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Different year, same battle
By ZACH HEILPRIN
MADISON - The spring of 2010.
That’s the last time the University of Wisconsin didn’t hit the practice field in March with a question mark at quarterback. Senior Scott Tolzien was coming off a successful first year as a starter, winning 10 games, including a 20-14 upset of Miami in the Champs Sports Bowl. But since that peaceful spring four years ago the question of who will lead the offense in the fall has been at the top of Badgers' to-do list and this year is no different.
Joel Stave, who UW coach Gary Andersen said will be the starter when the team opens spring drills next Wednesday, will be challenged by a number of players that all offer a little something different. But he has an advantage – experience.
The former walk-on has compiled a 13-4 record over the past two seasons in games that he started and finished. A year ago he threw for the most yards (2,494) by a sophomore in school history and the fifth-highest total ever. His 22 touchdowns were the second most – trailing only Russell Wilson’s 33 in 2011. His career passing efficiency (140.8) is better than John Stocco (134.1), Darrell Bevell (133.9) and Brooks Bollinger (126.9).
But there is a flipside to Stave. The 13 interceptions he threw in 2013 were the most by a Badgers’ quarterback since Mike Samuel tossed the same number in 1997. His completion percentage (61.9 percent) was solid but could have been so much better if not for some errant throws to wide-open targets. He relied heavily on the now-departed Jared Abbrederis, though that may be more of an indictment of the wide receivers than Stave. And while offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig saw progress out of his starting quarterback, he needs to see more if Stave is to retain that title.
“The repetitive accuracy,” Ludwig answered where he needed to see the biggest jump. “Just making those throws. If you look at it, we need two more completions a game out of Joel. If he does that, he’s throwing 69-percent completion on the year and that’s a whole other level.”
Before he got knocked out of the Capital One Bowl loss to South Carolina with a collarbone injury, Ludwig really liked what he saw out of Stave. The Greenfield, Wis., native has often been criticized for his footwork and his coach agreed that it had at least a little bit to do with his accuracy issues.
“We made some adjustments in the bowl prep and some of the things we were doing. I thought he took to it well,” Ludwig said. “He’s working on his feet right now. He’s not throwing just yet (due to the shoulder injury suffered in the bowl game) but he’s continuing to work on some of those things. I anticipate, as does he, a great improvement from (last) year.”
His improvement will be pivotal if he wants to hold onto the job. While Ludwig believes Stave will be ready for practice you can expect the other challengers – sophomore Bart Houston, junior Tanner McEvoy and true freshman D.J. Gillins – to get plenty of time with the first-team. With four players fighting for reps it’ll be up to Ludwig and the rest of the coaching staff to sort them out.
“Production. Who’s doing things right. Potential,” Ludwig said of what would determine who got what snaps. “The biggest thing is making sure to evaluate guys that are getting the same rep. They’re each throwing that corner route or that curl route in a team situation. Seven-on-seven you’re just learning plays and we’re going as fast as we can. But in the team reps, trying to orchestrate it where they’re getting the same kind of plays so you get a chance to evaluate them equally.”
Houston was a highly touted recruit and figures to be a significant challenger for Stave. He missed all of 2012 after having offseason shoulder surgery and was never a real threat to Stave or Curt Phillips last fall. But he’s got the strongest arm of any of the quarterbacks and the confidence to back it up.
For Tanner McEvoy, spring practice will allow him to get back to the position he came to Wisconsin to play. The top dual-threat JUCO quarterback in the class of 2013, McEvoy arrived last fall hoping to challenge for the starting job. But learning a new offense and not getting equal reps was too much for him to overcome. Instead of throwing balls, the Badgers moved him to a position of need – wide receiver. But a broken hand ended that experiment and started a new one – a move to safety.
McEvoy would end up starting three games on the back end, amassing 27 tackles, one interception and five passes defended. But he has maintained he believes his best position is quarterback and apparently looked much better during bowl prep than he did back in August.
“He was a different guy,” Ludwig said. “A big part of that is just being more settled in being at Wisconsin and knowing the program and how we operate. The ball spun really well for him in those couple practices (where) we were working together. And all the reports, I mean, ask him he’ll tell you he’s throwing it the best he’s ever thrown it right now as the guys are working out on their own.”
What McEvoy also offers is something that Ludwig and Andersen have wanted since the day they stepped on campus – a guy that has the ability to extend the play with his legs if things breakdown.
That’s something that Gillins also offers the coaches. The Jacksonville, Fla.,-native arrived on campus earlier this year after graduating from high school. It has allowed him to get acclimated to school and take part in winter conditioning with the rest of his new teammates. Before getting to Madison, Gillins threw for 7,271 yards and 76 touchdowns during his time as a prep athlete, and as a senior at Ribault High School he ran for 602 yards and another eight scores.
“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.”
Similar to the last three years, it’s unlikely a decision will be made on a starter until the team gets into fall practice.
In 2011, the unforeseen arrival of Wilson in July eliminated any type of competition. The following season, another transfer quarterback that didn’t take part in spring practice, Danny O’Brien, won the job only to be replaced by Stave a few games into the year. And then last spring Stave and Phillips separated themselves from the competition in spring and continued their battle into August before Ludwig gave the keys of the offense to Stave.
Whoever wins the job Ludwig doesn’t expect significant changes to the offense or their approach.
We’ll play to their strengths but to say that the whole offense is going to change, no, but there will be different things implemented or emphasized from one quarterback to the next.
Listen to Zach Heilprin every weekday on “The Jump Around” at ESPNWisconsin.com, and follow him on Twitter: @zachheilprin