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Wisconsin football's hottest position battle features 3 elite recruits

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UW's Logan Brown during Tuesday's media day at Camp Randall Stadium.

Bob Bostad was clear and direct when speaking about how he’ll address the University of Wisconsin’s right tackle spot.

“We’re throwing everything there to make sure that we’re going to get the right guy in there,” the offensive line coach said.

It’s going to be a three-man race during fall camp between junior Logan Brown and redshirt freshmen Riley Mahlman and Nolan Rucci. Brown and Rucci have been battling for the top spot at right tackle since spring practices, while Mahlman seemed like a lock to be the team’s backup left tackle. But Bostad told Mahlman at the end of spring to be ready to play on either side, and the coach has decided to put three talented but inexperienced players to the test for a starting role.

All three were standout recruits in their classes. Brown was a five-star recruit in 2019 and ranked the fourth-best offensive tackle in the country by 247Sports. Rucci was also a five-star recruit in 2021 and ranked fifth nationally at his position. Mahlman was a four-star prospect in the 2021 class, ranked first overall in the state of Minnesota and the No. 15 tackle in the country despite playing tight end in high school.

Brown’s career at UW has been hampered by injuries and inconsistent play when he was healthy enough to be on the field. He told reporters at UW’s media day Tuesday his goal this summer was to become a better pass blocker.

“(Run blocking) is fine for me,” Brown said. “Of course, there’s room to improve in my game and everybody’s game, but my main focus and what I think has been holding me back has been pass protection.”

Brown has struggled to maintain his balance in pass sets when reporters have been able to watch practices. That leads to quick losses against rushers and instant pressure on the quarterback. Part of Brown’s struggles this spring could be attributed to playing right tackle for the first time, a switch he likened to trying to write with his left hand. He uses his strength well to maintain the edge of the pocket when he’s been able to keep a solid base. But coaches haven’t seen enough of those plays to give him the starting spot without a fight.

It’s rare for Brown (6-foot-6, 313 pounds) to be considered small in any group of people, but he’s the runt of the trio battling to be the right tackle.

Rucci (6-8) is listed at 297 pounds on the roster, but he told reporters Tuesday he’s close to 310 pounds. Adding weight has been a priority this offseason and throughout his career at UW, but he’s been determined not to fall into the trap of adding fat and what he describes as non-functional weight. Rucci was listed at 294 pounds last season, so he’s added about 15 pounds and found success in UW’s strength program.

“It’s a little bit slower process, it takes time,” Rucci said about his weight gain. “I feel like just with all the work we’ve been putting in the weight room, eating right, I think I’ve been able to accomplish that (goal of adding weight). And it feels really good. I still feel just as athletic and fast as I was.”

Mahlman (6-8, 315) also got the push to add pounds, and he’s up 15 pounds on his listed weight from last season. He believes his athleticism and what coaches describe as an aggressive playstyle will help him in the competition. The switch to the right side isn’t a drastic one after former offensive line coach Joe Rudolph had Mahlman and Rucci split reps between right and left tackle on UW’s scout team last season.

Bostad said the summer program allowed the retooled offensive coaching staff to get a lot of its installation of new concepts done before fall camp. Practice sessions this month will be focused on allowing these players chances to earn their spot.

Scheduling out enough reps for the right tackle candidates against first- and second-string competition on defense will be a test for Bostad and the staff. New NCAA rules instituted last season limit teams to nine fully padded practices.

“I think you’ve really got to be surgical with the reps and you’ve got to think about it,” Bostad said. “It’s something I’ve spent a lot of time on. We know it’s not an exact science, but hoping that we’re not wasting reps.”

Bostad’s return to coaching offensive line after five seasons with UW’s inside linebackers brought with it some wholesale changes to how the O-line operates. One crucial difference for the right tackles is Bostad’s teaching of a vertical first step in pass protection, as opposed to a near-45-degree step to the outside taught under Rudolph.

“It changes the angle of the defender, changes our pocket, changes the approach with everything,” Brown said. “It’s different for us because you have to just get used to going backwards instead of where we used to. It’s just learning something new.”

Added Mahlman: “You’re less susceptible to an inside move because you’re further back and there’s not really the angle that D-lineman wants to get inside. And maybe they get a little more head of steam, so you’ve probably got to be ready for a couple more bull rushes, small things like that. It’s nothing crazy.”

Bostad’s direct nature makes him an easy coach to play under, according to players this spring. He doesn’t mince words and lets players know where they stand. The Badgers have three of their best on-paper linemen battling for one spot, and they know chances can dwindle fast by failing to take advantage of each snap.

“When you have a lot of guys competing for a position, there’s not as many reps to go around,” Rucci said. “I think just getting in there and giving it everything you have during those reps, just showing the coaches what you’re capable of — whether it’s technique or even effort — I think is one of the biggest things that they’re looking for. So just put it all out there when I get my opportunity.”

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