Wisconsin Spring Practice Report: Curt Phillips Shines With 1st-Team Offense

Harry How

All four of the quarterbacks competing for the starting job took reps during Wednesday's first scrimmage of the spring. While each had a positive performance, Phillips may be the early leader.

The McClain Center facility adjacent to Camp Randall Stadium was more crowded than usual on Wednesday, as media, referees, alumni and family members all gathered to watch Wisconsin first scrimmage of spring practice under new head coach Gary Andersen.

The players took the field fully padded and eager to showcase their progression since Andersen came on board in January. The four quarterbacks in camp with the best chance to win the starting job - sixth-year senior Curt Phillips, fifth-year senior Danny O'Brien, sophomore Joel Stave and redshirt freshman Bart Houston -- all got about equal snaps under center as each signal caller commanded three or four drives.

Phillips was the first to take the field, playing with a majority of the first-team offense against the first-team defense. He couldn't have had a better first drive with a couple of long completions to fullback Derek Watt and wide receiver Jordan Frederick, capping the drive off with a 20-yard-plus rushing touchdown.

Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig was most impressed with Phillips' first pass, which came on a play he'd been struggling with over the early course of the spring.

"The first play of the scrimmage was a nice play and it was good to see because he had missed that play a couple of days ago when we put it in and he actually wanted to run it today," Ludwig said. "It was his call. He wanted some redemption there and he got it so, it was a very good positive."

James White was in the backfield to start the scrimmage, but the likely starting running back didn't see too much time on the field as the coaches were making sure the younger players got a fair share of the reps

"There's no doubt," Ludwig said when asked if he was playing the younger players more. "We were trying to get the younger guys experience and the only way to get it is to play."

With the older players out and running Melvin Gordon sidelined by a rolled ankle suffered earlier in the scrimmage, the door was opened for a younger player to get an opportunity. Through it walked Jeffery Lewis.

The junior running back took a bulk of the carries and took advantage of each one, ripping off multiple runs of more than 10 yards, a majority coming up the middle of the defense.

"It was nice [to get a lot of playing time]. I just tried to take advantage of each and every opportunity I got," Lewis said. "I was taking it one play at a time and not trying to have any mental errors. A lot of credit goes to the offensive linemen for the blocks that they had."

On the defensive side of the ball, some players who saw the field a lot were cornerback Peniel Jean and defensive lineman James Adeyanju.

Jean started on the field with the first-team defense and was rarely taken off after that, playing in around 85 percent of the plays.

"The competition is fun," Jean said. "There's no starting spot for myself or for Darius Hilary yet, so we're all competing everyday to be the best in the Big Ten and to be the best in the nation."

One concern for the defense's performance was Lewis' ability to tear through the middle, but defensive coordinator Dave Aranda wasn't too worried at this point in the year.

"[Being beaten up the middle] really hasn't been a concern," Arnada said. "We've been pretty solid in that area, so I'm going to have to look at the tape and see where our problem areas are."

Other than some holes in the running game, the defense was able to make some big plays, including two safeties and a strip of Watt that defensive back Nate Hammon run back for a touchdown.

With the defense's success forcing turnovers came the offense's struggles, prompting Ludwig to say the biggest thing his offensive unit needs to work on after Monday's scrimmage is ball security.

For the rest of the scrimmage, O'Brien, Stave and Houston got their chance to work with the offense, in that order.

O'Brien seemed to overthrow his wide receivers on almost every passing play in the first couple of drives he conducted. He also was pressured frequently, which may have caused his issues in the pocket.

Stave was equally as shaky, as he was almost picked off on his first passing attempt of the afternoon by Jean and struggled to find any rhythm from that point on.

Houston showed off the arm strength that the coaching staff has been raving about all of spring practice on a couple on 10-yard out routes he completed with ease. The redshirt freshman was impressive from that point on, hitting multiple long throws down the field and looking comfortable with the offense.

But it was Phillips who stole the show among the quarterbacks. Granted, he was able to play with the first team offense. But Phillips looked comfortable in the pocket and made good decisions with the ball, moving the offense efficiently down the field.

"I try not to make too much of it, but at the same time I look at it as my job until somebody takes it away from me," Phillips said. "I definitely felt comfortable out there with those guys. I enjoy being out there, and I plan on keeping it."

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