Tanner McEvoy (left) and Joel Stave (right) still don't know which of them will be under center against LSU on Aug. 30.
By ZACH HEILPRIN
MADISON - The two players involved say they don’t know. It’s unlikely that either one would admit anything even if they did. So as the University of Wisconsin started their preparations in earnest for one of the biggest season openers in program history, they apparently still haven’t decided on a starting quarterback.
“I talked to coach, and he just said it’s still up there,” revealed Tanner McEvoy, who is competing with Joel Stave for the job. “We just have to go out there each day and keep competing. Camp is not over. We’ve still got a good amount of time. 10 practices before we go out there. We just have to go out there, me, Joel (and) the whole offense, just each day go out and compete and get better.”
The competition entered its third week on Monday, just 11 days before UW opens the season in Houston against No. 13 LSU. A game where they’ll be an underdog for likely the only time this season, and face a young Tigers team that is also still in the midst of finding their starting quarterback. Down there the battle is between sophomore Anthony Jennings and freshman Brandon Harris. And the winner of that race, like Wisconsin’s, likely won’t be known until game time on Aug. 30.
“It’s not really philosophical, it’s tactical,” UW coach Gary Andersen said of why he won’t announce who his starter will be. “Does that gain an advantage? I think you could probably sit down and watch practices and see what direction it’s headed, but I just don’t think we need to make it a big (deal). It doesn’t need to come across the wire because we know the starting quarterback.”
Still, the players would like to know.
“I wanted to know a long time (ago),” McEvoy said with a smile. “I’ve wanted to be (the) quarterback since I was in fifth grade. Everyone wants to be the starter. There’s a lot to it.”
What practice observers have seen is an improved level of play from both players over last fall.
Stave, who threw for a sophomore record 2,494 yards and 22 touchdowns last year, appears to have improved his footwork. There have been fewer errant passes in the practices open to the media, and though he will never be considered a mobile quarterback, an increase in pocket awareness seems to have occurred. Not to mention, for the first time in his career he has the same offensive coordinator in back-to-back years. That’s meant a lot easier learning sessions in Andy Ludwig’s second season.
“It’s just really nice,” Stave said after practice on Tuesday. “Install meetings, you look through it and you’re like, ‘I recognize everything that is.’ You can go back and recall plays from the year before. Sometimes it’ll be a little different with a jump or a motion, but as a whole, having that whole season last year to draw back on, and spring balls, and just having a second year in a system, makes you a lot more comfortable with it.”
McEvoy, who played quarterback in his senior season of high school, went to South Carolina for a year and then transferred to Arizona Western College, has also looked improved in the portions of practice open to the media. He’s much more comfortable in the playbook and it's showing in how he runs the offense.
“That’s really what I’ve been focusing on a lot in fall camp,” McEvoy said of his improved management stills. “Trying to minimize a lot of my mistakes from spring ball, and obviously, last fall camp. That was a big part of it. This fall I’ve come around. I’m learning the installs a lot better than how I did last time, so I’m doing pretty well in that situation.”
The competition phase isn’t new for Stave. Despite going 5-1 as a starter in 2012, he battled Curt Phillips and McEvoy in last year’s offseason. He won the job and then nine games for Andersen during his first season as coach. But inconsistency and 13 interceptions meant that his 9-4 record wasn’t good enough to earn him the starting nod without competition.
“That’s how I’ve understood college football to be,” Stave said of the battles. “It’s an incredibly competitive sport. This is an incredibly competitive team in a good conference. At a big school like this, they are trying to have the best at every position every time, so it’s not just for me. Every position is competing. Everyone is doing it. The quarterback position is just a little more high profile, but that’s how I understand the game. It’s competitive whether you’re playing a different team, whether you’re playing yourself (or) whether it’s within your position group. It’s competitive.”
For McEvoy’s part he’s confident he’s done enough to earn the job over the past eight months, dating back to winter workouts. He admits there are plays that he’d like back, but he’s not the same player that seemed lost at times last fall.
“I think I’ve had a pretty strong camp,” McEvoy said. “Joel’s had a really strong camp, too. It’s a tough decision. If it was an easy one, they probably would have made it by now.”
Most think they have, and it’ll be Stave under center at NRG Stadium later this month. If that’s the case, it opens up another bottle of questions for McEvoy’s future. There has been talk of using the junior in a package of plays on offense that would allow UW to call some option and other perimeter runs that a quarterback like Stave doesn’t excel at. When Andersen and Ludwig were at Utah together, they used a safety, Eric Weddle, as that changeup quarterback.
“If that is what the case is, then I don’t really have much of a choice. I’ve got to be comfortable with it,” Stave said of a McEvoy package of plays. “That’s similar to my freshman year when we had the barge package. That was obviously a little different because that was third-and-short or on the goal line where I’d run off for one play, and James would come in and take a snap.
“If that’s the case, you just have to be ready for it. Be ready to get off the field. Stay loose and get back on when they need you.”
A year ago the Badgers couldn’t afford to have McEvoy sitting on the sideline and the New Jersey native wanted playing time. After losing out on the quarterback battle, he moved to wide receiver, broke his hand and ended up at safety. He would go on to start three games there, before moving back to quarterback in the spring.
Though careful not to say anything that would get the offensive coaches upset with him, defensive coordinator Dave Aranda seemed OK with the notion of McEvoy returning to that side of the ball if things didn’t work out at quarterback.
“I think Tanner did a lot of good things for us. He brings a presence back there. So athletic and such range,” Aranda said. “But he’s doing good things now. Obviously we all know when he’s back there (at quarterback) that the threats multiply, as opposed to when the other guy is back there. We’ll see where that goes.”
This year is a little different as McEvoy was clearly the third-team quarterback behind Stave and Phillips in 2013. Now, if he’s not the starter, he’s the clear No. 2 behind a guy in Stave that has had injury issues. And that forces UW to weigh the risks of keeping one of their best athletes on the sideline for a majority of the game or putting him on defense with a higher probability that he gets hurt.
“I want to play, obviously, but I don’t think I’d just jump up and leave and be done (as a quarterback),” McEvoy said if he doesn’t get the starting gig. “I’ve made strides playing quarterback these few months, so I don’t think I’d completely drop it and go back to safety. But whatever they want me to do to get on the field, and make this team a better team, and help get wins, (I’ll do).”
Listen to Zach Heilprin every weekday on “The Jump Around” at ESPNWisconsin.com, and follow him on Twitter: @zachheilprin