Wisconsin will reportedly start junior Tanner McEvoy in their season opener against LSU in Houston.
A new era
By ZACH HEILPRIN
MADISON – For a fifth straight year, and the seventh time in the last eight, the University of Wisconsin will have a different opening day starter at quarterback then the previous year.
As first reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, UW’s staff has decided to go with junior Tanner McEvoy as their starting quarterback against LSU in the season opener on Aug. 30 in Houston.
All signs had pointed to Joel Stave being the starting quarterback again for the Badgers. He looked better than McEvoy in practices open to the media, and UW coach Gary Andersen said anyone that sat down and watched practice could tell which way they were going with the spot.
It’s a decision that Andersen had no plan to make public prior to game time.
“I said a long time ago we may know who the starter is, but we’re not going to say who the starter is until we jog out on the field for the LSU game,” the second-year coach said on Monday.
McEvoy arrived in Madison last summer after throwing for 1,943 yards and 25 touchdowns at Arizona Western College. He was thrown into the starting quarterback competition with Stave and Curt Phillips, but never really challenged for the job. He eventually moved to wide receiver, broke his hand and then ended up at safety, where he’d start three games. Prior to camp, Andersen felt that experience would be invaluable for McEvoy.
“To get in to play in those big stages, big moments and make plays (was great),” Andersen said of McEvoy’s time at safety. “You watched him get better as the year went on. He became more of a leader. His comfort zone was there.
“It doesn’t matter what position you’re playing, the fact you’ve jogged out of the tunnel, and you’ve played (under) the bright lights, it helps you.”
After spending the season at safety, McEvoy was back at quarterback in the spring and took advantage of Stave’s absence as he recovered from the shoulder injury he suffered in the Capital One Bowl. McEvoy led the first-team offense in the spring game and appeared primed for a fall camp competition with Stave.
Earlier in the week, McEvoy was anxious to know who would be under center for the Badgers.
"I wanted to know a long time (ago)," the New Jersey native said. "I’ve wanted to be quarterback since I was in fifth grade. Everyone wants to be the starter."
Stave, who threw 22 touchdowns but also 13 interceptions last year, looked to have improved his footwork within the pocket, and there were fewer errant throws in fall camp. He’s started 19 games in his career, and the junior has won 13 of them.
The 6-foot-5, 225-pound, Stave appeared to have a greater handle on the offense than any of the other quarterbacks, and his ability to check into the right plays at the line of scrimmage is a strength that is vital for UW's offense. And it's something that McEvoy has worked to get better at.
"That’s really what I’ve been focusing on a lot in fall camp," McEvoy said. "Trying to minimize a lot of my mistakes from spring ball, and obviously, from 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 I did last time, so I’m doing pretty well in that situation."
However, it's likely that McEvoy's ability to make plays with his legs is what put him over the top against Stave. It's a trait that Andersen has wanted in his quarterback since taking over for Bret Bielema in December of 2012.
In an interview at Big Ten media days last month, Andersen recalled a conversation he had with Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy at the Wisconsin Sports Awards in April. The Super Bowl winning coach told Andersen how he expects his quarterbacks to make – on multiple occasions – a potential negative into a positive each game. And Andersen, in turn, planned to ask the same of his signal callers.
“I’m really going to ask them to, when things don’t go well – (a) three-technique (defensive tackle) makes a great pass rush move on the right guard (or) you get a wide-open guy running at the quarterback (or) the protection breaks down -- I’d like to see them, five times a game, change the game in a positive way for us.”
At the time, it seemed Andersen was referring to a guy – like McEvoy – who can take off and run. But he said it would be a mistake to think that the description would only fit a runner.
“It may be side-stepping and throwing the ball for a first down,” Andersen said. “It may be a great check that he makes. All of a sudden, it’s a corner chop coming off the boundary and I throw the ball into the field and we get a big time first down.
“Those are the things. It’s not just, ‘Oh my goodness, I need to run for my life to make something special happen here.’ It’s pre-snap awareness, understanding where we’re functioning on offense, what’s coming at us from the defense, all those things that come with it.”
Still, what the 6-foot-6, 222-pound, McEvoy gives offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig is an opportunity to make the offense more multiple, including using the option and read option – something Andersen has wanted since the day he was first introduced at UW’s coach.
“I do want to have a touch of option within the game plan every week to force defenses to deal with it,” Andersen said on December 21, 2012.
It’s very unlikely Andersen made the decision based solely on what he saw over the past few days when practice was not open to the media. And it’s also unlikely that it was an easy call to sit Stave – a guy that in 19 starts is within UW’s top 10 in passing yards (3,598), pass completions (278), touchdowns (28) and wins (13). He also ranks in the top 5 in completion percentage (61.1 percent) and pass efficiency (140.8).
To make that move is a bold one, and it’s one that most thought wouldn’t be coming prior to the season. Using McEvoy in certain packages to take advantage of his running ability was what most expected this year. But going with him to start the season is a clear indication that Andersen didn’t want to wait another year to have the type of player at quarterback that he believes is necessary to make the Badgers a great team. It’s what he had at Utah State in Chuckie Keeton, and what he saw in 2004 as the defensive line coach at Utah with Alex Smith. He showed his future intensions for the position by recruiting McEvoy, freshman D.J. Gillins and 2015 commitment, Austin Kafentzis.
Their mobility puts stress on a defense, which is worrisome for all defensive coordinators, including Wisconsin’s.
“Obviously, we all know when (McEvoy) is back there that the threats multiply as opposed to when the other guy (Stave) is back there,” defensive coordinator Dave Aranda said this week.
If it is McEvoy, he'll become the first UW quarterback since Scott Tolzien in 2009 to have his first career start be in a season opener. Tolzien, who is now fighting for the No. 2 quarterback job with the Green Bay Packers, threw for 257 yards and a touchdown in a victory over Northern Illinois. But it wasn't his first college action, having played in three games the previous season. When McEvoy steps out onto the turf at NRG Stadium next Saturday, he'll do so having never thrown a pass in a Division I college game.
Listen to Zach Heilprin every weekday on “The Jump Around” at ESPNWisconsin.com, and follow him on Twitter: @zachheilprin