Joel Stave's improved passing gives him leg up in QB race
MADISON, Wis. -- All indications suggest Joel Stave is a better player than he was at this stage 11 months ago when he took over as Wisconsin's starting quarterback for the first time. By his own admission, he is more confident, physically stronger, better at reading his progressions in the pocket and a more accurate thrower.
These developments, coupled with a solid performance during fall camp, would seem to demonstrate clear reasons why Stave will be the Wisconsin starter for its season opener Saturday against UMass -- even if head coach Gary Andersen has no interest in announcing the starter publicly.
Stave, at least, has been made aware of which quarterback -- he or Curt Phillips -- will start.
So, who is the starter?
"I don't know if I am supposed to reveal that," Stave said this week, "so I'm not going to."
Just the latest in a line of smart plays that has Stave likely on top of the pecking order. During a brief portion of Tuesday's practice open to the media, Stave worked with the first-team offense, while Phillips worked a drill involving the second-team offense.
If Stave is indeed the starter, he will have earned it by making significant strides in the Badgers' new offensive system since it was implemented in the spring.
"He's made good progress," Badgers offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Andy Ludwig said. "I think he's thrown the ball with a higher degree of accuracy. We refer to it as repetitive accuracy. You've heard me use that term. He's being more vocal. He still needs to up that a little bit in terms of talking to his teammates, being more communicative. He had a good camp."
Last season, Stave appeared in eight games with six starts as a redshirt freshman. He completed 70 of 119 passes (58.8 percent) for 1,104 yards with six touchdowns and three interceptions. But his momentum came to a screeching halt when he broke his collarbone during an Oct. 27 game against Michigan State. The injury led to Phillips taking over as the starter for the team's final five games. Phillips and Stave have battled for the No. 1 spot ever since.
Stave said the competition between he and Phillips had forced him to become an even better player.
"It just makes you really take everything very seriously," Stave said. "You're out here to have fun. It's a game. It's a football game, but you want to make sure you're doing the right thing, make sure you're not only learning from your reps but from other guys' reps. Coach Ludwig a lot of times says, 'Steal the rep,' which means even if you're not in, watch it, pay attention, know what the play call is and make sure you're always getting the most out of every opportunity."
Stave's biggest edge over Phillips is his ability to accurately throw deep passes on play-action attempts, and he has quickened his release since last season. He is capable of stretching the field at any time, which could even open up pass plays on first down. Wisconsin was conservative on first down a year ago, ranking 16th nationally in most first-down rush attempts (157).
But Stave still has plenty of areas to improve. In particular, Stave admits he needs to do a better job on third-down conversions.
Last season, Wisconsin's third-down conversion rate (35.6 percent) ranked No. 97 out of 124 FBS teams. The Badgers were successful on 69 of 194 third-down tries. With Stave in at quarterback, the results were an identical 35.6 percent (26 for 73).
"We weren't great on third down last year and I think that's something where we have a great plan for third down, we've got great protections for third down," Stave said. "I think that's somewhere where we can really get a lot better."
It is unknown whether Stave would have maintained a stranglehold on the starting role had he not injured himself against Michigan State. As a result of enduring another open competition under a new coaching staff, he appears more poised to handle difficult situations.
The separation between Stave and Phillips is minimal -- otherwise the starter would already have been announced. Over the course of two open scrimmages, Stave completed 12 of 22 passes for 190 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions; Phillips completed 11 of 20 passes for 168 yards with two touchdowns and no picks. Stave, however, clearly possesses a bigger upside.
Whatever decision has been made, Stave remains confident he has done everything to put himself in position to succeed.
"I definitely feel better," Stave said. "I feel stronger. Hopefully a little faster. I worked on it. I think I am a better quarterback than I was last year. I think I can be a better leader than I was last year and just help this team."
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