By TOM LEA
MADISON – Whether it’s aimed at maintaining momentum, building confidence, continuity or something else, Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema and his offensive staff have remained steadfast throughout the years with a certain philosophy.
Start fall camp with the players and depth chart you left off with at the conclusion of spring camp.
If Joel Stave was the starting quarterback in the spring game, he’s going to start fall camp as the team’s No. 1 signal caller. If Curt Phillips and Joel Stave finished spring camp at No. 2 and No. 3 on the depth chart, that’s where they’ll start fall camp.
So for Danny O’Brien, a highly touted transfer from Maryland, his path to the starting gig needs to wiggle through, over and around the three players currently in front of him.
“I kind of expected it,” O’Brien said when asked if he knew he would start fall camp as the team’s No. 4 quarterback. “They mentioned they were going to start where spring left off and obviously I wasn’t here for spring. I think that’s a fair way to go into it and it obviously keeps me hungry.
“Starting at the bottom, there are notches to move up if you want to start.”
O’Brien, who added 15-20 pounds to his frame throughout summer conditioning and currently weighs in at 226 pounds, is no stranger to quarterback competitions. When he first stepped foot on Maryland’s campus he had an opportunity to work against C.J. Brown for the No. 3 (and eventually No. 2) spot on the depth chart.
When he was eligible the following year he beat out Jamar Robinson for the starting gig and went on to have an impressive redshirt season where he threw for 2,438 yards, 22 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He also complete 57 percent of his passes and was named ACC Rookie of the Year and landed on the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) Freshman All-American team.
“It’s something you embrace,” O’Brien said of quarterback competitions in fall camp. “I think the cool thing about this quarterback crew is we’re pretty tight off the field. We all know the deal.
“We know one guy is going to play and we’re going to support the starter no matter what.”
Offensive coordinator Matt Canada told reporters earlier this week that four quarterbacks (Stave, Phillips, Brennan and O’Brien) have received equal amounts of reps through the early stages of fall camp.
At this point, Canada isn’t doing anything special in regard to building formations, plays or sets for any particular quarterback. He’s simply installing key portions of his playbook so the signal callers can get acclimated to his style of offense.
So O’Brien’s rise through the ranks probably won’t become entirely plausible until the team practices in full pads (UW wore shoulder pads and shorts on Wednesday) and practices game-like situations with a live rush.
Until then, O’Brien is entirely focused on setting distractions aside. He knows he’ll always be compared to Russell Wilson — transfer quarterback from ACC territory with immediate eligibility — but he knows the only way he’s going to rise to where he wants to be is if he stays within himself and his ability.
“I’m just going to be myself,” O’Brien said. “Which is all I know how to be and (Wilson) really hasn’t crossed my mind all that much just because I’m here working with the guys and that really doesn’t come up.
“It is what it is.”
If there’s one distinct advantage that O’Brien has over the other three quarterbacks vying for the starting nod, it’s the fact he has ample playing experience at the collegiate level. Phillips has played in games throughout his career, but he’s never been the starting quarterback and he’s never had the burden of leading his team to victory from start to finish.
Stave, being a redshirt freshman, has never played in a game and Brennan, outside of some extreme mop up duty situations, has never accumulated much experience.
Though O’Brien has started a season and a half worth of games, he’s not relying entirely on that experience to elevate him to the starting line, even though Canada openly said that is his biggest advantage over the rest of the quarterback position.
“I’m not really trying to rely on that,” O’Brien said. “I really want to play as good as I can right here, right now. But I think it has some value being out there in front of big crowds and stuff like that and executing. My focus isn’t on anything else but just going out everyday, running the plays that I do get in and running them as well as I can.
“I think it could help a little bit, but that’s really up to me.”