Steady on the line
The following article and question-and-answer piece are reprinted from the official program for the Sept. 6 football game between the Wisconsin Badgers and Marshall University. The pieces feature Kraig Urbik and Eric VandenHeuvel, former Hudson Raider football players who are in their final season of eligibility with the Badgers. The Badgers defeated Marshall 51-14.
Change has been a constant for the Wisconsin football team over the past three years.
From adaptations to a new coaching staff to transitions under center, many highly visible changes have taken place since the conclusion of the 2005 season.
One aspect of Badger football that has gone largely without fluctuation, however, is the men who battle in the trenches week in and week out. Seniors Andy Kemp (of Menasha), Kraig Urbik and Eric VandenHeuvel have quietly gone about their work each Saturday over the course of those three seasons, and Wisconsin fans should expect nothing but more of the same in 2008.
Over the last two years, Kemp, Urbik and VandenHeuvel have combined to make 56 percent of the total starts by offensive linemen, missing a total of just six games in that span because of injury.
"Playing with the same guy next to you over and over is a great thing," VandenHeuvel said. "The thing about offensive line is you have to learn to play as a group instead of individuals, and if you play next to the same person for a long period of time, you only get better as a group."
"We're a tight-knit group, like O-linemen always are," Kemp said.
Adding to the unit's cohesion is the fact that Urbik and VandenHeuvel's relationship pre-dates their UW careers. Both were standouts and teammates at Hudson High School.
"I knew what to expect of him and what kind of person he was, so we had a leg up there," Urbik said. "I don't really think about it too much, but it's almost gotten too normal for us to be playing together."
"It's just normal for us and we kind of take it for granted, but when you think about it, it's cool that we've been able to play together for that long," VandenHeuvel added.
Add Kemp to the mix and, in 2006, the trio was part of a remarkable run that saw the starting front five go unchanged through all 13 games. That continuity helped the Badgers roll through head coach Bret Bielema's first campaign with a 12-1 record and cap the season with a win in the Capital One Bowl.
The story was much the same for most of 2007, until a hand injury halted Kemp's run of 20 consecutive starts at left guard and kept him out of action for a run of three games that included the Badgers' loss to No. 1-ranked Ohio State. VandenHeuvel played most of that contest before going down with a leg injury in the fourth quarter that eventually forced him out of the team's final three games, including the Outback Bowl.
Urbik remained healthy in 2007 and has now started 40 consecutive games, a streak he will look to continue when he suits up for the Badgers against Marshall.
Each of the three has grown accustomed to the faces lining up next to them on Saturdays, but the voice they hear calling the shots on game day have changed greatly since the trio arrived in Madison.
All three were on board for coach Barry Alvarez's final season in 2005 and also have been part of the transition into the Bielema era. Urbik and VandenHeuvel both saw action in the Badgers' Capital One Bowl win over Auburn that sent Alvarez out on a winning note, and Kemp then joined the fray for all 13 games of the 2006 season.
Beyond the changes at the top, the group also has worked through transitions in the coaching staff at their positions. When assistant coach Bob Bostad took over the offensive line duties for the Badgers in January, he became the team's third offensive line coach in four years.
"It's not really that different this year," said Urbik, who has been named to the Outland Trophy watch list. "For us, you know a lot more and are more experienced, but it's a weird feeling being a senior. Now we're focused on working on the little things."
Adapting to the different philosophies and coaching styles has been more blessing than struggle for the offensive line. Each of the seniors views the coaching changes as an opportunity to develop a more well-rounded view of their positions.
"One nice thing about going through three different coaches is that each one would put emphasis on different things," VandenHeuvel said. "So after three coaches you can take what each of them said and add that on to what Coach Bostad is teaching us. We can pack all their wisdom into our senior year."
With Kemp, Urbik and VandenHeuvel leading the blocking up front, the Badgers rushed for an average of 200.8 years per game in 2007, second-best among Big Ten teams. Wisconsin also scored 29 rushing touchdowns last season -- tied for the most in the league -- and led the conference in time of possession.
Naturally, dominating the line of scrimmage is again a primary focus for the Badgers in 2008. So is maintaining their near-flawless record in Camp Randall and finishing the season stronger than they felt the Badgers did last year.
"We did have a bad taste from last year, but that was last year and we've moved on," Kemp said. "It all starts with preparation and hard work, and that's what we, as offensive linemen, are all about."
Sidelines: the real story behind the O-line
What's the best meal served in the student-athlete dining hall?
Urbik: "Probably the victory meal. On Sunday, if we win, we get crab legs and steak and baked potatoes. It's always good."
Kemp: "Definitely the victory meal. When we don't get the victory meal, it's not so good, so we want to get those victories on Saturday."
VandenHeuvel: "Fajita Night. A lot of guys might disagree with that, but I like them. I like the Mexican stuff."
What meal do you not enjoy?
Urbik: "It's always good food, but sometimes things get a little old. We get chicken a lot, but it's still always good. Actually, now that I think about it, it's the Chinese food."
VandenHeuvel: "You don't like that (Chinese)? I like that a lot."
Kemp: "Overall, we're big and we'll eat just about anything. You're asking the wrong group."
Which football movie most accurately depicts an offensive lineman?
Kemp: "None of the movies focus on the O-line anyway, but they're all fake. They make hitting and blocking seem so easy on TV."
Urbik: "Probably 'Varsity Blues,' with Billy Bob, but they always make a joke out of the offensive line and have really, really fat guys."
What's the biggest misconception about offensive linemen?
Urbik: "That we're unathletic and just slow, dumb guys. I've heard that a lot, but you have to be smart, athletic and a tough, tough guy to play on the offensive line."
Kemp: "It's the same stuff Urbik said, but we're actually down-to-earth kind of guys that go out there and work hard and then are a normal guy off the field."
VandenHeuvel: "I think the misconception is this big, fat, lazy guy. In reality, the offensive line is the workhorse of the team and we're out there getting reps and reps ... and reps and reps and reps."
What's your best Camp Randall memory?
Urbik: "It was my redshirt freshman year against Michigan when (John) Stocco scored on the quarterback draw (to secure a 23-20 win). I just remember I was blocking the defensive end and saw him score, but I can't remember most of what happened because I was so emotionally excited and pumped up."
Kemp: "Last year against Iowa in the night game. It was a hard-nosed game and they played great and we played pretty well, but our offensive line kind of took over at the end and we came out with the win."
VandenHeuvel: "The Iowa game last year was great. It was a good defensive line against our offensive line and was a real tough battle. We came out with the win on that one, so that always makes a good memory."