Badgers quarterback Joel Stave injured his AC joint during Wisconsin's bowl game against South Carolina on Jan. 1, and coaches held him out of the first six practices before spring break as a precaution.
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MADISON, Wis. — Nobody assumed the end of spring football practices would bring any closure to Wisconsin’s starting quarterback battle. But the latest development surrounding last season’s starter, Joel Stave, has put the race in an even greater state of flux.
Stave did not practice on Tuesday and will miss the remainder of spring football, including the team’s annual spring game on Saturday, while recovering from a sore right shoulder. He injured his AC joint during Wisconsin’s bowl game against South Carolina on Jan. 1, and coaches held him out of the first six practices before spring break as a precaution.
During an open scrimmage this past Saturday, Stave noticed discomfort in the shoulder, prompting head coach Gary Andersen to shut him down until the summer.
"It’s a concern," Andersen said Wednesday on a Big Ten spring football teleconference. "It’s an issue. That’s the reason for putting him out these last three practices, to try to get a jump on rehab as we move forward. The challenge is to truly identify the situation and start the rehab process. I didn’t want to wait a week to have him go out there and keep doing the same things. He’s a tough young man. We’ve all seen him play a lot of games.
"He’s a tough-minded kid. We’ve got to get him as close to 100 percent. It’s continually creating competition, and he wants to get out there and fight in that competition because it is a competition at that spot, just like every position we have.
"For him to sit down is not what he wanted to do. But I believe it’s the best thing for him, as our doctors and trainers and everybody gets involved on getting him back to 100 percent in the summertime."
A year ago, Stave started every game for Wisconsin and 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). But he also struggled with his consistency on both downfield throws and short dump-offs, which irked the coaching staff and had them reevaluating the starting quarterback spot.
Stave’s biggest threat for the starting job appears to be Tanner McEvoy, who has emerged during spring camp ahead of Bart Houston and true freshman D.J. Gillins. McEvoy transferred to Wisconsin from Arizona Western College last year, but he quickly fell behind Stave and then-senior Curt Phillips in the quarterback battle. He then broke his wrist in the fall, which took him completely out of the mix.
McEvoy wound up seeing significant time on the other side of the ball at safety. He recorded 27 tackles with five pass deflections and an interception.
Andersen said McEvoy had improved dramatically, particularly in grasping the team’s offensive playbook.
"Playing safety helped, but now he’s playing quarterback all spring," Andersen said. "He’s had 13 practices now, and he’s got two more to go. And he’s getting the majority of the reps with the ones. And you can see him continue to grow and blossom. He makes plays. He’s a threat with his feet. The more he learns about the offense, the better he’s going to be. You get some guys back there that are athletic, he causes some issues for people."
Emphasis on LSU: Wisconsin’s season-opening opponents have not exactly stirred the masses in recent memory. In the past six years alone, the Badgers have played a school from the lower-tier Football Championship Subdivision, three different Mid-American Conference teams and lowly UNLV twice.
But the schedule strength will all change in August, when Wisconsin handles its toughest season opener to date against LSU at Reliant Stadium in Houston. And it is a task Andersen and his players already are embracing.
"As a player, personally, I believe it would give myself an edge if I was a player," Andersen said. "And I believe it has done that for our kids. They’re excited about that opportunity to compete at that level, be on the national stage, game one and playing against obviously a quality, quality opponent. We’re excited about the opportunity."
Badgers running back Melvin Gordon noted there was added fuel to perform well against what is considered to be the top conference in college football. Wisconsin’s last game was a 34-24 loss to SEC foe South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl.
"It’s real big," Gordon said. "The SEC, it’s a big name, a big conference around college football. We’re excited. I like LSU. I think they’re a good team. I feel we’re a good team, too.
"We just got done playing South Carolina to finish out and to open up with another SEC team, it definitely brings out the urgency with the team I feel. Guys are excited. I know I’m excited to go up against them because I know it’s going to be a dogfight."
Spring game details: Andersen said Saturday’s spring game, which is scheduled for 3 p.m. at Camp Randall Stadium, would essentially only be half of a real game.
The first four drives will constitute the first half and feature mostly drills. Wisconsin’s top two running backs, Gordon and Corey Clement, would be "heavily thudded" in those situations but won’t be tackled to the ground. Neither is likely to see much action in the second half of the spring game.
Andersen added that he would split his squad up into teams and play two true quarters after halftime.
"I know the more we can play football, the better team we’re going to be when we get into the fall," Andersen said. "We’ve done a lot of teaching. A lot of chalkboard work. A lot of individual, a lot of group work. But the more we can get out and play, I believe the better we’ll be, so that’s why we’re playing a game on the spring game."