MADISON, Wis. — New coaching staff. New uniforms. Same quarterback questions.
As Wisconsin’s football team begins the Gary Andersen era, one debate that hasn’t simmered from the Bret Bielema days concerns which quarterback will emerge as the starter.
Will it be Curt Phillips? Joel Stave? Danny O’Brien? Or someone else?
All three players started at least three games last season, and each returns to make another run at the No. 1 role, in addition to redshirt freshman Bart Houston and junior college transfer Tanner McEvoy, who will arrive on campus this summer.
For Andersen, it isn’t a particularly bad spot to be in as the Badgers start spring practices. And for the players, it represents a fresh start without worrying about past performances coloring the perspective of the coaches.
O’Brien especially welcomes the opportunity to try again. He transferred from Maryland last season and earned the starting quarterback spot out of fall camp with similar hype and fanfare that Russell Wilson brought the previous year. O’Brien started the first three games, but his propensity to turn the ball over did not sit well with Bielema, and he was benched at halftime of Wisconsin’s game against Utah State with the Badgers trailing 14-3.
“I think it’s a clean slate, which is a relief,” O’Brien said. “How last year went, I’ve learned a lot from it. I don’t mind being the underdog. It’s my third quarterback competition I’ve been in during my career, and I don’t mind being counted out right now.
“I feel like I have a lot to prove. I’m just going to be the guy coming to work every day that maybe no one talks about, which is fine.”
O’Brien completed 52 of 86 passes last season (60.5 percent) and threw for 523 yards with three touchdowns and an interception. He also lost two fumbles in the first three games of the year.
O’Brien described the offense under Andersen as more of a West Coast pro-style system, which features more decision-making from the quarterback on checks and alerts at the line of scrimmage. He said he played in a similar offense at Maryland, where he earned Atlantic Coast Conference Rookie of the Year honors in 2010.
Despite his difficulties last season, O’Brien said he wouldn’t change his decision to transfer.
“I think in a weird way I’m thankful for it,” O’Brien said. “It was obviously tough during the season. I’ve learned so much from it. It’s the first time I’ve been benched. I’m used to just being the guy everywhere I’ve gone up to that point. I definitely learned a lot about myself. I kind of use it as an opportunity to show my teammates how I truly handle myself when everyone is counting you out.”
Stave, meanwhile, appears to be the frontrunner for the position based on what he accomplished last season. During the portion of Monday’s practice open to the media, he hit wide receiver Jared Abbrederis in stride with the kind of long pass only Stave was able to demonstrate consistently a year ago.
Stave replaced O’Brien at halftime of the Utah State game — ironically, a team coached then by Andersen — and helped to lead Wisconsin to a 16-14 victory despite completing just 2 of 6 passes for 15 yards. Stave was declared the starter and continued in that role until he broke his collarbone against Michigan State on Oct. 27.
During that time, Stave completed 70 of 119 passes (58.8 percent) for 1,104 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions.
Stave said he had most improved his confidence and in-game decision making.
“Just recognizing things and trying to anticipate throws a little better instead of waiting until the last second to make sure they’re open,” Stave said. “By that time, a lot of times they’re not open anymore.”
“There’s obviously room to get better. I’m mostly concerned about what I’m doing and trying to compete with myself to get better every day. As long as I’m improving constantly, then I’m happy.”
During a bye week following Stave’s injury, Phillips beat out O’Brien for the starting role and started the Badgers’ final five games. Wisconsin went 3-2 during that span, which including a 70-31 thrashing of Nebraska in the Big Ten championship game. In the Rose Bowl, Phillips completed 10 of 16 passes for 83 yards with one touchdown and one interception during Wisconsin’s 20-14 loss to Stanford.
Phillips, a sixth-year senior who has dealt with three ACL surgeries in his career, revealed this week that he tore the meniscus in his right knee near the end of the third quarter and played through the pain. He underwent surgery shortly after returning to Madison.
“I was kind of joking around,” Phillips said. “I said it’s like getting an oil change at this point. Every so many miles, you’ve got to get some work. It’s not an issue. Not a problem. I’m healthy.”
The biggest setback Phillips encountered the past two months was simply an inability to progress from where his season ended.
“Repetition is the biggest thing for me at this point,” Phillips said. “Like I was going into camp, I was healthy but I just hadn’t had a chance to rep it as many times. That comes with time. Just really trying to be engaged in spring mentally as much as possible. Obviously I can do everything. It’s not an issue. In the summer time is when I can rep more times. I’ll be much more consistent.”
Phillips completed 46 of 81 passes (56.8 percent) for 540 yards with five touchdowns and two interceptions. He also was the only signal caller to gain positive yards on the ground last season for the Badgers.
Andersen said last week he was looking for a quarterback to demonstrate he was capable of producing 15 consistent practices during the spring while exhibiting leadership and gaining trust of teammates. O’Brien, Stave and Phillips have shown all of those traits during their stints in charge. Now, it’s a matter of which man Andersen deems most fit to run his offense and continue the Badgers’ string of three straight Rose Bowl appearances.
“The advantage for Wisconsin is we have three quarterbacks that can win games for us,” Phillips said. “Obviously, they’re bringing somebody else in this fall. That’s something we weren’t necessarily expecting, but it’s kind of been the norm for us here.
“If there’s anything I’ve learned in the six years here, it’s you can’t be looking over your shoulder. You’ve just got to do the best you can do, make the most of your reps and we’ll see what happens.”