Wisconsin has a storied tradition of producing star offensive linemen. But even among that historic group, Rob Havenstein stands out.
"He's nothing short of amazing," says his current position coach, T.J. Woods.
"Rob is one of a kind," sahys his former high school coach, Rick Conner.
Havenstein's measurements alone leave many people gasping for proper descriptions. His block-out-the-sun frame is officially listed at 6-foot-8 and 333 pounds, and that's after he lost nearly 50 pounds since first stepping on campus. Yet he's athletic and nimble enough to have started 33 straight games at right tackle for the Badgers while being one of the Big Ten's best linemen.
That's not really what sets him apart this year, however. The fifth-year senior has somehow managed to grow in stature on his own team, developing as one its top internal leaders. Star running back Melvin Gordon might be the face of the Badgers, but Havenstein is their voice. Even Gordon says he looks up to him (which, you know, would be hard not to do).
Head coach Gary Andersen has praised Havenstein's leadership skills since the summer and relayed a moment in practice this week that illustrated that point.
The Badgers were spending time working with their young reserve offensive linemen, teaching them the finer points of the game. Veteran starters such as Havenstein were allowed to take a break on the sidelines and just watch. Instead, Havenstein jumped in the middle of the group's huddle, dishing out pointers and advice like a coach.
"In my belief, that's the identification of a true leader," Andersen said.
Havenstein hopes to lead a strong Wisconsin effort this week in a pivotal Big Ten game against Maryland, which has a salty defensive front and is tied for third in the league in sacks. Maryland also happens to be the state where Haverstein's legendary athletic exploits began.
He didn't play football until the ninth grade, instead preferring lacrosse and especially basketball. (His twin brother, Jeff, recently finished a four-year Division I basketball career at Longwood (Va.) University). But Havenstein was an unstoppable force when he did join the football team at Linganore High School in Frederick, Md., wiping out both lines of scrimmage at 340 pounds. Or somewhere close to it.
Truth is, Havenstein was never really sure of his weight. The scale at his high school only went up to 300 pounds and the one at his local gym lost accuracy past 340. Conner, the coach at Linganore, said the coaches would say, "just pencil something in for Rob" at weigh-in days.
He had freakish agility for his size, however. Conner said Havenstein would dunk a basketball whenever college coaches came around on recruiting visits. One time, while West Virginia and Penn State assistants looked on, Havenstein was playing volleyball. He raced to the back line and did a full-on slide to dig out the ball for a teammate.
"The coaches went nuts," Conner said. "He was like a big cat. Rob's maybe the biggest guy you've ever seen in your life, but he never looked heavy. He was always light on his feet."
Havenstein had scholarship offers from across the country, including Maryland. He grew up less than an hour away from College Park in Mount Airy, Maryland, and attended Terrapins games as a kid. The Terps made his final list of three college choices. But Havenstein loved the power football of the Midwest -- his parents are from Michigan, and his extended family all still lives there -- and Wisconsin's tradition on the O-line sealed the deal.
When he arrived in Madison, though, he finally got an accurate read on his weight, and it wasn't pretty: 380 pounds.
"I moved great for 380 pounds, but I didn't move great for a college player," he said. "I've been on the five-year diet plan ever since.
"I've worked real hard the past couple summers to get it down and keep it down. It's not easy, when every time you look at the TV there's a Hardee's commercial about a double cheeseburger. But I'm like, 'No, I’m good. I'll just have a salad.'"
The Badgers coaching staff is fine with him playing between 330 and 340 pounds; they just wanted him to shape more of that bulk into muscle. Getting low pad level is key for any offensive lineman, and Havenstein remains flexible enough to create leverage against much shorter defenders.
"His ability to move that much mass is something very unique," Woods said. "He's a special player."
Woods said Havenstein has always been a copious note-taker in meetings and a student of the game who can recognize situations on the field instantly. Havenstein wanted to take a leadership role earlier with the Badgers but deferred to upperclassmen such as Chris Borland and Ryan Groy until this past offseason.
"I felt it was my turn," he said. "My time to step up and say something."
His teammates have been listening. Then again, would you say no to someone that size?