University of Wisconsin junior right tackle Rob Havenstein gets regular visual reminders of the strides he has made in his second year as a starter.
Havenstein will be watching video from last season, as he was doing this week in preparation for the game at Illinois on Saturday night, and inevitably witness a few cringe-inducing moments.
He watches the sometimes-ungainly technique, being off-balance, lunging — all of the things that can go wrong when it comes to pass protection.
“We watched a little tape from last year,” Havenstein said. “Seeing my technique then, I was kind of like, ‘What in the heck was that? I played like that?’ I didn’t realize I was doing it last year, until I see it (now).”
Asked what it looked like, Havenstein got a pained expression on his face.
“It was kind of chaotic, especially on my pass sets,” he said. “There were limbs going everywhere, my body was torqued. It looked weird.”
These days, everything looks more natural for Havenstein, who is quietly putting together a solid season.
“I think he’s tremendously improved in pass protection,” offensive line coach T.J. Woods said. “He’s working to be a dominant force in the run game. I think that’s still a work in progress. It’s something Rob comes out every single day and works at.”
Woods has been pushing all season to make Havenstein, who is listed at 6-foot-8 and 327 pounds, a dominating run blocker. To this point, there have been glimpses of that, such as the 1-yard touchdown run by James White last week in the 35-6 win over Northwestern.
Havenstein, with a little help from fullback Derek Watt, drove defensive tackle Will Hampton five yards into the end zone and onto his back. That play got a big response in the offensive line meeting room while watching video of the game.
“I definitely got some love for that,” Havenstein. “It was goal line, so everything is a little more (intense) down there, people are going a little harder, a little lower, a little faster.
“Derek put his shoulder in the guy’s ribs and that gave me a nice little boost, to kind of go ahead and make a little showcase block. That was my job … it happens to be, he ended up on his back.”
Other than falling on a fumble in the end zone, it’s about as big of a moment of glory that an offensive lineman can experience.
“That’s one of the celebratory things we get to have,” Havenstein said of the block. “I’m not going to get out and chest bump anyone. It’s kind of, I don’t want to say self-satisfaction, but (a feeling of), ‘I did that.’ When it comes down to it, that is my job.”
Havenstein has received little attention for doing his job consistently well. But in the case of offensive linemen, not getting noticed can be a good thing.
“It’s perfectly all right with me,” Havenstein said. “Usually when somebody calls your name on game day, it’s for doing something stupid, that’s when (the official) is calling, ‘78, Havenstein,’ (for a penalty). What you want to hear is absolute silence when it comes to the offensive line.”
But Havenstein’s improvement has not gone unnoticed. UW coach Gary Andersen mentioned “consistent” as the best word to describe Havenstein’s overall approach.
“That’s what I would say about his play every single week,” Andersen said. “I’d say that in practice, I’d say that in the weight room and I’d say that in the meeting room.
“I walk through (the football offices) on Sunday (and) there they are, sitting there watching tape, that crew of offensive linemen by themselves and they’re just in there evaluating the tape.
“I think Rob’s done a great job. He’s been physical in the run game. He’s been technically working on continually becoming the pass setter he wants. He wants to be a tremendous player in the run game and the pass game. The way he’s been consistent is very impressive.”
Still, Havenstein wants to get beyond that level and become the dominating player his position coach believes he can be.
“He’s a ginormous human being for one thing,” Woods said. “Very athletic, can move his feet. Smart kid. He takes a lot of ownership in making calls up front and having edge awareness and being the eyes for the center on his side of the ball, the sort of things that go unnoticed a lot of times by most people. He’s taking a leadership role with those guys and I think it’s showing.”
The things Havenstein is working on to improve his game have been a focus all season — playing with lower pad level in the run game, using his hands better in pass protection, and getting a smoother kick in his pass drops.
“Being a bigger guy, I want to play with better pad level across the board,” Havenstein said. “Every day, I got tired of coach Woods saying, ‘Good job, Robbie, there’s one thing, what have we got to do? Play lower.’ ”
On pass protection, he’s trying to develop a better punch, which can tip the scales in favor of the offensive lineman.
“If you don’t throw a punch, you’re not doing anything, you’re just standing in his way and making him run around you,” he said.
When Havenstein has issues, it usually comes back to technique.
“Consistently playing with technique is his challenge,” Woods said.
That’s no different than any player during a long game, after getting nicked up, or beat on a play. It’s difficult to stay focused from snap to snap.
“You kind of talk about it, ‘I want to get this fixed,’ I’ve been saying it for a while,” Havenstein said. “It’s pretty (darn) hard to get some of these fundamentals fixed when you’ve got a 300-pound man barreling down on you and running you over, to worry about pad level and good hands and what-not.
“I think it’s a process and I think we, as an O-line, are playing pretty well.”