D.J. Gillins will get an opportunity to compete for the Badgers' starting quarterback job this spring.
Breaking the trend
By ZACH HEILPRIN
MADISON - It’s been 23 seasons since the University of Wisconsin had a true freshman starting at quarterback. What happens during spring practice next month will play a significant role in whether D.J. Gillins is able to end that streak this fall.
“It’s too early to say because I haven’t seen him take a snap,” offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said of Gillins chances of being under center against LSU on Aug. 30. “But you’ve seen it happen. He’s smart and he’s got a great skill set so let’s see March seventh. Let’s see how that first snap goes.”
True freshmen quarterbacks starting at Wisconsin used to be a pretty common occurrence before the arrival of former coach and current athletic director Barry Alvarez in 1990. There was Jess Cole in 1980 and Tony Lowery in 1987. Lionel Crawford got the call in 1988, as did Jay Macias in 1991. But since then no first-year player has taken a snap much less jogged out with the starters.
But Gillins has an advantage. He’s already on campus. While his classmates at Ribault (Jacksonville, Fla.) High School are finishing up their last semester of school, getting ready for the prom and everything else that comes along during the final few months as a senior, Gillins is taking part in grueling winter conditioning with his new Badgers teammates. Instead of succumbing to, and perhaps enjoying, the benefits of senioritis, the 18-year-old is taking college level courses and dealing with his first winter above the Mason-Dixon line.
Like Sojourn Shelton last year, Gillins figures to benefit greatly from the tutelage of strength and conditioning coach Evan Simon. When Shelton stepped on campus last January he weighed 152 pounds and seemed like a long shot to help Wisconsin in his first year. But by the time the season started Shelton had 172 pounds on his 5-foot-9 frame, and he eventually earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors after leading the Badgers with four interceptions.
“On a confidence level, I knew I could play at the college level. It was just a matter of if I could put the weight on. And I knew I could put the weight on once I got to a legit weight program. Place where I could eat a lot and do all the little things nutritional-wise,” Shelton said during bowl practice in December. “I knew I could but I needed to come in early. That’s why it was so vitally important for me to get here.”
Listed at 6-foot-3, 185 pounds, Gillins has the frame to add a significant amount of weight, which should help in his attempt to play early.
“I think his arm strength is good but I think there is some tremendous upside because he’s a very lean young man,” Ludwig said. “He’s going to get bigger and stronger while he’s here.”
The goal, obviously, is to add that strength while maintaining the speed that made him one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the country. A four-star recruit by most services, Gillins threw for 7,271 yards and 76 touchdowns during his high school career, which was split between Ribault and Eagle’s View Academy (Jacksonville, Fla.). In his senior season, a year removed from a torn ACL, he threw for 2,371 yards and 22 scores while adding 602 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground.
It’s that ability that will give him a chance to compete for the job. From the time he was hired, UW coach Gary Andersen has made it clear what he and Ludwig want in their quarterback -- a guy that can beat you with his arm and mind but also possesses the ability to take off and run when the play breaks down.
“Mostly scrambles,” Ludwig said of how Gillins piled up his rushing yards. “There (were) plenty of designed quarterback runs, and a little bit of read zone, but a lot of scrambles.
“They’d roll the ball out (and say), ‘D.J. make a play.’ It’ll be a little more structured here.”
While it’s clear what type of quarterback the Badgers want it’s also very clear that they will play the guy that gives them the best chance to win football games. If that’s incumbent starter Joel Stave, who threw for the second most touchdowns (22) in a season by a UW quarterback but also tossed 13 interceptions, he’ll get the nod again. Same goes for sophomore Bart Houston. But it’s not hard to see that the coaching staff wants Gillins and the two other dual-threat options – junior Tanner McEvoy and redshirt freshman Conor Senger – to make a strong push for the job.
“D.J., an athletic quarterback, brings a lot to the table, if he's prepared to be able to do that mentally,” Andersen said on Signing Day. “That's what has to take place for him to have that opportunity.”
Judging by what Ludwig learned during the recruiting process, and his experience with Gillins so far, the mental part of the equation will not be what keeps him off the field.
“Seemed to be very good,” said Ludwig of Gillins’ football intelligence. “The high school coaches mentioned that. And he knocks on my door every day. That’s the kind of guy you want.”
Listen to Zach Heilprin every weekday on “The Jump Around” at ESPNWisconsin.com, and follow him on Twitter: @zachheilprin