MADISON, Wis. — It has become something of a tradition the past two springs that the starting quarterback job at Wisconsin has seemingly been up for grabs. So, why should things be any different next time around, even with the incumbent starter returning for his junior season?
When spring practices arrive, Badgers quarterback Joel Stave will have started all 13 games this season. And although he considers himself the starter moving forward, he also recognizes the job won’t be handed to him simply because he’s played before.
“Competition is what drives the sport,” Stave said this week. “I’m sure they’ll bring other guys that they want to look at for quarterback. I’ve always treated it like I’m going to be the starter. So I won’t have any different mindset going into spring ball. I know they’ll have other guys practicing at quarterback. You can’t have one guy take every rep. There’s going to be other guys there, other guys competing. And I’ve got to use that to continue to drive me.”
Stave is having one of the most prolific seasons for any quarterback in Wisconsin history. He has completed 199 of 323 passes (61.6 percent) for 2,414 yards and 20 touchdowns. Even before Wisconsin plays South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl on Jan. 1, his total passing yards rank fifth for a single season in program history, his completed passes third, his completion percentage sixth and his touchdowns third.
Despite those numbers, there is reason to believe he could still be unseated as the team’s future quarterback — whether by Bart Houston or Tanner McEvoy. Stave’s inability to consistently hit wide receivers has been well-documented, and his 12 interceptions are tied for the second-most in the Big Ten even though he has thrown the sixth-most passes.
Adding intrigue to the quarterback competition this spring will be the addition of McEvoy, who is one of the team’s starting safeties this season. McEvoy, a highly touted junior college quarterback, did not have much time in fall practices to make up ground on Stave and sixth-year senior Curt Phillips — both of whom competed last spring. After McEvoy broke a bone in his wrist, coaches moved him from quarterback to wide receiver and then to safety so he wouldn’t waste a year of eligibility on the sideline.
This week, Badgers coach Gary Andersen confirmed McEvoy would have an opportunity to compete for the quarterback job in the spring. McEvoy has spent the portion of bowl prep practices that involve younger players at the quarterback spot alongside Houston.
“I put him in there with the younger kids,” Andersen said. “He’ll continue to do that. He’s going to compete as we move through time here at the quarterback spot. He came here to be a quarterback. He’ll finish the year as a starting safety. We’ll do everything we can just like every position — we say continually try to create competition. Tanner deserves that right.
“This is an opportunity for him to get out there and play in these practices. He’ll do it. He’ll have about 16 opportunities with those young kids to compete. He’ll do that at quarterback and then he does go right back to safety when we travel because he’s a starting safety.”
Wisconsin’s coaching staff certainly will have plenty to think about this spring. McEvoy will be the only quarterback on scholarship recruited by the current coaching staff, and his mobility could separate him if the quarterback race is close.
Andersen has been open about his frustrations with the passing game, and the typically dominant running attack has suffered the past two weeks because of the team’s inability to complete enough passes. Stave has thrown as many interceptions (four) as touchdowns during that span.
“Defenses are ganging up on us more so than they have all year long,” Andersen said. “The way to get rid of that is throw some balls down the field and cause some issues.”
Highly motivated: Wisconsin running back James White discussed during the Big Ten media days back in July the importance of proving himself this season. Though he had put up solid numbers, this would be his only season as the team’s starter, and he was prepared to show others why he deserved that role.
With the season winding down, does White feel like he proved something?
“I feel like I did,” he said. “I feel like I tried to get better each and every week, and I feel like I got better each and every week. I try to be a guy that gets better in everything out there on the field, whether it’s blocking, catching or running the football. So I feel like I went out and I did that this year.”
This season, White has carried 209 times for 1,337 yards — an average of 6.4 yards per carry — and scored 13 touchdowns. He also has caught 37 passes, which is the second highest on the team, for 292 yards with two touchdowns.
White’s career mark of 6.2 yards per carry will rank as the best for any running back with at least 300 rushes in Wisconsin history — unless, of course, teammate Melvin Gordon bypasses the NFL and returns next season.
Badgers running backs coach Thomas Hammock said he would most remember White as unselfish and team-oriented. White, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, spent his sophomore and junior seasons playing second fiddle to former Badgers standout Montee Ball before getting his chance to start.
“He showed up every day and competed to get better and to make the team better,” Hammock said. “No matter what anybody else said, he kept the same mindset and work ethic, whether he was a backup, not getting a whole lot of snaps, or this season when’s he’s obviously had a big role in our offense.”
Despite all his accomplishments, White acknowledged there is unfinished business that remains.
In three Rose Bowls against TCU, Oregon and Stanford, White has carried a total of 22 times for 57 yards and has not scored a touchdown. The Badgers also have lost all three games.
“I’m really motivated,” White said. “I haven’t won a bowl game since I’ve been here. So I definitely want to go out winning a bowl game against a great opponent. It’ll be a lot of fun. Every bowl game I’ve played in, I also haven’t really done much. I just want to go out and have an impact on my team.”