Quarterback Tanner McEvoy, shown here in a file photo, showed some intriguing flashes of talent during Saturday's Wisconsin spring game. As a result, he's starting to look like a possible challenger to incumbent starter Joel Stave.
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MADISON, Wis. — Just when the race for Wisconsin’s starting quarterback job was coming into focus, a 3 1/2-month hiatus now puts the kibosh on any new developments. Still, based on Tanner McEvoy’s spring, talk among fans and college football enthusiasts is sure to sizzle into the summer and beyond.
Wisconsin capped its 15-practice spring session with an annual spring game Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium, and the quarterback battle is now officially a two-man battle between McEvoy and Joel Stave.
Stave, last season’s starter, sat out the final week of spring to rest a sore right shoulder sustained during the team’s Jan. 1 bowl game against South Carolina. And McEvoy took advantage of the opportunity, showing himself to be the clear challenger, ahead of teammates Bart Houston and D.J. Gillins.
"That’s been my goal ever since I got here," said McEvoy, who transferred from Arizona Western College last fall. "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."
McEvoy officially completed 4 of 10 passes for 55 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions for the Cardinal Team during the second of the spring game, which featured actual clocks and scoring. Houston completed 3 of 4 passes for 19 yards in the second half, and freshman D.J. Gillins went 0 for 1 on the White Team. During the half, the Cardinal defeated the White, 6-0, on two Jack Russell field goals.
But McEvoy flashed especially well during the first segment, which did not include official scoring. In that session, he completed 1 of 3 passes for 27 yards with a touchdown. He also carried the ball three times for 50 yards with a touchdown, including a 35-yard scramble and a 7-yard score, which capped off the first half.
The highlight of the opening segment was McEvoy’s 27-yard touchdown pass to a diving Kenzel Doe against cornerback Devin Gaulden in the right side of the end zone.
Wisconsin quarterback Tanner McEvoy
"It was perfect," Doe said. "It was the perfect ball. You can’t get any better throwing than that. I knew he was going to throw it just because the way the defense was playing. Devin, I was in the slot and he was pressed up. I had the route that I run, I was like, ‘OK, I know Tanner is going to throw this ball, so just win.’ He threw the perfect ball and I just made the catch."
Doe, the only significant contributor at receiver last season to remain healthy during the spring, said he was particularly impressed with McEvoy’s play of late.
"You can tell that Tanner, he really wants to be the quarterback in the game," Doe said. "He’s been working each and every day. His running ability, you see he can get out of the pocket and run. And sometimes scrambling, he can make the throw. Just his running ability, the way he’s been working this spring to try to be that No. 1 quarterback, it shows people that he can be the quarterback of this team. I really feel like he’s been doing good and he can be that guy."
McEvoy’s story is unusual — "A long little journey," he called it. He came to Wisconsin as a quarterback in the fall but quickly fell behind Stave and then-senior Curt Phillips. McEvoy then broke his wrist and wound up spending last season as a safety because of his sheer athleticism and football smarts.
But now he is back at his natural position, and his ability to keep plays alive with his feet could prove to be the dynamic that puts him over the top in the quarterback race.
"He carries himself like a quarterback," Badgers coach Gary Andersen said. "I think when he walked in here before, he carried himself like a quarterback that was absorbing a very difficult offense and new terminology. So much of the run checks that he has to handle and the demeanor that he carried himself with last August and the way he carries himself today is really completely different. . . .
"He walks up to the huddle, he looks more comfortable, and I think the football team is more comfortable around him, similar to how they were with Joel walking in and saying, ‘Hey, this guy can get it done for us.’"
So, which quarterback ultimately will win out? Stave is 13-6 in 19 career starts, and he finished last season 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). Still, his consistency waned as the season progressed, which left the door open for a challenger to the starting role over the offseason.
McEvoy, meanwhile, has not thrown a pass in a Division I game. He has only spent four seasons playing quarterback dating back to high school, and his ceiling could be much higher.
On Saturday, McEvoy did not have the benefit of playing with three of Wisconsin’s potential top four receivers because of injuries. His longest completion was a 30-yard pass to backup Jazz Peavy, which helped set up Russell’s first made field goal from 41 yards out.
"I wanted to step up and throw the ball a couple more times instead of running it," McEvoy said. "But that happens. I’ve just got to keep working on making the right decisions in that area of the game. I think I had a pretty well-rounded day. I think the offense had a great day. It’s just good to leave on a strong note like that."
With fall camp more than three months away, Andersen and his coaching staff certainly will have some important positional decisions to make — none more important than at quarterback.
"I’m proud of both quarterbacks," Andersen said. "I’m proud of Joel. Joel fought like crazy. He’s got an injury, and it’s hard to deal with and we expect him to be better. He’s got a great attitude. So does Tanner, and it will be a fight."