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Wisconsin spring football preview: Who will challenge Joel Stave at quarterback?

Spring practices start March 5. Let's begin our position-by-position previews with the most important, particularly in light of last year: the quarterbacks.

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Could Bart Houston make a play for Wisconsin's starting quarterback job in 2014?
Could Bart Houston make a play for Wisconsin's starting quarterback job in 2014?
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Approaching head coach Gary Andersen's second year as head coach, certain positions seem to have more questions needing answers, mostly due to exiting seniors.

Who will step up to replace most of the starting front seven? Will Sam Arneson and others step up at to replace departing tight ends Jacob Pedersen, Brian Wozniak and Brock DiCicco? Who will plug the holes at safety with Dezmen Southward now moving on to the next level and Michael Caputo moving to outside linebacker?

Two positions with experienced incumbents remain also up in the air, namely at wide receiver but also at quarterback, with sophomore quarterback Joel Stave now apparently in his third straight year of competing for the starting job under center. At times inconsistent (see: 2013's Penn State game), Stave still threw for the second-most touchdown passes UW single-season history (22) but tossed 13 interceptions.

After reeling in true freshman D.J. Gillins and sophomore Tanner McEvoy (now back on offense after dabbling in wide receiver and mostly playing safety), the desire for a dual-threat quarterback in the offense is apparent. But can a former safety, a former four-star recruit in Bart Houston with a cannon of an arm, Gillins and Connor Senger -- the 2013 scout team offensive player of the year whom Andersen mentioned in his National Signing Day press conference -- dethrone the former walk-on who's started the majority of the games the past two seasons?

Joel Stave RS JR 6-5 225 278-of-455
3,598 28/16 Greenfield, Wis.
Tanner McEvoy RS JR 6-6 223 124-of-182 (JUCO) 1,943 (JUCO) 25/6 (JUCO) Hillsdale, N.J.
Bart Houston RS SO 6-4 217 1-of-1 8 0/0 Dublin, Calif.
Connor Senger RS FR 5-10 175 N/A N/A N/A Milwaukee, Wis.
Thad Armstrong RS SO 6-3 194 N/A N/A N/A Ottawa, Ill.
D.J. Gillins FR 6-3 185 N/A N/A N/A Jacksonville, Fla

Main question: Who is the most ready to challenge Stave?

The depth chart says it all, really. Stave comes in as the most game-ready and experienced quarterback of the six. He's also the most battled-tested, having dealt with two straight seasons of dueling other competitors to start under center. Despite being erratic at times, Stave has played in hostile environments in his two seasons as a starter (Nebraska, Ohio State, etc.), and has the ability to throw the ball deep when called upon, with some positive results (see: 65-yard touchdown pass to Jared Abbrederis against Northwestern) and some negative (overthrows against Penn State and under-thrown interception against UMass).

"Joel's our starting quarterback," Andersen said on Feb. 5. "He started all the games last year. It's his spot to lose. So he'll be given that opportunity to obviously compete and get the team around him."

If Stave shows improvement in his accuracy and decision-making during spring and summer camps, it will be hard to beat him out, especially with that experience under his belt.

McEvoy didn't have a lot of time to grow accustomed to Andy Ludwig's offense when he transferred from Arizona Western College last year. Combined with the experience both Stave and Curt Phillips had, that ultimately hurt McEvoy's chances at competing during summer camp. His play at safety, nevertheless, allowed the Badgers to have some fun with schemes and blitzes. After a full year in Madison, McEvoy is a quarterback with a particular skill set Stave lacks, a dual-threat feel that push the former walk-on for reps.

"[McEvoy] was running around this morning pretty good, but he was playing quarterback," Andersen said earlier this month. "He is definitely going to be in the quarterback position in spring football."

Houston is a very viable contender to give Stave a run for his money. The once-heralded recruit from California finally had a chance to practice last spring and throughout the 2013 season after redshirting in 2012 following shoulder surgery. As Jeff Potrykus of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel noted back in December, Ludwig noticed improvements in the redshirt freshman, and Houston's goal in 2014 is to become Wisconsin's starting quarterback.

"I'm not going to be satisfied with anything but that," Houston said.

Dark horse contenders: Gillins and Senger

Both were mentioned by Andersen at the press conference earlier this month: Gillins when a question came up about possible opportunities to contribute early on in his career; Senger by Andersen without prompting, perhaps a positive sign that the coaching staff sees promise in the walk-on from Milwaukee.

Can both freshmen take some reps away from their more veteran teammates? Andersen noted Gillins has the athletic tools to compete but did mention he has to be mentally ready for the opportunity, though it's a good sign when he enrolled early at Wisconsin.

"I expect him to compete just as well as I expect Bart (Houston) to compete, just as I expect Connor (Senger) to compete," Andersen said.

"They all want to play. There's a lot of quarterbacks, but there's only so many reps to go around. That is a definite challenge and something we're still in the middle of constructing as we move forward to spring ball."