MADISON, Wis. — Chris Beatty remembers pulling up game footage four years ago of a wide receiver from Bergen Catholic (N.J.) High School named Tanner McEvoy and salivating at the prospect of coaching him some day.
Beatty, then the slot receivers coach at West Virginia, saw McEvoy’s combination of size and athleticism and figured he’d make for a perfect fit in the Mountaineers’ up-tempo system.
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“Watching him on film, he was a no-brainer at wideout,” said Beatty, now the wide receivers coach at Wisconsin. “Super explosive. I remember a couple plays that he made as a junior that you were like, ‘Hey you can cut it off, I’d take that guy in a heartbeat.’ He was a special wideout in high school.”
Beatty never did get the chance to coach McEvoy then. McEvoy switched to quarterback for his senior season, enrolled at South Carolina and later Arizona Western College. Beatty, meanwhile, worked one-year stints at Vanderbilt and Illinois following his 2010 departure from West Virginia.
But thanks to a confluence of circumstances, Beatty may get the opportunity to coach McEvoy after all.
McEvoy, a 6-foot-6, 223-pound redshirt sophomore, transferred from Arizona Western to Wisconsin this season with the intention of competing for the starting quarterback job. He has lagged behind Curt Phillips and Joel Stave, and Wednesday, McEvoy made his first appearance at wide receiver during a red zone skeleton drill. He even caught a 7-yard touchdown pass from Stave, leaping over cornerback Darius Hillary to make the grab.
“He looks like the guy I saw when he was a junior in high school,” Beatty said. “Very explosive and great body. With a guy like that, it’s hard to move the way he can move at 6-6. That’s a hard matchup for a lot of people. But it reminded me of the film I watched then. You go back and watch his stuff on Rivals or YouTube, he’s special at wideout.”
Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen had hinted at the possibility of McEvoy playing some wide receiver, particularly when it became apparent he would not challenge for the No. 1 quarterback spot this season. Still, it was an eyebrow-raising sight when he lined up out wide in Wednesday’s drill.
The last time McEvoy played wide receiver was his junior year of high school when he caught 35 passes for 550 yards and three touchdowns. In two seasons, he set the Bergen school record with 69 catches leading into his senior year.
Nunzio Campanile coached against McEvoy those two seasons while at Don Bosco High School. In 2010, before McEvoy’s senior season, he took over at Bergen for legendary coach Fred Stengel, who retired after 41 years in charge of the program.
Campanile immediately made McEvoy a quarterback for two reasons: Bergen didn’t have a quarterback at the time, and he wanted his most athletic player to have the ball in his hands on offense every single play.
“He’s the guy on the field that you say ‘Oh boy,'” Campanile said. “Whenever he has the ball in his hands, you hope you tackle him and get to the next play. He’s a scary player. When I got to coach him, I really didn’t realize how tough and athletic he would be with the ball in his hands. In tight quarters, he’s a really tough kid.”
Campanile has coached several players that went on to NFL careers, including two quarterbacks: New York Jets backup Matt Simms and Mike Teel, a sixth-round pick of the Seattle Seahawks in 2009. Still, Campanile called McEvoy “as talented as any player I’ve ever been around. There’s not a lot of skills he doesn’t have.”
McEvoy’s natural abilities allowed him to flourish as a quarterback his senior season at Bergen and later at Arizona Western, where he was named the conference’s offensive player of the year. But it hasn’t been easy for him to learn a third offensive system in as many years of college while battling two players who have been quarterbacks for the majority of their football careers.
Campanile said he spoke with McEvoy following his first scrimmage at Wisconsin last week — a scrimmage in which McEvoy completed just 2 of 9 passes for 22 yards and slipped out of the quarterback competition.
“Pretty much what I told him is you’re a great athlete. Stick with it,” Campanile said. “He’s the type of guy that because he’s still learning, he is going to make mistakes. That comes with the territory. Coaches always have to make decisions that are what’s best for your team right now. Even if he’s playing wide receiver, I would think it’s a mistake to get away from him being a quarterback because I think his upside is tremendous.
“But while you’re developing a quarterback, I think they need to go with whatever is going give them a chance to win them the first game. In the meantime, that’s not a bad thing for him to get some experience being on the field to show his teammates and his coaches what he can do with the ball in his hands and why he’s a guy worth sticking with.”
Wisconsin offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said “anything’s possible” when asked how McEvoy could be used at wide receiver. He admitted any plays for him would be limited and part of specific packages because he has next to no repetitions running plays as a wide receiver at Wisconsin. McEvoy also has taken snaps at quarterback as part of a read-option package.
“The guy’s got a tremendous skill set,” Ludwig said. “He’s in the development phase at the quarterback position. Played quarterback three years in his life. But he’s got a shot now. He got a lot of chances. But with that skillset, his ability to play quarterback, maybe do some stuff with him on the perimeter. … You saw two plays today (at wide receiver). That’s the first time he’s done it, and he’s 1 for 2. So real good there.”
Plenty remains to be decided about the direction of McEvoy’s college career, but his athleticism clearly provides him with more opportunities to see the field than most. Beatty, for one, certainly wouldn’t mind the chance to coach him all these years later.
“We’ll see what coach has in store, but if we were able to get him, that’d be a definite bonus,” Beatty said. “And he’s probably too good an athlete not to be somewhere on the field.”