O'Brien must work his way to starting QB role
Aug 8, 2012 at 9:06p ET
MADISON, Wis. — It is quite clear the official depth chart listing of Wisconsin's quarterbacks to begin preseason camp this fall is about as useful as an ice cube maker in Antarctica.
If we are to believe the Badgers' ratings, then a redshirt freshman named Joel Stave who has never thrown a pass in a college game stands at the top. A redshirt junior named Danny O'Brien with 4,086 career passing yards, 29 touchdowns and 17 college starts ranks fourth.
The absurdity of such a declaration is obvious. But given the circumstances surrounding Wisconsin's early quarterback battle, it is also understandable.
"I kind of expected it," O'Brien said. "They mentioned where I would start. Obviously I wasn't here for spring. I think it's a fair way to go into it. It keeps me hungry starting at the bottom."
O'Brien, of course, is not expected to stay at the bottom for very long. A much bigger surprise will come if he isn't Wisconsin's starting quarterback for its season opener against Northern Iowa on Sept. 1.
The reason for O'Brien's low depth chart status is more a product of the coaching staff's respect for the other quarterbacks. Wednesday marked just the third practice at Wisconsin for O'Brien, a 6-foot-3, 223-pounder who transferred from Maryland as a two-year starter after graduating during the spring. As a result, he did not participate in the Badgers' spring practices as the quarterbacks ahead of him did.
Still, the reality of the situation cannot be ignored. In total, the three quarterbacks listed ahead of O'Brien — Stave, redshirt senior Curt Phillips and redshirt sophomore Joe Brennan — have played in a combined 11 games while completing 13 of 28 passes for 113 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions.
O'Brien tossed for more than 113 yards in 18 of the 20 games in which he threw a pass at Maryland. As a freshman in 2010, he passed for 2,438 yards with 22 touchdowns and eight interceptions, earning the Atlantic Coast Conference Rookie of the Year honor.
Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema has said for months that an open competition would take place during fall camp, and he and offensive coordinator Matt Canada have held true to that word.
Canada said the top four quarterbacks were splitting repetitions evenly among the No. 1 and No. 2 offense. But even Canada admitted that O'Brien held an edge in one significant area.
"Certainly, what Danny brings to the table is he's played a lot of football," said Canada, also Wisconsin's quarterbacks coach. "That's something that does factor in. Experience is invaluable."
O'Brien said he won't be relying on his previous game experience as he competes during fall camp, although it's hard to ignore.
"It has some value being out there in front of big crowds and stuff like that and executing," O'Brien said. "But my focus isn't on anything else but just going out every day, running the plays that I do get and running them as well as I can. But I think it could help a little bit."
During the two months since O'Brien moved Madison, he has spent significant time becoming acquainted with teammates — relationships O'Brien believes are vital to his success. O'Brien's roommates are guard Ryan Groy, center Travis Frederick, linebacker A.J. Fenton, defensive tackle Ethan Armstrong and former player Sam Edmiston.
Groy hosted O'Brien during his official visit to campus in the spring and the two quickly became good friends. Groy said they spent time this summer camping, fishing and hosting poker nights in addition to having players-only workouts.
Through three practices, Groy has been impressed with O'Brien's ability to quickly learn Wisconsin's system.
"He's got a good presence in the huddle just like the rest of the guys," Groy said. "It's something that when a guy comes in, you wonder if he's going to be shy in the huddle or if he's going to be aggressive. He's really confident in the huddle, so it's a good thing."
O'Brien has reason to be confident. Wisconsin's pro-style offense is one with which he has plenty of familiarity. It is similar to what he ran at Maryland two seasons ago under then-coach Ralph Friedgen during O'Brien's breakout season.
Last year, under new coach Randy Edsall, the Terrapins moved to a spread offense, and O'Brien struggled. He threw more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (seven) and was benched in favor of quarterback C.J. Brown by the end of the season.
"You find out who your inner circle is and the people that are there for you when you struggle," O'Brien said. "There's a lot of people there when you're winning and doing well. So you know who your friends and family are. You just learn how you handle it, how you get back up from it.
"That's what I'm looking forward to here is a fresh start. Putting the past in the past. Getting back in a pro-style system has been great. I'm looking forward to that."
O'Brien is the second quarterback in as many years to transfer to Wisconsin under the NCAA's graduate-transfer exemption rule, which permits graduates of another institution to play immediately for a new school. Last season, Russell Wilson earned the starting job after transferring from North Carolina State in the first week of practice, when quarterback Jon Budmayr experienced nerve damage in his throwing elbow.
O'Brien doesn't have a similar trouble-free path.
For now, he'll have to beat out Stave, who is listed as the No. 1 quarterback after out-dueling Brennan during spring practice. Phillips was limited in the spring while recovering from a third ACL surgery on his right knee.
Stave completed 14 of 25 passes for 135 yards with a touchdown during Wisconsin's spring game, playing mostly with the No. 1 offense.
"It's a competition," Stave said. "I wouldn't really put myself in the No. 1 spot. I'd like obviously at the end of camp to be there. I don't think anyone would be able to put themselves in that spot just yet."
O'Brien certainly hopes he'll be there by Sept. 1. And despite the current depth chart readings, common sense suggests he is well on his way to earning that spot.
"We're all competitors," O'Brien said. "I'm no exception. I want to start here. I want to win games here. I want to win a lot of games here. That's my goal."
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