MADISON, Wis. — No matter how much Tanner McEvoy improves at quarterback this season, the fact remains that there will be even more room for growth in the future. That is a comforting long-term thought, of course. But it also means McEvoy, a redshirt junior, still has plenty of areas to work on while he continues earning his first in-game snaps as Wisconsin’s starter.
"I just started playing this position my senior year of high school," McEvoy said this week. "Each year, I feel like I learn so much more. Obviously at junior college I played every game and kept getting better and better each game. And obviously I got better from the first week to the second week. So I’m looking forward to keep learning from my mistakes, developing more into an all-around quarterback."
McEvoy demonstrated some of that growth in Week 2 when he completed 17 straight passes against Western Illinois and finished the game 23 of 28 for 283 yards with three touchdowns and an interception. The performance came on the heels of a disappointing debut against LSU, in which he completed just 8 of 24 passes for 50 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions.
Coaches and players would like to believe McEvoy resembles the quarterback that showed up for Western Illinois rather than the one against LSU. His next opportunity to push the narrative will be Saturday, when Wisconsin plays host to Bowling Green at 11 a.m.
McEvoy’s biggest bugaboo thus far has been a desire to leave the pocket early and try to make something happen with his legs before letting the entire play develop. He did rush for 55 yards with a touchdown on nine carries against Western Illinois. But he also recognizes the key to being a solid quarterback is having both skill sets.
"I’ve just got to learn to relax my feet, do what I do in practice, just go through my reads and my progressions and just make the throws that I know I can make and run when plays break down," McEvoy said. "Just do what you do in 7-on-7. Just act like there’s not a bunch of guys chasing you. Throw it when you can. Throw it on time and put it in the right spot, and our guys will make plays."
Badgers coach Gary Andersen also noted the area he’d like to see McEvoy improve most was poise in the pocket.
"Just making sure that he uses the opportunities to use his legs effectively when he needs to," Andersen said. "When an athletic quarterback gets back there, you have the tendency to try to make everything happen for himself. Let the offense come to him when it’s there. When it’s not, then let’s go make a decision, let’s let our legs work.
"If he can do that and become not a pocket passer — I’m not asking him to do that, nor will anyone on this offense ask him to do that — but we want him to hang in there, let the offensive line do their work and throw the ball down the field when the opportunity is given."
Wheelwright learning: Badgers wide receiver Rob Wheelwright found himself in receivers coach Chris Beatty’s doghouse during the first quarter of Wisconsin’s game against Western Illinois two Saturdays ago.
Wheelwright cut short a route over the middle, which resulted in McEvoy throwing an interception. Wheelwright, a sophomore, did not play the rest of the game. He also received a stern talking to from Beatty on the sideline.
What, exactly, did Beatty say?
"You better keep running," Beatty said after Tuesday’s practice. "It’s our job to make sure that we protect the quarterback. The first thing when I got here, I said, ‘We’re going to be quarterback friendly.’ They’re like, ‘What does that mean?’ That means we’re going to make sure the quarterback has faith in throwing the ball up to us, and we’re going to protect him so situations like that don’t happen. I was explaining that to him in not such a good way."
Wheelwright appeared in 12 games a year ago and caught two passes for nine yards. He was expected to be among the team’s most significant contributors at receiver this season, but he was slowed during fall camp by an injury and did not make the trip for the team’s season opener against LSU.
Still, Beatty wasn’t willing to chalk up Wheelwright’s mistake to rust.
"A lot of times you’ll say, ‘Well he didn’t get as many reps,’" Beatty said. "That’s an excuse in this case. There are times where it’s not. This one’s an excuse. He should’ve been in front of that ball. He should have kept running. We can’t leave our quarterback out to dry like that."
Beatty noted he was surprised Wheelwright had not yet taken advantage of his opportunity, particularly because he spent much of last year watching from the sideline.
"I’ve got confidence that Rob will bounce back," Beatty said. "But that was definitely a disappointing deal. When those things happen, you’ve got to work to gain people’s trust back, and I think he knows that. I don’t think he knows. I know he knows it because we explained it."
Quick kick: True freshman kicker Rafael Gaglianone has drawn plenty of praise for the length and accuracy of his kicks. But Wisconsin’s game against Western Illinois also provided a teaching moment for Gaglianone, who missed a 33-yard field-goal attempt wide left early in the fourth quarter.
The problem, according to special teams coach Jeff Genyk, was that Gaglianone kicked the ball too fast. Genyk said a typical field-goal operation time is 1.25-1.30 seconds. Gaglianone rushed the kick and was timed in 1.14 seconds.
"Rafael, even though he’s very talented, he’s still a freshman and he can get excited in the moment, especially right after ‘Jump Around,’" Genyk said. "He needs to step just a tick slower. Typically, we want the kicker to move when the holder moves his right hand. So he was just a little bit early."