MADISON, Wis. — The way Bret Bielema tells it, all the starts in the world at another school weren’t enough to convince him that Danny O’Brien deserved to be a starting quarterback at the University of Wisconsin.
Certainly Bielema, Wisconsin’s seventh-year football coach, had an inkling that O’Brien’s experience would trump his competitors in a three-man quarterback race. But until O’Brien proved it on the practice field, his coach couldn’t propel him to the top spot in good conscience.
Following two weeks of fall practices, Bielema finally saw enough to name O’Brien as the Badgers’ starter on Sunday — a move many presumed was a foregone conclusion the minute O’Brien announced his transfer from Maryland in March.
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Bielema insisted otherwise.
“There wasn’t any doubt that it was an open race for all three people,” Bielema said after Monday’s practice. “I think it might have swayed back and forth between the three of them for me at least four or five times before the actual day.”
Ultimately, the reason O’Brien beat out redshirt freshman Joel Stave and redshirt senior Curt Phillips was simple: Turnovers. Or lack thereof.
While Stave and Phillips were in “double digits” in turnovers, according to Bielema, O’Brien demonstrated much better ball security. He didn’t throw an interception the entire camp until last Friday, when linebacker Ethan Armstrong snatched a pass during a seven-on-seven drill.
“He took care of the football the best,” Badgers offensive coordinator Matt Canada said. “He didn’t turn the ball over, and that really was the deciding factor. The percentage of the three of them was extremely close. The knowledge of the game is extremely close. They’re all very good leaders. … Just felt like for right now this was the best thing to do for our program.”
The decision to promote O’Brien came three days before Bielema initially hoped to name a starter. It means O’Brien now has just under two weeks to prepare for 12th-ranked Wisconsin’s Sept. 1 season opener against Northern Iowa as the team’s No. 1 signal caller.
“I was honored,” O’Brien said. “To be a part of this team is a privilege in itself, but to be named the starting quarterback here was something that I’m proud of just because it had been a lot of hard work. We have a great quarterback room. It was a really tough competition.”
O’Brien graduated from Maryland in three years and is eligible to play immediately at Wisconsin under the NCAA graduate-transfer exception rule. He becomes the Badgers’ second starter in as many seasons to take advantage of the rule. Last year, Russell Wilson transferred from North Carolina State to Wisconsin and set the school record for touchdown passes in a single season with 33.
That level of instant success isn’t expected from O’Brien, but he does possess the tools necessary to lead Wisconsin to a third consecutive Big Ten championship.
In two seasons at Maryland, O’Brien started 17 games. He threw for 4,086 yards with 29 touchdowns and 18 interceptions during his Terrapins career.
O’Brien, who has two years of eligibility remaining, said his experience played a factor in his ability to earn the Wisconsin starting job.
“I think a little bit,” he said. “Just playing a lot of football gears you into how you’re supposed to go into things, how you handle scrimmage situations, moving the chains. Kind of knowing situation deals that get away from the playbook I think can help a little bit.”
This marks O’Brien’s second foray into a pro-style offense at the college level, which also contributed to his practice success at Wisconsin. He was named the Atlantic Coast Conference Rookie of the Year in 2010 while playing in then-coach Ralph Friedgen’s pro-style offense.
O’Brien struggled last season when the Terrapins changed coaches to Randy Edsall and switched to operating out of a spread passing attack. He threw for more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (seven).
“In this type of offense, I’ve kind of prided myself on taking care of the ball,” O’Brien said of the pro-style formation. “Not necessarily not taking risks, but taking them when they’re there and when they’re calculated and safe. Just getting the ball on time to the right people. I think if you just go through your reads, that kind of stuff takes care of itself.”
As for which quarterback will serve as O’Brien’s backup? That decision remains undetermined.
Wisconsin released its official depth chart on Monday for its season opener, and Stave and Phillips both were on the No. 2 line.
Phillips has appeared in five games with no starts and is 7 for 13 for 65 yards with no touchdowns and an interception. But those appearances came back in 2009. Since then, he has endured three ACL surgeries on his right knee.
“I’ve been here through a lot of different quarterback competitions and seen the starter do well and the starter not do so well,” Phillips said. “My job is to be ready to go, and I’m going to make the most of it.
“I think for me there’s going to be a very steep learning curve. I hadn’t played in a while, so I didn’t expect to be necessarily ready to go within two weeks. But I think whatever reps I can get, I’m going to continue to get better. There’s a lot of upside.”
Stave, meanwhile, made great strides during spring and fall camp but has yet to play in a college game. He joined the team as a walk-on and earned a scholarship last Thursday.
“Obviously, there’s plays that I’d like to take back, things that I’d like to have done better,” Stave said. “But I’m always giving it my all. My mindset hasn’t really changed. I’m still going to come out and compete everyday and see what happens.”
For now — and for the foreseeable future — Phillips and Stave will have to wait their turn. O’Brien is the man under center at Wisconsin.