Joe Rudolph-spring OL battle

Wisconsin Badgers associate head coach, offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Joe Rudolph paces the sideline during a game against Hawaii at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis., Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015. M.P. KING -- State Journal

Michael P. King

Cole Van Lanen and Patrick Kasl — two promising offensive tackles for the University of Wisconsin — got their first chance to show what they're capable of last season.

Van Lanen played a few meaningful snaps in the place of an injured Michael Deiter, and both Van Lanen and Kasl were used as blocking tight ends late in the year.

While those experiences only included the odd series or snap, the two no longer see themselves quite the same way this offseason.

"I'll yell for the young guys and it's always interesting who stays out and who leaves," Rudolph said. "They've been taking off sometimes and I've got to yell at them to come back. ... They see themselves as not young guys."

Van Lanen and Kasl are in fact both still young, but their development in the coming months could allow UW to alter its lineup despite the return of all five starters.

Deiter opted against leaving the Badgers a year early to enter the NFL Draft. He moved to left tackle last year out of necessity, but it would make sense for him to return to the interior for his senior season — the place he's more comfortable and has an NFL future.

A reversion to normalcy for Deiter likely counts on Van Lanen or Kasl taking over as a starter for the first time. In a year where UW's offensive line could be hyped as one of the better units the Badgers' program has seen, expectations won't involve patience once the season begins.

The pair hope the progress they're making now, during spring practice, will pay off come August.

"Every day, it's just about picking one thing and getting better at it," said Van Lanen, who noted he began seeing more first-team reps at left tackle in practice late last year. "This is a big moment for all of us. There's a lot of competition, and pretty much spring determines how fall's going to start."

UW players and coaches say nothing at the position's set in stone, including Deiter's potential move back inside.

Rudolph's philosophy is to find a way to put the five best players on the field. Last year, that meant Deiter at left tackle to make way for then-redshirt freshman Tyler Biadasz to start at center. This season, perhaps Van Lanen or Kasl are ready to take the path Biadasz did in 2017, even if that would result in someone like left guard Jon Dietzen getting pushed out of the starting lineup.

Rudolph said he often cross-trains his linemen at different positions, giving the group more flexibility if injuries pile up during the season. He even said Dietzen will be cross-trained at left tackle, a wrinkle in this battle for a starting spot if he does ultimately prove he can play that position well.

"I think probably the biggest plan will always be to put the five best guys out there," Rudolph said. "That will always be the first plan. ... Each guy has a second position, and that helps give you some leeway. You try to position it in a way that you know you're going to get the best five out of it. That's always going to dictate it a little bit."

UW's offensive line could be the deepest it's been in many years. Not only do Dietzen, Van Lanen and Kasl appear to be battling for a single starting spot, but redshirt freshman Kayden Lyles has also impressed the coaching staff. Jason Erdmann fared well rotating with Dietzen at left guard last year, and Micah Kapoi enters his final year having played in 34 games during his career.

That's only intensified competition during spring practice, a rare sight for a position group that returns every starter from the previous season.

"I just really need to show what I have and play the best that I can play," Van Lanen said. "And if (Rudolph) thinks I'm part of those best five, that's the ultimate goal. I'm not trying to move people around or anything. I'm just trying to play the best I can and try to get on the field."

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