gilreath conceded the 2011 offense had better statistics, in large part due to Wilson, but thinks the 2010 offense had the edge in overall talent.
“But when you’ve got Russell back there running the show, (2011) was a little more explosive,” he said.
More on the way
The list of NFL players from the 2010 depth chart will almost certainly grow after this season, when another five or six seniors from this year’s team could enter the NFL, a group topped by Abbrederis, tight end Jacob Pedersen, running back James White and offensive linemen Ryan Groy.
“The thing that’s staggering to me now is the depth,” Tolzien said. “You look back at (offensive lineman) Bill Nagy, playing basically a handful of games his senior year (in 2010). The season ended Jan. 1 and Sept. 1 he was starting for the Dallas Cowboys. That’s what blows me away now.
“My first start, my junior year of college (2009), Travis Frederick was my center as a true freshman. You didn’t know at that point how good someone was going to be. Four years later, he’s a first-round draft pick of the Dallas Cowboys.”
There was plenty of top-end talent. The Badgers have had 12 offensive players taken in the past three drafts and eight went in the top 75 picks.
It’s no surprise the three first-round picks from those years were all linemen — left tackle Gabe Carimi, guard Kevin Zeitler and Frederick. Every starter on the 2010 line was drafted.
The quarterbacks, offensive line and tight ends all lifted together with assistant strength coach Brian Bott and Tolzien still marvels at what he witnessed.
“I was fortunate to see what was going on in the weight room, behind closed doors,” Tolzien said. “We’re talking about the offensive line, the stuff Brian Bott had those guys doing.
“If you were to walk in there on any given day and see what those offensive linemen were doing, there’s so much more that goes into it than on game days.”
Tolzien also credited the offensive coaches, led by coordinator Paul Chryst, whom Tolzien referred to as a “genius.”
For the players who weren’t drafted, such as Tolzien and Gilreath, playing in a complex pro-style offense helped pave their way to the NFL.
“I’m biased having played for coach Chryst, but just the complexity of our system and also the precision and the details, I attribute a lot of it (making the NFL) to playing in his system,” Tolzien said.