Jack Bicknell Working on Offenisve Line Depth
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Jack Bicknell Working on Offenisve Line Depth

May 26, 2023

PLATTEVILLE, Wis. -- While the focus on Wisconsin's new air-raid offense is with the quarterbacks and wide receivers, nothing will get done this fall without a competent offensive line. Five days into fall camp, first-year offensive line coach Jack Bicknell is still trying to iron out rotations and build his unit up to at least seven reliable players he can turn to on Saturdays.

"You'd love to get to eight. Seven would be good. Six may be where we're at right now," offensive line coach Jack Bickell told reporters following Saturday's practice.

"I'll tell you what, I've had a lot lesser second groups than what I have."

Bicknell has been rather consistent with his starting group since the middle of spring ball, using junior Tanor Bortolini at center, junior Joe Huber at left guard, junior Jack Nelson at left tackle, senior Michael Furtney at right guard, and sophomore Riley Mahlman at right tackle.

Still coming back from injury, junior center Jake Renfro is expected to be among the seven, if not starting by the Sept. 2 season opener against Buffalo. UW does have an experienced utility man with their second group as well, junior Trey Wedig who's played in 22 games with eight starts and played all three positions in his career. Wedig has doubled at right tackle and left guard this fall.

"I love getting guys in games, because if someone gets hurt it's not, 'Oh my gosh. What are we gonna do?' But, they've gotta prove it. That's what we're working through right now."

"If any of the first two groups played, I'd be good," he added. "Now, it's a matter of, we can't fall off."

Renfro missed the entire spring after suffering a stress fracture in his leg. The Cincinnati transfer also did not play in 2022 after a torn meniscus last fall sidelined him for the year.

The junior and former All-AAC pick feels 100 percent, but is still trying to shake some of the rust off.

"Just getting my legs underneath me, getting that conditioning back," he said. "That's really it. Just keeping my feet moving."

Renfro, who weighed in at 306 pounds Saturday morning, said he's now dropped 25 pounds since arriving in Madison in January. Being off his feet for so long took a toll on Renfro's health, but now he's leaned up and back to his playing weight.

"I was a little heavy when I got in here in January," he said. "I feel great."

With Renfro's injury, Huber has had to double as the team's starting left guard and backup center at times. While the Badgers have junior Dylan Barrett and true freshman James Durand at the center spot as well, Huber is pulling double duty just in case Renfro isn't quite ready come September.

"That's probably his best skill. He can probably play five positions," said Bicknell. "His best position may be guard. He's kind of taking one for the team. I was determined to make sure we had centers. Now, we've got to start getting him to play some more guard.

"That's his biggest asset, his versatility. We haven't had him play tackle yet, but I've seen him play tackle. He's a real good athlete, very flexible."

One of the biggest adjustments for UW's offensive line this season will be their aggressiveness at the point of attack. Per Bicknell, he's urging his unit to fire off the ball and initiate contact, even in pass protection.

Bicknell has even sought advice from former Badger, longtime NFL offensive linemen, and now Director of Scouting Casey Rabach. The Badgers are hoping this change will not only neutralize top edge rushers, but open up opportunities for quarterbacks to run as well.

"In the NFL, that's where I started. If you just let them take it to you in the NFL, it can look like someone is storming the castle," Bicknell stated. "I want to be aggressive. Those great defensive ends, if we cut down the angle on them, get our hands on them, that's better than me sitting back and letting them get a head of steam and doing some kind of crazy move.

"The whole thing for us is pocket integrity. People are too good if you let them get a head of steam. Now, they're dictating to you. I want to dictate to them and interrupt anything they're thinking about doing."

During the end of Saturday's practice, senior safety Kamo'i Latu drilled senior tailback Chez Mellusi. Mellusi was being corralled by a couple of defenders, but still had momentum up the field. Latu lowered his shoulder/helmet and absolutely dropped Mellusi, causing Latu's helmet to come off.

Mellusi laid on the turf for a bit, but jogged off under his own power. Mellusi would return and roughly 10 minutes later took another carry. As he headed upfield, Mellusi stopped Latu after the play and had words for the senior safety. The two were jawing for a bit before coaches broke them up.

In previous fall camps, this would have started a brawl.

However, head coach Luke Fickell has instructed his team clearly to control their emotions and eliminate all internal fighting throughout practice. A couple of offensive linemen did rush to Mellusi's aid, but there was no extracurricular activity in the moment.

"He (Fickell) was a football player too. He knows the feelings that happen," said Furtney. "He's said, 'Sometimes you lose control of your emotions, but that's why it's the job of your brothers to be there for you, kind of pull you out of it, calm you down.'

"I tried to be that guy for Chez on that play. I play with my heart on my sleeve too. I've had my instances in the past, but he wants us to practice how we're gonna play in the game. You can't lose your emotions or it will cost you dearly.

"If Chez would have gotten up and sucker punched him, he'd be out too. I wish the hit didn't happen, but at the same time, if you practice how you're gonna play, hopefully you can reflect that in a game also."