By TOM LEA
MADISON – Whatever tweak, twist or stretch eventually sent an all too familiar searing pain through then-junior quarterback Curt Phillip’s knee in April of 2011 didn’t really send concern or consternation through his mind.
It simply struck a nerve. One of those, ‘Man, I can’t believe this same thing has happened again’ moments that we’ve all endured — though probably not to Phillips’ extent — throughout our individual lives.
“I was more pissed to be honest,” Phillips, speaking to reporters following Wisconsin’s third practice of fall camp, said. “But you immediately start playing out the scenarios. I knew I could get a medical redshirt out of that and I could get two more years. Luckily we had somebody like Russell (Wilson) come in and he did a heck of a job. I got to sit and learn from him.
“That’s one huge advantage that nobody really talks about. I got to sit behind two NFL quarterbacks and watch how they operate and how they did things. That’s huge for me.”
But in between his last game as a healthy quarterback (at Hawaii, 2009) and now, Phillips hasn’t had much else to talk about but his three-time torn ACL. The third tear — April of 2011 — made it difficult for many to believe the once four-star prospect had any chance of ever making it back as a contributing player on Bret Bielema’s team.
Many thought the third tear was the beginning of the end, the final straw in a career that never really had a chance to flourish.
“I think some other people might have questioned, ‘Hey, are you going to quit,’ Phillips said. “There was never really a doubt in my mind that I was going to do it.”
MAKING THE MOST OF SPRING
Phillips continued laboring on. He endured UW’s spring camp in March and April at anything but 100 percent. He admitted it was hard for him to deliver throws at certain times because he couldn’t step into the throws enough to generate the power needed to complete them.
He didn’t have that confidence or trust in his knee.
It was like that through the entirety of camp and for the first portion of summer conditioning. But then, almost entirely out of the blue, Phillips found his groove. He found the comfort level that had escaped him throughout each of the past two seasons and somewhere, even if it was in the depths of his mind, he started believing he could once again compete for the starting quarterback job at the University of Wisconsin.
“I feel great coming into (camp),” Phillips said. “I’m not going to say that (my speed) is completely back to where it was, but I think it’s good enough. I think I’m going to have to be more of a smart quarterback. The offense we play in, that’s what I need to do anyway, not rely on my legs.”
When Phillips first arrived on campus in the winter of 2008, his greatest attribute was his speed. He was supposed to be a dual-threat quarterback that was going to take the Badgers offense — then coached by Paul Chryst — by storm. He was going to offer a totally different dynamic that would have provided a totally different player that UW hadn’t really seen before.
At times, especially when Phillips was at full strength, he made plays that suggested he was the fastest player on the entire roster. Not just offensively, but on the entire roster.
Three ACL surgeries later that is probably somewhat diminished. So Phillips will have to adjust, just like he did when he originally suffered the injury and had to get used to everyday life with an injury requiring serious, and daunting, surgery.
And now that he is probably going to be a different quarterback than he once was, he’ll have to adjust yet again.
“I think I’m smarter,” Phillips said. “I think I still have the ability to get out and go when I need to. This is a pass-first offense. You recruit the guys, you have the caliber athletes we do at all the positions.
“I’ve got to give them the ball.”
Phillips said his knee isn’t giving him any sort of problem through three practices in fall camp, but he also understands he hasn’t really been doing much of anything to provoke it. The Badgers have yet to wear full pads — they went with shoulder pads on Wednesday — and the quarterbacks haven’t had to endure a live rush.
That’s something Phillips hasn’t experienced in the two years he’s been sidelined, but it’s something he’s looking forward to feeling again.
“I think it’s fun,” Phillips said. “Both my roommates play defense (Brendan Kelly and Mike Taylor) so I may have them come out here and hit me and knock me around a little bit. We don’t get hit in practice. That’s when it gets fun, when you actually can get hit.
“It’s not playing video games anymore. It’s playing football.”
APPROACHING FALL CAMP
Curt Phillips will have an opportunity to apply for another year of eligibility following the conclusion of UW’s 2012 season. Because he missed the entirety of two full seasons, he’ll likely qualify, meaning he could be back in cardinal and white in 2013 as well.
But though he probably has another year in his back pocket to compete and recover from the severe knee injuries he’s endured, Phillips continues to treat this season as if it’s his final chance. He sees guys like Danny O’Brien, Joel Stave and Joe Brennan in practice each and every day and understands they want it just as bad.
But Phillips seems to believe he might have an advantage because of all the time he missed. The appreciation one develops for something he wants so badly but can’t achieve is something that can’t be glossed over.
“You’ve got to do the best you can do each day and let it take care of itself,” Phillips said. “I think if you’re looking over your shoulder watching how somebody else does, I can’t control how they throw or how they play so I’ve just got to do the best I can do.
“But at the same time, I definitely didn’t come back from three ACL surgeries to sit on the bench.”
Danny O’Brien has three practices to his Wisconsin name as it currently stands. He’s a highly touted transfer from Maryland with the tall task of trying to replace the void left open by Russell Wilson, along with the other three UW quarterbacks currently battling for the same responsibility.
O’Brien has gotten to know Phillips throughout the summer months he’s been on campus. When he heard of his story, he immediately developed a level of respect for Phillips. And even though he’s competing directly with him, O’Brien is excited to see how he progresses.
“You want the best for guys like that,” O’Brien said. “The stuff that he’s gone through, to still be here right now competing says a lot about him as a person and his character.
“It’s hard not to pull for a guy like that.”
Phillips said he appreciated the fact he has teammates that pull for him and root for him to overcome the obstacles he’s endured throughout his career. But at the same time, he understands that isn’t going to get him to his ultimate goal.
Make no bones about it, Phillips intends to compete throughout fall camp and he intends to earn the starting gig come Sept. 1 against Northern Iowa.
“If you’ve torn (your ACL) three times you might as well let it ride and have fun with it,” Phillips said. “I’m not as paranoid, I guess I could say. At this point I’m going to give it everything I’ve got and see what happens. At the same time I’ve come back from it, I know when to take care of it, when to back it down and when to push harder.
“I think that’s going to be a big advantage for me.”
Phillips has 24 practices and days to make his push for the starting job. Though he’s the hands-down sentimental favorite to win the competition, he knows there isn’t necessarily a fairy tale ending in store.
And to be frank, he’s fine with that.
“I’m not asking for any special treatment,” Phillips said. “Everybody is always asking me how my knee is doing. I almost wish at this point we could just drop it. It’s fine. It’s not an issue. I wish we could kind of move on from it and let it rely on how we play.
“Nobody wants to see somebody come out and complain. More importantly, nobody cares. You’ve got to take care of yourself. It shows you how much it means to you and it’s just extra motivation to come out and do the best you can.”