Jesse Temple’s Oct. 8 Badgers mailbag

Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen has taken some criticism from fans in the wake of the Badgers' loss at Northwestern, namely for his decisions with regard to the team's quarterback position.

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The mailbag questions always seem to be better (or more interesting) following a loss. Given that Wisconsin unexpectedly lost to Northwestern 20-14 on Saturday, you can imagine the freak-out level from fans.

In this week’s edition of the mailbag, we touch on quarterback play (what else?), play calling, recruiting, coaching issues and whether or not a space ship came down and replaced the old Wisconsin football team with clones who have never played football. I assure you my answer below is no.

Anyway, let’s get to the questions. Thanks, as always, for your submissions. Look for a link to next week’s mailbag on Saturday following Wisconsin’s home game against Illinois.

Q: How does a team of Wisconsin’s stature get such poor quarterbacking? Is it lack of talent, play calling or poor quarterback coaching? — Scott, Hudsonville, Wis.

A: Quarterback is always the most scrutinized position in football, and given the way Wisconsin’s passing offense has struggled, this is a valid concern. I don’t believe it’s a lack of talent, however. The biggest problem right now is Wisconsin has a new coaching staff in its second season that is trying to establish something new, while half the scholarship quarterbacks on the roster are still from the old regime.

Bart Houston was a four-star quarterback who was ranked No. 7 at his position, according to Scout.com. In my opinion, he’d be a stellar player for a lot of FBS teams right now. Unfortunately for him, he isn’t the mobile quarterback Gary Andersen and his staff wants. And he doesn’t have the experience of Joel Stave, which makes it more difficult for coaches to insert him over Stave. In Houston’s case, a lot of it has to do with being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I’d say Stave has outperformed what many expected of him. People tend to forget he put together one of the better single seasons in program history a year ago. In many ways, fans have been spoiled because of Russell Wilson’s one great season here, when he threw 33 touchdowns with only four interceptions. That just isn’t very realistic in most seasons.

As for Tanner McEvoy, the coaches have mismanaged that situation. He’s an option-style quarterback and not a pocket passer. But much of the offense is still based around having a solid pocket passer. I think it will simply take a couple more years for this offense to resemble what the coaching staff wants. DJ Gillins and Austin Kafentzis are both dual-threat quarterbacks with lots of potential in the future.

This is somewhat of an aside, but I looked up what 2010 quarterback recruit Joe Brennan was doing, and this speaks to the unpredictability of player development. Brennan is a backup quarterback at FCS Towson and has completed 1 of 7 passes for 20 yards this season. If Wilson had never transferred to Wisconsin (and Jon Budmayr’s arm troubles remained), Brennan could have been thrown into the starting quarterback role back in 2011. And maybe his career would have been much different.

Q: How much will the confusion and what looks like coaching ineptitude of Gary Andersen and his staff affect recruiting? Can one bad year have a catastrophic effect on the future of Wisconsin football due to its effect on potential recruits? — Phil Gissen, Cincinnati, Ohio

A: No, I don’t believe one year below fans’ standards will drastically change Wisconsin’s recruiting. Let’s begin with this premise: the Badgers are never really going to compete for the very best four- and five-star recruits in the country. The only way to even get on those players’ radars is to compete every season for a national championship, and even then, Wisconsin would be battling every major FBS program in the country.

Wisconsin’s success remains predicated on getting quality three-star recruits and the occasional four-star talent and molding that player into a solid college player three, four or five years down the road. Wisconsin currently has a No. 26 ranking for the Class of 2015 in recruiting, per Scout.com. And this coaching staff has done a good job of finding talent outside of the usual areas. The Badgers have a running back from Texas (Devon Crookshank), a quarterback from Utah (Austin Kanfentzis), a defensive end from New Jersey (Jake Pickard) and an offensive tackle from California (Kevin Estes), among many others.

Besides, it’s not like we’re talking about the type of season Michigan is having, where the Wolverines are 2-4 and the head coach is on his way out the door.

Q: Is Kenzel Doe our only option at punt returner? I am tired of seeing the ball hit the turf and pinning us back inside the 10-yard line or hit at the 40 and roll 15 yards to make a shorter kick a great one. Somebody has got to be confident enough to come up and make the fair catch. — Buck72, New London, Wis.

A: I can see how you’d be frustrated after watching the Northwestern game, but Doe has to make the decisions he thinks is best for Wisconsin to keep the football. Wisconsin ended up with an average starting field position of its own 21-yard line against the Wildcats, and that certainly made things tougher. But let’s look at Doe’s accomplishments beyond this game.

