Badgers positional preview: Quarterbacks
This is the first in a series of 11 previews leading up to the Wisconsin football team’s Aug. 4 start of practice. You can find the entire series here.
Today’s position: Quarterbacks
Rating (1-to-10 scale): 7
Projected starter: Joel Stave (redshirt junior) or Tanner McEvoy (redshirt junior)
Key backups: Bart Houston (redshirt sophomore), D.J. Gillins (freshman)
The breakdown: What would a fall camp be at Wisconsin without a quarterback competition? For the third consecutive fall, the Badgers find themselves with uncertainty about who will be the opening-game starter. This time, the competitors are Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy, and the battle appears to be completely wide open.
Stave has experience on his side — and statistics that are much better than many fans would like to believe. But McEvoy possesses the dual-threat dynamic Wisconsin has been waiting for out of its quarterback. He showcased his speed during the team’s April spring game, when he unofficially ran for 50 yards on three carries, including a 35-yard gain and a 7-yard touchdown. How he fares against the Big Ten is a mystery, but this is McEvoy’s one serious opportunity to take command of the offense. If not, then Stave would seem to have the starting job locked up for the next two seasons.
In two seasons, Stave is 13-6 over 19 starts, and those numbers are nothing to scoff at. Though he struggled with too many interceptions last season (13), he also put together quite a sophomore campaign. He 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). Most fans would be pleased with those numbers, but there is a groundswell for something more out of a Wisconsin quarterback. If Stave can limit his turnovers and make better throws, he could be the starter. He also must remain healthy, as he missed the last week of spring practices while recovering from a shoulder injury sustained during Wisconsin’s bowl game.
Even if Stave wins the starting job, that doesn’t mean McEvoy is out of the mix. McEvoy has the talent to keep teams off balance by entering games for specific packages in which he showcases his speed in the running game. He also has the arm to throw if defenses load the box thinking he’s just a running quarterback. Because Stave and McEvoy do different things well, it would seem Wisconsin is in better position at quarterback than in each of the past two falls. McEvoy knows the playbook better this year and will be given a fair fight to win the starting job.
Best position battle: It goes without saying that the starting job is the most intriguing. At this point, it appears D.J. Gillins is poised to take over the No. 3 spot while Bart Houston drops as coaches move on without him in the plans. The coaching staff would like to have a starter in mind after about two weeks of fall camp, which likely will include a scrimmage or two. And right now, it’s anybody’s guess as to which man — Stave or McEvoy — will walk out of the tunnel as a starter for the season opener against LSU on Aug. 30.
Best of the Big Ten: 1. Ohio State (Braxton Miller); 2. Penn State (Christian Hackenberg); 3. Michigan State (Connor Cook).
Miller is perhaps the Big Ten’s best hope to be a Heisman Trophy finalist outside of Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon. There isn’t much he can’t do at the college level, and he knows how to win games. (24-0 in the regular season as a starter the past two seasons is pretty good, right?) He completed 63.5 percent of his passes last season for 2,094 yards with 24 touchdowns and seven interceptions. But even more impressive were his rushing numbers: 1,068 yards and 12 touchdowns with a 6.2 yards-per-carry average.
Hackenberg is no doubt a player on the rise, and he may wind up being the best NFL prospect of any quarterback in college football by the time he’s done. Wisconsin fans will remember Hackenberg showing off his skills in the regular-season finale last year, when Penn State escaped Wisconsin with a 31-24 victory at Camp Randall Stadium. Hackenberg threw for 339 yards and four touchdowns in that game. For the season, he completed 58.9 percent of his passes for 2,955 yards with 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He was one of four freshmen to rank in the top 40 nationally in passing yards.
Cook, meanwhile, has a chance to be one of the top Michigan State quarterbacks in program history. He already ranks ninth in passing touchdowns (23) and completion percentage (.584) with two seasons remaining. Last year, he went 12-1 as a starter, including 8-0 in the Big Ten. He threw for 2,755 yards with 22 touchdowns and six interceptions.
Tanner McEvoy says: "I just want to compete every day. In the long run, we’re going to make each other better, whoever wins it. So I’m looking forward to that. We’ve got a long summer before camp. Got a lot to work on."
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