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Nearly 70 pounds heavier, David Edwards ready to solidify Badgers O-line

MADISON, Wis. -- Wisconsin left tackle David Edwards summed up his startling and unorthodox ascension in the Badgers' football program with one humorous tweet on national signing day last month.

Edwards' story in a nutshell: After totaling more than 2,000 yards of offense as a veer option quarterback for Downers Grove North in Illinois, Wisconsin coaches thought he would make a skilled tight end prospect. He arrived on campus at 6-foot-7 and 239 pounds and spent his redshirt year in 2015 learning the intricacies of tight end in the Badgers' system. But his size and agility made him a strong candidate on the offensive line, so coaches moved him there before fall camp in 2016. During the offseason, Edwards gained nearly 50 pounds and opened the year at 285 pounds.

Edwards worked his way up to Wisconsin's second-team right tackle position and then took over as a starter for seven games when Jake Maxwell sustained an injury. He performed so well that the Badgers' staff believes he could be the team's starting left tackle in 2017. And so, that's where Edwards -- now up to 306 pounds -- was when Wisconsin began spring practice on Tuesday.

Now, Edwards' story could become a whole lot more intriguing as he attempts to replace Ryan Ramczyk, one of the best offensive linemen in college football last season.

"You've got to get your five best players out there," Badgers coach Paul Chryst said following Tuesday's practice. "Really liked a lot of things David did last year and so I think it's a combination of David and then making sure you've got the depth balance. … Certainly, he was on the right side and felt comfortable. Spring's a really good time to try something a little bit different for him. We'll see where it all ends up. But I think that's the thought behind it."

Replicating Ramczyk's production would be difficult, even for the most seasoned of linemen. Ramczyk left school a year early to declare for the NFL draft, where he is expected to be among the first offensive linemen taken this spring. The consensus first-team All-American ranked as the top run blocker among FBS tackles in 2016, according to Pro Football Focus. PFF also noted Ramczyk allowed only one sack and eight total pressures over 14 games.

Edwards, a redshirt sophomore, has plenty of time to develop into a dominant force. Coaches hope he represents the final piece to Wisconsin's starting offensive line puzzle, as the Badgers return their four other starters -- Jon Dietzen, Michael Deiter, Beau Benzschawel and Maxwell -- and should be one of the best units in the Big Ten next season. The Badgers also are building solid depth this spring, with redshirt freshmen Tyler Biadasz, Patrick Kasl and Cole Van Lanen, sophomore David Moorman and redshirt juniors Micah Kapoi and Brett Connors.

Other notes from the first day of spring ball:

• Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook is the clear-cut starter with two freshmen behind him on the depth chart. Hornibrook started nine games last season while splitting time with Bart Houston and threw for 1,262 yards with nine touchdowns and seven interceptions.

Chryst noted Hornibrook had "earned the right to be the starter."

"He went through the whole winter thinking he's the guy," Chryst said. "And that's what I like about Alex. And he went through the whole fall last year thinking he was the guy. Bart did, too. You appreciate that. I think he's confident in a lot of things and he also is realistic to see a lot of areas where he can get better."

• Two players who sat out last year as transfers are expected to earn significant roles with the Badgers this season. Running back Chris James, a Pittsburgh transfer, is splitting reps in the backfield with Bradrick Shaw this spring. Taiwan Deal, who will miss the spring while recovering from offseason ankle surgery, is the third running back likely to be featured in the rotation.

Meanwhile, Hawaii transfer Nick Nelson is slated to take over as a starting cornerback for Sojourn Shelton. Nelson played in 23 games at Hawaii with 21 starts and recorded 89 total tackles. Nelson's presence has helped to strengthen Wisconsin's cornerback depth, which allowed coaches to move senior Natrell Jamerson from corner to safety.

"Nick Nelson's a really good football player as a cornerback," Chryst said. "With the transfer year and sitting out, he didn't play in games, but we saw him play a lot of football. I think he makes us better in the back end."

• The position group with the most to prove as spring begins could be Wisconsin's outside linebackers. The Badgers lose Vince Biegel, as well as All-American T.J. Watt, who declared a year early for the NFL draft. Those two combined for 107 tackles, 21.5 tackles for loss and 15.5 sacks last season. Garret Dooley, who started twice last season in place of an injured Biegel, is a likely starter, and Zack Baun opens the spring as a first-teamer as well, with Alabama transfer Christian Bell and junior-college transfer Andrew Van Ginkel competing for time.

"We lost a lot of production," Chryst said. "Because of Vince's injury and the way he was working, Dools was able to play a lot. We're excited about what Zack Baun was doing, particularly on special teams last year, and then he got hurt. So we've got an idea, but he needs to play a lot of football."