Doe’s average of 10.9 yards per punt return ranks seventh nationally among players with at least 10 returns this season. Just two games ago, he had punt returns of 40 and 38 yards that helped set up Wisconsin for two touchdown drives against Bowling Green.

Doe also is tied for No. 2 on Wisconsin’s all-time list for career kickoff return average at 24.6 yards per return. Only Jared Abbrederis (25.8 yards) has a better mark. In my book, that’s pretty darn good.

Q: I feel like a space ship came down and took our Badger football program and left a bunch of clones that have never played organized football before. Worst coaching I’ve seen since I’ve lived in Madison (18 years). Yes, they’re young, but they aren’t stupid are they? Four quarterbacks that were good enough to be recruited by several schools, and we end up with these guys? I don’t feel like this can be Badger football. Where is all the precision, the muscle, the big plays and, most of all, where is the fire? — B. Gailbreath, Madison, Wis.

A: I certainly don’t think Wisconsin’s struggles are due to a lack of fire or a lack of muscle (and let me add that I don’t believe a space ship has descended on Madison to apprehend all players). Defensively, this team needs to figure out how to tackle as Big Ten play continues. Gary Andersen said the staff counted 15 missed tackles in the Northwestern game. That’s not good. Right now, however, Wisconsin is still one of four teams in the country to rank among the top 25 nationally in each of the four major defensive categories (scoring defense, total defense, rushing defense and passing defense). The others are Baylor, TCU and Louisville.

The problem, as we’re documenting throughout this mailbag, is with the offense. Yes, the defense didn’t capitalize on a couple of possible interceptions, and players missed tackles. But it still held Northwestern to 20 points, which should be enough to win.

Most of the issues stem from poor quarterback play and an inability for the team’s receivers to create enough separation. Wisconsin has the best running back in college football, so it comes down to the passing offense. The other phases of this team are just fine.

Q: How much of that debacle at Northwestern is on the offensive and defensive coaches? What I saw was poor play calling, especially that pass that the Badgers repeatedly threw to the sidelines. On defense, it seems that they did not make any in-game adjustments to stop what Northwestern was throwing at them. — G. Zimpanti, Austin, Tex.

Q: No receivers and no QB. How much is this an indictment on the coaching staff? — Steve, Sun Prairie, Wis.

A: I’ll address both of these questions here, since they are about the coaching staff. On the quarterback situation, you can put some of that on the coaches, obviously. You’ve got to use McEvoy in a way that best suits him. And when that didn’t work, Stave was thrown into a tough situation. Defensively, the team did not perform well, and that should not happen five games into the season.

As for the receivers and the pass play calling, Wisconsin doesn’t have a ton of options right now in that area. Alex Erickson has 25 catches, and Kenzel Doe is second among receivers with five catches. He did have four catches against Northwestern, so maybe he can develop as a reliable second option.

Badgers running back Melvin Gordon voiced his frustration Monday over the way in which some of his teammates were being used. He mentioned tight end Troy Fumagalli by name as someone who should play more.

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"In the passing game, we’ve just got to get some of our playmakers that’s on the sideline off the sideline and get those guys with some confidence because I feel we have guys with ability," Gordon said. "They’re just not getting opportunities they should be getting."

Q: Everybody is blaming the coaches on the call at the three-yard line. The real blame belongs on our quarterbacks. It’s a no brainer not to force the ball in there on first down. We have three downs to run it in yet. Will we see Houston or the freshman because they have to be better than what we have now? — Mary, Michigan

A: That interception falls solely on the shoulders of Joel Stave, and he owned up to the mistake after Saturday’s game. He recognized he shouldn’t have forced that throw into such a tight window. Instead, he should have thrown the ball away to live to fight another play. I have no problem with the coaches calling a pass play on first down because you figure the Badgers have two or three plays after that if it doesn’t work out.

As for whether we’ll see Bart Houston or DJ Gillins, the answer is no. Houston just isn’t in the plans of this coaching staff. Gillins, meanwhile, is definitely going to take a redshirt season, which will be good for him down the road.

Q: Is Badger recruiting down? It seems like we have no impact freshmen or sophomores. I am beginning to feel underwhelmed by this coaching staff. Are we ever going to have a quarterback that can throw an accurate pass? — Tom K., La Crosse, Wis.

A: On the whole, I don’t think Wisconsin’s recruiting is down at all, and I’ll explain why.

