When the Wisconsin football team took the field on Saturday for its annual spring game many of the regulars were turned into spectators- some due to injuries, others simply as a precaution. The absence of some of the big-name players meant that there was even less to be taken from an already pedestrian affair.
But there was one exception. The battle for the starting quarterback position was on full display at Camp Randall. It’s a competition that has been brewing since last season.
At the dawn of the 2012 campaign, Wisconsin seemed to be dealing with a bumper crop of quarterbacks. Six, in total, participated in fall camp, each with his own unique skillset. A trio of young men separated themselves from the pack: then, fifth-year senior Curt Phillips, Danny O’Brien; an exiled transfer from Maryland, and Joel Stave, a redshirt freshman and Wisconsin native who seemed to be all but an afterthought given the hype surrounding O’Brien’s arrival in Madison.
Before the season was over, each of the three men had started under center for the Badgers. O’Brien won the job when camp broke but, three starts and a handful of ball security issues later, he found himself on the bench in favor of Stave.
It was apparent that Stave had earned the trust of, then, offensive coordinator Matt Canada. With the young signal caller at the helm, the playbook seemingly opened up and the Badgers taking more shots down field. Stave proved worthy of the confidence that the coaching staff placed in him, racking up 1,104 passing yards and six touchdowns in seven games. His impressive run was cut short by a broken clavicle suffered in the game against Michigan State. At the time of his injury, Stave was leading the Big Ten in pass efficiency.
Enter Curt Phillips. If it wasn’t for bad luck, he likely wouldn’t have any at all. At this point, the redshirt senior had been in Madison for nearly five seasons. Three ACL surgeries later, for all intents and purposes, he was yet to take a meaningful snap. That all changed on Nov. 10 when he made his first collegiate start at Indiana. His stat line from that game (4-7 passing for 41 yards, 1TD) was indicative of what he would bring to the table for the rest of the year. He wouldn’t become an offensive juggernaut. But he possessed a strong sense of leadership and levelheadedness and while it may not win a ton of ball games it certainly wouldn’t lose many.
Out of high school, Phillips was said to have had a mobile element to his game. To put it in Badger terms, he was no Brooks Bollinger, but, he wasn’t Jim Sorgi, either. Even with a bum knee, he proved to be more nimble than one would expect. In total, he averaged 3.7 yards per rush and racked up 99 yards on the year for an average of 14.1 yards per contest.
After season ended, the NCAA granted Curt Phillips a sixth season of eligibility, Stave was healed up and O’Brien was looking for one last shot at redemption heading into his final season of eligibility. This certainly gave new head coach Gary Andersen plenty to think about as he prepared for his inaugural season at the helm of the Badgers.
However, this didn’t keep the first-year head man from sweetening the pot. Shortly into his tenure at his new school, Andersen landed highly-touted junior college transfer Tanner McEvoy, a dual-threat quarterback who, at first glance, seems to fit Andersen’s mold. But, due to transfer regulations, McEvoy will not be on campus until fall.
This brings us back to last Saturday when the set of 15 spring practices came to a head with a high profile scrimmage at Camp Randall.
The men lined up across from one another may have had the same logo on their helmets, but the litany of questions to be answered at such a high-profile position made it seem like much more, if only for a few fleeting moments.
Could Phillips put himself in a position to continue his feel-good, comeback story? Did the Badgers catch lightning in a bottle with Stave in 2012, or would version 2.0 move him to the front of the pack once again? Is it fathomable that O’Brien could bring himself back in the conversation with a solid showing? How about this, Bart Houston, kid?
Truth be told, the quarterback play at the spring game looked more like a blast from the past than a glimpse to the future. Stave and Phillips appeared as the only two serious candidates and they did so by sticking to what made them effective a year ago.
Phillips got the first crack with the No. 1 offense to begin the scrimmage. He continued to lead. He continued to manage the game. He continued to extend plays with his feet and he continued to be precise in the short passing game. Unfortunately for him, he also continued to struggle when asked to go up top.
