April 7, 2011
MADISON, Wis. -- Ricky Wagner doesn’t have to look far for inspiration. On most days, he need only look over his shoulder.
Whether he’s in the weight room or on the practice field, there’s a good chance Wagner will cross paths with UW’s two Outland Trophy winners, Joe Thomas and Gabe Carimi.
They all share one thing in common, too, playing left tackle for the Badgers.
Wagner is making the switch this spring from right tackle, where he started 10 games last season, to left tackle, where he’s replacing the departed Carimi, who’s waiting on the pro draft.
“The plays are basically the same, right and left,” said Wagner, a junior from West Allis. “I’m just trying to get the footwork down. By the end of the spring, I’ll have the hang of it.”
Wagner has already gone to school on what Carimi has told him. “Gabe would always give me little pointers here and there,” Wagner said. “He had such a great punch on his pass set.”
Meanwhile, he has met Thomas just once.
“He’s the best – I’m going to try and meet up with him again,” Wagner said.
What’s the best advice Thomas could give him?
“The stakes are a little bit higher on the left side,” said Thomas, laughing.
In the same breath, he assumed that Wagner already knew the facts of life at the position.
“A right-handed quarterback can’t see what’s going on behind his back,” Thomas went on, “whereas if you get beat at right tackle, the quarterback can step out of the way or make a move.”
And you will get beat, Thomas emphasized. Everybody does, sooner or later.
“That’s why you need a short memory at left tackle,” said Thomas, a former first-round draft pick of the Cleveland Browns, who has played in the Pro Bowl in each of his first four seasons.
“It has to be one of those things where you forget about what happened the play before when you get to the line of scrimmage. You don’t want to let that one play beat you twice.”
Thomas, a two-time All-American, has moved back to Madison to wait out the labor negotiations between the players’ association and the NFL owners. He won the Outland in 2006.
“More than any other position on the line,” Thomas said, “as a left tackle you have to have good, quick feet, you have to have a good punch and you have to be confident in what you’re doing.
“I’m biased, but I think the left tackle position is the most important (on the field) and it requires the best
combination of smarts, quickness, strength and overall athletic ability.
“We’ve had a lot of great left tackles come through the program – like the Paul Grubers and the Chris McIntoshs.
There’s a long list of guys. When you step into that position, you have big shoes to fill. And you have to live up to expectations. That comes along with playing left tackle at Wisconsin.”
McIntosh was an Outland finalist and a consensus All-American in 1999.
“It’s an understatement to say that I took a lot of pride in playing in the offensive line at Wisconsin,” said McIntosh, a former first-round draft choice of the Seattle Seahawks. “The time frame I played was on the heels of Joe Panos, Joe Rudolph, Mike Verstegen and Cory Raymer, that ’94 line.
“It was no secret – I wanted to be one of those guys. I remember when they went to the Rose Bowl that I wanted to be a part of it all. That’s why I came to Wisconsin for the tradition and legacy of the offensive lines. Success breeds success and you end up attracting players like Thomas and Carimi.”
McIntosh, like Thomas, believes a left tackle “can’t dwell on mistakes.”
“There are a few ways of looking at playing on that side,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity to be matched up against some of the best players, the best pass rushers in the Big Ten and the country.
“What better opportunity to go out and compete and showcase your talents against the best? Getting to prove yourself as being one of the best may create opportunities down the road.”
McIntosh still marvels at what Thomas has been able to accomplish.
“As a pass protector, he made it look easy,” McIntosh said. “For a guy like me – my pass protection wasn’t necessarily my forte – it was frustrating to watch a guy like Joe. There are only a few players, especially at the pro level, that makes it look like he does. He’s just a very special talent.”
When Thomas returned to Madison this spring, he had dinner with Carimi, who’s expected to be drafted in the first round. What’s the biggest adjustment that Carimi will have to make to the NFL?
“To the sheer number of different defenses and blitzes and pressures that he’s going to see,” Thomas said. “In college, it’s very standard, it’s very basic. Almost everyone plays a 4-3 defense and they’ll bring the safety down for an eight-man box against the run. It’s pretty easy to read.
“In the NFL, it’s all about disguise and bringing guys from different areas that you’re not used to seeing. In college, they’re going to play fundamentally sound, gap sound. They’re not going to leave a gap free. In the NFL, the defensive coordinators love breaking the rules.”
While he was at Wisconsin, McIntosh would circle a handful of games on the schedule that would be more challenging to him because of the talent level of the pass rusher coming off his edge. “When you take the leap to the next level, every week is like that,” he said.
McIntosh, like Wagner, had to make a transition. Only he went from playing left tackle for the Badgers to playing right tackle for the Seahawks. “And for me it was like writing with the other hand,” he said, “although conventional wisdom would say it’s easier to play on the right side.”
He never felt comfortable – or as comfortable on the right side.
“I don’t know that my case is typical,” McIntosh added.
When UW offensive line coach Bob Bostad is recruiting an offensive tackle, he does look for a little bit more out of someone who’s projected to play on the left side versus the right side.
“It isn’t always perfect,” Bostad said, “but you’re trying to look for a guy who has a little more athleticism and better than average feet. At the end of the day, it comes down to pass pro.”
What has Bostad seen out of Wagner so far?
“I think he’s bought into and he’s accepting the challenge (of playing left tackle),” Bostad said. “He has very good attributes to be there. He’s light on his feet. He has good redirection skills. He has a pretty good decent lower half and good strength levels there. He has the things that it takes.”
The 320-pound Wagner gained a great deal of confidence last season. “That put me ahead of the game,” he said, noting that facing J.J. Watt in practice made him better out of necessity. “That’s an NFL player right there and going against him one-on-one every day really taught me a lot.”
Bostad also feels like there’s plenty of inspiration to get better this spring. Especially with the bar raised as high as it is at left tackle. “To see those guys walking around here,” Bostad said of Thomas and Carimi, “it’s maybe always in the back of his mind – if they’re not actually right behind physically.”
That’s part of the legacy.
“Throughout the country, everybody knows that Wisconsin has some awesome offensive linemen every single year,” Thomas reiterated. “That’s what this school is known for: the offensive line and the tailbacks. There are great expectations and it’s something you have to live up to every year.”