Andersen’s message has been received loud and clear by QB Stave

Quarterback Joel Stave is slowly returning from a right shoulder injury sustained during Wisconsin's Capital One Bowl game against South Carolina that kept him out of full-speed action early in spring practice. But, as coaches have continued to repeat, the starting job remains his to lose.

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MADISON, Wis. — When coach Gary Andersen said repeatedly this offseason that Wisconsin’s quarterback play needed a drastic improvement, Joel Stave heard the message loud and clear.

Stave, who started every game at quarterback for a Badgers team that finished 9-4 last season, understood that, in essence, his coach was calling him out.

"One thing someone once told me was everyone’s going to put a lot of expectations on you," Stave said after Tuesday’s spring practice. "But they never can be as high as the expectations you put on yourself. Last year was a good season. But the expectation I put on myself and that my teammates have on me is to continue to get better, and I’ve got to be better. So yeah, I hear him say that, and I completely agree. There’s a lot of room for improvement in the quarterback position."

Stave is slowly returning from a right shoulder injury sustained during Wisconsin’s Capital One Bowl game against South Carolina that kept him out of full-speed action early in spring practice. But, as coaches have continued to repeat, the starting job remains his to lose. Stave, a redshirt junior, is competing this spring for the starting role with redshirt junior Tanner McEvoy and redshirt sophomore Bart Houston and, to a lesser degree, true freshman D.J. Gillins.

In his two-year starting career at Wisconsin, Stave has been a lightning rod for criticism because of his occasional inability to complete routes to open receivers. But last season, he also finished fifth in program history for single-season passing yards (2,494), third in pass completions (208), sixth in completion percentage (.619) and second in passing touchdowns (22). It was, by most measures, a successful individual season for a sophomore.

Yet Stave also recognizes that he must be better for Wisconsin to win close games against top-level opponents. It is the difference between a 9-4 season and one that culminates with a Big Ten championship and a possible Rose Bowl appearance.

"When I watch the film, I know I left some plays out there," Stave said. "I see probably 10, 15 plays that could have turned that season from the fourth-best (season) to, except for maybe the Russell Wilson season, one of the best ones. Those are the kind of things I see. Those are the kind of things that I know I can improve on. Plays that I know I can make.

"And I know this is a great offense to do it in. So I’ve just got to make sure that instead of dwelling on the good things that I did, which is a good thing to do, you have to take those and run with it. But you want to make sure you’re taking the things that maybe you didn’t do as well, things that you can improve on and really focus on that and build on that."

Specifically, Stave continues to preach the importance of improving his footwork, particularly when the pocket begins to collapse. His mistakes in that area contributed to him throwing 13 interceptions last season, which tied for the most of any Big Ten quarterback ranked in the top 10 in passing yards per game.

If Stave does not make the strides coaches believe are necessary, the door is open for a new starter because the quality of competition is as high as it has been at Wisconsin in quite some time.

McEvoy seems to pose the biggest threat to Stave’s job because of both his throwing ability and running skills. He noted his confidence level was higher than it was a season ago, when he was thrust into a fall quarterback competition with Stave and then-senior Curt Phillips before suffering a broken wrist.

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"I know the offense more," McEvoy said. "With plays, I’m more comfortable than I was last year. It’s been showing. I’ve been throwing the ball better and I’m just feeling more comfortable."

McEvoy also said that offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig had been using him and Gillins for the vast majority of zone read plays, which involves the quarterback deciding to give up or keep the ball based on the read he sees in front of him.

"I’m more of the running, mobile kind of guy," McEvoy said. "But I want to drop back and pass the ball as much as (Stave) does. If things break down, I’m fine running it. Coach Lud, he knows what we can do."

Houston, meanwhile, seems to possess more qualities that resemble Stave’s skill set, with a big arm and pocket presence. He said his goal was to become more accurate, complete a higher percentage of passes and improve footwork.

One of Houston’s biggest challenges, he said, was trying to get enough repetitions in practice to show coaches his ability. With four quarterbacks competing, there are only so many plays to go around.

Houston is the only quarterback on the roster outside of Stave to have thrown a pass in a Division I game. He completed his only throw to tight end Sam Arneson in the season opener against UMass a year ago.

Houston’s approach to the starting job?

"Everybody wants to win it today," he said. "The Romans didn’t build Rome in a day. It’s not about winning the competition today. It’s about winning it tomorrow and the next day and the next day. That’s on all the quarterbacks’ minds. We’re trying to get through spring ball, do what you can, produce what you can. Through the summer, that’s where we do a lot of work on our own and fall camp is obviously fall camp. The season starts by then. We’ll have Rome."

The most substantial issue for each quarterback during spring practice has been the absence of the team’s best wide receivers. Jordan Fredrick has been nursing an arm injury, while Robert Wheelwright, Reggie Love, Connor Cummins and Alex Erickson have also been sidelined during the spring with various maladies.

"I was really looking forward to Rob Wheelwright, he’s probably one of the best receivers I’ve been with," Gillins said. "He’s a great player. Not having him is a big kind of upset because we only have four receivers and when they get tired, that’s the only guys you got."

Given the personnel shortages, the most likely scenario is that Wisconsin’s quarterback battle will carry on into fall, as it has for each of the past two seasons in the post-Russell Wilson era.

"I think we’re getting used to it," McEvoy said. "I know Joel’s been getting used to it. He’s done it for a couple years now. We’re just going to make each other better. We’re going to compete every day and come out here and do our jobs."

Whichever player does his job best will be starting Aug. 30 against LSU in the season opener.

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