He wasn’t given many chances to air it out, but many of the passes outside of 10 yards simply weren’t on the mark. Phillips finished the day 8-13 for 82 yards and, to be fair, he recorded the longest pass completion of the day on a 31-yard hookup with Kenzel Doe in the first quarter. He brought two drives to the red zone, but left them on the doorstep for kicker Kyle French to polish off.
“I did alright- obviously didn’t finish a couple of drives. That’s something that we want to do in the red zone: we want to score, not settle for field goals,” Phillips said. “I’d say it was just average. “
Given his extensive time in the program, Phillips welcomes the label of “game manager.”
“I’ve tried to develop a little bit of a leadership role. It’s something that I think should happen having been here for that long. I’m kind of the old man around here now,” Phillips said. “I just try to embrace that and have fun with it.”
He doesn’t feel that he has to single-handedly needs to become a threat in order for the offense to be successful under his guidance.
“The type of caliber athletes we have out there on the field it doesn’t necessarily demand that much of the quarterback. I just have to be able to get the ball in those guy’s hands,” Phillips said. “I think I can do that- get us in the pre-snap alignments, get us in the correct play. Ultimately, it’s the players around him, and the talent there that Wisconsin is always going to thrive on.”
Stave looked to be in form. He showed confidence in the pocket, flexed his arm strength on a few deep balls (though he was unable to connect), and was the only quarterback to lead his offense into the end zone.
“I thought the ball was coming out pretty well today,” Stave said. “We kind of tone everything down defensively and offensively but, I thought I was pretty clean and making good throws.”
He admitted that he felt as though he needed to show the fans that he has made a full recovery.
“I don’t want to try and get too hung up on the spring game, but…you want to kind of show that I feel good, that I’m healthy,” Stave said. “I feel really good. My collarbone doesn’t bother me at all. I just feel excited about competing going into camp.”
Stave knows that his ability to stretch out the passing game will be an asset when the competition resumes in fall.
“I don’t think it can hurt at all. That’s something that I showed that I could do last year and we were very successful. I think that’s something we can bring to the table again, this year,” Stave said. “When you have that threat of, every once in a while throwing that 50-yard bomb down the field, it forces defenses to play more honest.”
Andersen was very clear in stating that, regardless of who is under center, going deep is going to be part of the game plan.
“We believe we’ve got to be able to get those down the field two or three times a game. Whether it comes through play action or comes through straight drop back or we see something in our coverage, we’re going to take those shots down field.”
It was a forgettable day for O’Brien who didn’t complete a pass in three attempts. It’s difficult to imagine the book being closed on him with an entire season left in his career, and one sub-par outing in a scrimmage certainly isn’t the end of the world, but it hurts.
Pciture it this way:Phillips and Stave have locked horns in a fight to the finish and O’Brien is stuck in the chute.
There has been a lot of chatter about the abilities and the potential of Houston, but his showing Saturday wasn’t anything special. He was dealing with the second string offense and it showed. Houston was put under pressure fairly regularly. This issue came to light in his decision making as well as his technique. Houston seemed almost too willing to check down and sometimes failed to set his feet -nothing out of the ordinary for someone without experience at the collegiate level. While there isn’t a need to hit the panic button, rest assured that it will be at least another year until Houston steps onto the scene.
It may have been just a couple of hours in the middle of April, but it’s safe to say that, at least for now, this is a two-horse race.
As a veteran, Phillips knows what he’s in for come fall and he’s not necessarily opposed to a competition.
“It’s a battle. It’s fun though. The biggest thing here is, since I’ve been here, all the quarterbacks have gotten along very well. I think that’s something makes it even more fun,” Phillips said. “Obviously, we’re competing, we’re all extremely competitive but, at the end of the day, we want to help each other.”
He even went as far as to say that he looks forward to adding McEvoy to the mix.
“I don’t think it does any good to sit and look at it ahead of time, but I’m excited for him to be here and to be able to compete. “
Stave echoed his sentiments.
“I don’t mind the competition at all. It makes everyone better,” Stave said. “It’s good for the team.”
Though it is far too early to name a starter, Andersen is confident that his squad will be in good hands come Aug. 31.
“[It was a] positive performance, really. I hate to look back at just one day, one performance, but I think this last week, if I look at both those two, we’re moving in the right direction with just feeling comfortable with what’s going on.”