UW's Cole Van Lanen finds leadership voice amid turbulent offseason
Attention is still on Van Lanen for his play, but he's also being recognized now as a leader for the Badgers amid a difficult offseason.
Cole Van Lanen has grown accustomed to having eyes on him.
As a four-star, in-state recruit, he came to the University of Wisconsin with high expectations. He cracked the rotation as a redshirt freshman in 2017, became a vital piece of the line in 2018 in a rotation at tackle with Jon Dietzen, and was an anchor of the line a year ago as the Badgers won the Big Ten Conference West Division and earned a Rose Bowl bid.
Attention is still on Van Lanen for his play, as he was named a Walter Camp Preseason All-American and is on the watch list for the Outland Trophy as the nation's top interior lineman. But he's also being recognized now as a leader for the Badgers amid a difficult offseason. Embracing and understanding that role took time, the redshirt senior says.
"To lead, you have to act a certain way. You can have fun and stuff, but I felt like early in my Badger years, I would work my butt off and I would do everything right, but I would always maybe not take things as seriously or do all the things that I should be doing. To me, that's not what a leader should do, and I think those are the things that I've fixed now," he said this week.
"I've put myself in this position, and I've been playing for a few years now and I'm one of the oldest guys in the room. That's all part of it, too."
Entering his fifth season at UW, Van Lanen has learned from and been influenced by the wealth of talent he's seen come through the program in his position group. Players like Ryan Ramczyk, Michael Deiter, David Edwards, Beau Benzschawel and Tyler Biadasz all turned success with the Badgers into NFL careers.
Van Lanen finds himself on that trajectory — The Draft Network ranks him among the top 150 prospects for the 2021 NFL Draft. Van Lanen knows the importance being a leader has for the Badgers this season and his future in football.
"You take a little bit from every one of them that has led this group and put it all together and make your own leadership role with all those little bits and pieces. Everybody takes the role differently — some are vocal leaders, some lead by example, some work the hardest in the room. You don't just need to be a verbal leader to be a leader of the team," he said.
"It's awesome to be part of that group that they call leaders. It definitely takes maturity. If you knew my personality, it's a little more giddy and having fun. Just have to calm that down sometimes."
This offseason has thrown the entire Badgers program challenges, with the COVID-19 pandemic wiping out spring practices and keeping the team apart from mid-March to early June when players could return to campus for voluntary workouts.
Time away from each other and from campus altered the normal rhythms of offseason training and relationship-building. Van Lanen and a group of seniors tasked themselves with keeping the team connected and encouraged during quarantine. Those goals have continued as the college football season remains in limbo due to concerns of the pandemic.
"It's obvious, the risk of maybe not having the season or the season's not going to look the same is there. But as a player, you can't have that in your head. You can't have it as a mindset; you need to be ready, fully prepared as if you're 100% we're having camp tomorrow. That's the way we've been training as a group. I'm excited. I have high expectations hoping that we're going to be playing and I'm training as if we are," Van Lanen said.
Assuming the Badgers can play, Van Lanen says the competition for roles on the offensive line will be fierce. The only O-line position at which the Badgers lack a returner who's started games is center.
If there was any upside to the altered offseason, it was the added time that players spent reviewing game film and nailing down the intricacies of the UW offense.
"There's going to be some new faces, but whatever face you see on that first game, I'm telling you right now, I'm really excited for all of them," Van Lanen said. "The knowledge this group has is more than I've ever seen as a Badger. We're still meeting our butts off, so I'm really excited. Even the incoming freshmen knew more than I did three times over when I got here."
Eyes will again be on Van Lanen if the Badgers are able to play their all-Big Ten schedule. He says he's itching to get the green light.
"We're ready to roll. As a whole group, we're ready to lead to something we've never done before," he said. "Hopefully we get that opportunity."
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