According to Scout.com, Wisconsin’s 2014 recruiting class ranked No. 29 in the country. That’s about as good a recruiting class as the Badgers have had since recruiting rankings popped up in the early 2000s.

But you simply can’t foresee the future. Four-star wide receiver Dareian Watkins returned home over the summer because he was homesick. Three-star receiver Chris Jones didn’t qualify academically and enrolled elsewhere. Four-star offensive tackle Jaden Gault has taken a leave from the team while dealing with issues pertaining to depression. Junior college transfer Serge Trezy’s transcripts were not cleared in time by the NCAA, so he’ll enroll the next semester.

On top of that, injuries always play a factor. Running backs Taiwan Deal and Caleb Kinlaw have both battled injuries and are taking redshirt seasons. And linebacker D’Cota Dixon, who was contributing earlier this season, has been shut down while battling a shoulder injury.

That’s seven players in the recruiting class right there that are unavailable to the coaches as we sit here in early October. But there are still plenty of true freshmen that are contributing: See starting safety Lubern Figaro, wide receiver George Rushing, cornerback Derrick Tindal and kicker Rafael Gaglianone.

As for the quarterback situation, that’s a valid point. But keep in mind this coaching staff hasn’t even been here two years. It takes a lot longer than that to build something special. Tanner McEvoy is best as an option-style quarterback, and coaches haven’t used him enough in that way. D.J. Gillins is only a true freshman and is taking a redshirt season. Let’s give him a few years. And 2015 quarterback commit Austin Kafentzis is setting the world on fire out in Utah, so he could be the answer in the future.

Q: If Coach Andersen really wants a dual treat QB, why doesn’t he use McEvoy like a dual threat QB? We all know throwing the ball isn’t McEvoy’s best attribute, but Andersen doesn’t use McEvoy’s legs either. . . .– Tom, Escondido, Calif.

Q: Why has it taken five games for GA to realize he can’t run the offense he wants to with this team? Shouldn’t his coaches have realized that in the spring game and practices? He should take a note from one of his other Badger colleagues, Bo Ryan. He has perfected adjusting his offense to fit the team he has. That is one way to consistently win. — Jared Finger, Madison, Wis.

A: This is probably the single biggest complaint coming from Badgers fans, who have every right to voice their frustration in this area. You’re absolutely right. If the coaches were going to go with Tanner McEvoy as the starter, then they should have tailored the offense to better fit his abilities. It’s pretty obvious at this juncture that McEvoy just isn’t a capable downfield passer. His longest pass play all season is 37 yards. And against FBS competition, he has completed only 47 percent of his passes with two touchdowns and four interceptions.

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We all know McEvoy is an excellent athlete, someone who can turn a negative play into positive yards in the right setting. McEvoy set the single-game program record for rushing yards by a quarterback with 158 against Bowling Green just two weeks ago. The coaching staff should have designed more option-style plays rather than making him a pocket passer.

Andersen was asked this week if the coaches should have committed more to the option-style runs with McEvoy. And Andersen said: "Yes, I would agree with that statement."

So there you go. Because of the staff’s inability to change the offense enough, the team has a big problem on its hands.

Q: How bad has Bart Houston looked in practice that he can’t get playing time? He was supposed to be an outstanding passer. — David Knopf, Boston, Mass.

Q: Why doesn’t Houston fit into Wisconsin’s plans? Anybody can hand off the ball to a running back. He’s got the arm. Does Andersen have a beef with him? He was one of the best coming out of high school. — John Vorwerk

A: All I can tell you is the coaching staff believed he was the third-best quarterback behind Tanner McEvoy and Joel Stave. McEvoy obviously presented a skill set that neither Stave nor Houston possessed, that that ultimately gave McEvoy the upper hand in the quarterback race. And since Stave already had 19 career starts entering the season, it would’ve been difficult for Houston to supplant him since they share such similar traits (pocket passer, big arm).

Andersen was asked specifically during his weekly press conference on Monday why Houston hadn’t gotten a chance. This was his response:

"With Bart when he’s had the opportunity and he comes in, he competes hard. He works his tail off. Bart’s a good quarterback. I think our other guys have done some pretty good things, too, at times.

"That’s a hard one for me to explain other than the fact that as a coaching staff, we sat down and made a decision that those were the guys that we were going to go with. Bart was obviously a big part of it. Evaluate practice, review practice. It was Tanner and Joel and then Bart."

That explanation might not sit well with fans, but it’s the best we have to go on right now.

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