MADISON, Wis. -- Jacob Maxwell took the field for his first career start at right tackle last season against Iowa and quickly tried to process his surroundings. As he nervously stared across the line of scrimmage, below 80,000 screaming fans at Camp Randall Stadium, only one salient thought came to mind.
"Being thrown into the fire at right tackle against Iowa, it was a huge learning experience," Maxwell said following Wisconsin's 10th spring practice Tuesday. "It was like, this is a real thing this year that we're going to have to get over the hump as these young guys and progress faster than we would have had to."
Maxwell certainly wasn't alone in experiencing a, shall we say, "uh oh" moment as a redshirt freshman tasked with playing far earlier than expected. Three redshirt freshmen regularly started on the line throughout the season out of necessity because of injuries. And when Wisconsin traveled to play Minnesota in the regular-season finale, a whopping four redshirt freshmen started the game -- left guard Micah Kapoi, center Michael Deiter, right guard Beau Benzschawel and Maxwell at right tackle.
"Any time there's a monster lined up across from you, you're like holy, you know," Benzschawel said. "Two years ago, I was going against kids half my size. Now I'm playing against people bigger than me."
It's no wonder, then, why Wisconsin's typically dominant offensive line endured a season well below the threshold many have come to expect of the Badgers. While previous Wisconsin teams had four or five NFL-ready linemen, the 2015 edition had four or five who had never played in a college game before September.
Wisconsin ranked only 94th nationally in rushing offense, in part because the Badgers lost tailback Corey Clement to a sports hernia injury in the season opener. But the offensive line's inability to create much push and open holes due to injuries, youth and lack of continuity were equally responsible.
"It's obvious the run game wasn't where it needed to be," Deiter said. "We had to fall back on throwing the ball a lot of the time. It was nice that we could actually do that, but at Wisconsin, you want to run the ball. That's on us. We were young, but that's not an excuse."
As Wisconsin prepares for the 2016 campaign, members of the offensive line believe all the turmoil they experienced last season only stands to enhance their capabilities this season. Where last year's group was uptight about making mistakes, Deiter said, now they have improved their practice habits, run blocking and communication. When they begin playing in games again, the magnitude of the moment won't seem like such a big deal.
"That's all because of what happened last season when everyone had to grow up fast," Deiter said.
Offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Joe Rudolph pointed out that even this year's unit is incredibly young by most standards. When senior center Dan Voltz returns from his torn ACL, it will still leave the likely starting group with three redshirt sophomores -- Deiter at left guard, Benzschawel at right guard and Maxwell at right tackle -- to go with Division III left tackle transfer Ryan Ramczyk, a junior who hasn't taken a D-I snap.
Still, nothing can top what the line endured last season, when it used five different starting groups in the first seven games. As an example, Benzschawel missed the first five weeks of the season with a knee injury and returned in time to find himself making his first career start at right tackle for an injured Maxwell against Nebraska at a sold-out Memorial Stadium.
The last time Wisconsin started even two freshmen on its offensive line came in 2007, when future NFL players John Moffitt and Gabe Carimi played left tackle and left guard, respectively. Three freshmen linemen hadn't started for the Badgers since 1997. Rudolph, who played on the offensive line at Wisconsin from 1992-95, said he couldn't remember any UW team starting four freshmen on the line.
As rough as last season was, linemates cited the Minnesota game as the turning point in the growth of the unit. With four redshirt freshmen starting, Wisconsin rushed for 257 yards and four touchdowns to help the Badgers stave off the Gophers, 31-21. Wisconsin recorded 62 rushing plays. That momentum carried over to the Holiday Bowl against USC, when Wisconsin won 23-21 and rushed for 177 yards.
"Especially after the Minnesota game, we got some fire, some juice going after being able to run the ball successfully for one of the first games of the year," Maxwell said. "That was insane for us. That's kind of when we really knew that, hey, if we keep progressing as fast as we are, we could be really good this upcoming year."
Rudolph noted he felt comfortable at this point playing a group that can go eight deep upon Voltz's return, potentially rotating in Kapoi, freshman Jon Dietzen and sophomore Brett Connors. In other words, what was perceived as a weakness last season can now become an offensive strength.
"Now looking back at it with what's happened over the course of the last year, it was a huge blessing," Deiter said. "Because those guys that were thrown in there are still having to start this year. They have to go. They're the guys now. This year won't be their holy (expletive) moment because we took care of that last year, so we can just go with it this year."