When Russell Wilson transferred to Wisconsin prior to the 2011 season, a new era in Badgers football began. With a program on the verge of three consecutive trips to the Rose Bowl and the Big Ten championships that come with each one, Wisconsin was arguably more prominent than ever. Yet as high profile as those Rose Bowls made the program, each one ended in a loss, each one seemingly more heartbreaking than the next.
On a smaller scale, Wilson's addition heralded a dramatic shift in Wisconsin's quarterback play. His predecessor, Scott Tolzien, was as unheralded of a pocket passer as you could imagine. Sturdy, reliable and consistent, Tolzien was by all means a winning quarterback, but never one you'd consider a true star quarterback. Sure, he won the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award in 2010 as the nation's top senior quarterback and continues to enjoy a professional career as a backup quarterback with the San Francisco 49ers.
The next year, though, Wilson was purely a stud for Wisconsin. He set college football's passing efficiency record at 191.8 and set single-season school records in passing yards (3,175), total yardage (3,513) touchdown passes (33) and completions (225). Then, of course, he took the NFL by storm after being drafted as a third-round pick by the Seattle Seahawks.
So how, in 2013, with that Rose Bowl streak still intact, does it take this long to mention Wisconsin's current crop of quarterbacks? Simply put, the 2012 UW offense was a hodgepodge of mediocrity plagued by injuries, inefficiencies and more adversity than the program's seen in quite sometime. Danny O'Brien was the second ACC import via transfer in as many years, following in Wilson's footsteps as he escaped the mess that is Maryland football. Given Wilson's runaway success, O'Brien was welcomed to Madison as somewhat of a guaranteed winner and the next in a budding line of high-profile quarterbacks set to take Wisconsin to the next level.
That, of course, didn't happen. O'Brien lasted three games as the starting quarterback, completing just shy of 62 percent of his passes as the Badgers barely beat Northern Iowa, fell to Oregon State on the road in a 10-7 nightmare and very nearly dropped another one to a Utah State team coached, ironically enough, by new head coach Gary Andersen.
Joel Stave, the redshirt freshman essentially waiting in the wings for his shot, was up next. The 6-foot-5, 227-pound signal caller from Whitnall High School took over for O'Brien after halftime of the Utah State game and ended up starting the next seven games. After salvaging a 16-14 win over Utah State, Wisconsin beat UTEP in another sloppy affair and then lost on the road to Nebraska in the Big Ten opener, 30-27. Stave was decent in both games, and then led Wisconsin to wins in each of its next three games.
Against Michigan State in Madison on Oct. 27, Stave completed nine of his first 11 passes for 127 yards and one touchdown. But on the opening play of the second half, he dropped back and was planted into the ground by a fierce Spartans pass rush. His collarbone was broken, and now Wisconsin was forced into further uncertainty at the game's most important position. O'Brien finished the game under harsh circumstances, thrust in as an injury replacement against a fantastic defense seeking a big road win. His effort was admirable, though he finished just 5-for-11 for 44 yards.
Rather than continue on with O'Brien for the rest of the season, Wisconsin turned to Curt Phillips, the fifth-year senior who fought through three knee injuries to somehow remain high enough on the quarterback depth chart to be next in line. Once a highly touted recruit as a dual-threat quarterback from Kingsport, Tenn., Phillips had seemingly been relegated to a longshot to ever see playing time after his third ACL injury. But there he was, stepping in for Stave ahead of O'Brien for the final five games of the season.
Wisconsin was just 2-3 with Phillips at the helm, though he was careful with the ball and proved adept at game-managing -- at least, enough so to get the Badgers back to Pasadena. Phillips tossed five touchdowns to just two interceptions in that span, though he did complete less than 57 percent of his passes. Against Stanford in the Rose Bowl, he completed 10 of 16 passes for 83 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He also flashed remnants of that supposedly forgotten athleticism, gaining 64 rushing yards on five attempts. Ultimately, Wisconsin just wasn't opportune enough to put points on the board, falling to Stanford in yet another Rose Bowl heartbreaker, 20-14.
So now we've ran down the favorites for this year's starting quarterback... except we can probably count O'Brien out. Now a senior (he transferred with two years of eligibility remaining), he's been near-invisible this spring. Granted, spring football is just that, but: 1) An offense with a new head coach, offensive coordinator, wide receivers coach, tight ends coach and offensive line coach isn't about to play any favorites, 2) Highly touted freshman Bart Houston boasts perhaps the strongest arm of the bunch and 3) High-profile JuCo transfer Tanner McEvoy has yet to even join the team. That'll happen over the summer, and then this race will get really interesting.
Spring Depth Chart
1) Curt Phillips -- 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, RS Senior
2) Joel Stave -- 6-foot-5, 227 pounds, Sophomore
3) Bart Houston -- 6-foot-4, 219 pounds, RS Freshman
4) Danny O'Brien -- 6-foot-3, 224 pounds, RS Senior
Incoming talent: Tanner McEvoy -- 6-foot-6, 215 pounds, Sophomore (B5Q profile)
For one thing, the future of the Wisconsin quarterback sure looks great. Regardless of who starts this season, Stave, Houston and McEvoy will all be around for at least the next three years, barring any transfers.
But more immediately, Wisconsin has strong arms in three of these five quarterbacks (we'll keep Phillips out of this conversation), confidently accurate passers in at least four (holding O'Brien back for now) and mobile threats in McEvoy and, to some extent, Phillips (that speed might not be there anymore, but make no mistake -- he is an experienced ball carrier for a quarterback).
What does that all amount to? A battle among five quarterbacks who could each reasonably win the job in five separate circumstances. Heck, we've shelved O'Brien as the least likely starter, but he's started 20 games over his three years in college football and thrown 32 touchdowns to 19 interceptions. There's no bona fide favorite -- for now -- but Wisconsin really can't go wrong with either guy. Start Phillips? Cool, he steered Wisconsin to the Rose Bowl. Start Stave? Nice, he probably was the best quarterback on last year's team. Start Houston? Sweet, we've got the beginning of a promising four years with a freshman quarterback. Start O'Brien? He's experienced, has faced adversity and could be better after a year in the system. Start McEvoy? Oooh boy, consider Wisconsin even more of a wildcard in the Big Ten.
Notice how that last paragraph ended with five question marks? Yeah, not so subtle. With McEvoy not coming until early June, there likely won't be any resolution until well into fall camp. For all those aforementioned positives, each guy also comes with at least one legitimate question mark -- Phillips' health and apparent lack of arm strength, Stave's health, Houston's complete lack of experience, O'Brien's psyche and McEvoy's ability to succeed at the highest level of college football.
As of now, Wisconsin doesn't have a guy that: 1) We can confidently say possesses the proven big-play ability that allowed Wilson to win games with the rest of the offense on his back and 2) Has had the benefit of learning the offense for two-plus years without the rigorous task of simultaneously succeeding on the fly, à la Tolzien. Even the three familiar faces in Phillips, Stave and O'Brien are largely inexperienced as Wisconsin quarterbacks -- combined, they've made 14 starts in Badger uniforms.
Ultimately, as these position battles generally do, this quandary will be solved by one or two guys distinctly separating themselves from the pack. If it's the latter, it comes down to an executive decision by the coaching staff. Already, Phillips and Stave have been pegged as the top two, with McEvoy the wildcard and Houston the wilder card. That uncertainty is enough to drive a fanbase wild, but it's also enough to warrant expectations of a fourth straight Rose Bowl trip and the first victory there since 2000.