As has been the annual custom since the days of one Russell Wilson, there is a quarterback battle going on at the Wisconsin Badgers fall camp.
Joel Stave has been the common thread in each of those controversies -- but not this year.
As Wisconsin approaches their season-opening game against Alabama on September 5, they enter with full assurance of who their starting quarterback will be. Head coach Paul Chryst has endowed the redshirt senior with both his trust and the starting quarterback position. The real battle at the position is between redshirt junior Bart Houston and redshirt freshman D.J. GIllins for the backup role.
"It's been a little more relaxing," Stave said of entering camp as the named starter. "You can really take each day and really focus on just working on yourself and working on getting better. You're not necessarily looking over your shoulder and seeing what the other quarterbacks are doing."
Now in the Badgers third week of practice, Stave is continuing to show signs of one of the biggest pieces missing from his 28 starts over the past three seasons: consistency.
He looks stronger in terms of accuracy and decision-making than he did in all of 2014, when he lost the starting job to Tanner McEvoy and subsequently began to battle with shoulder problems and a possible case of the yips. Most noticeably, Stave is throwing with anticipation.
"I think that's been the biggest improvement this camp, in comparison to years past, is just getting the ball out early, getting it out on time and really throwing it with trust," Stave said.
"We've really continued to get better and better with that every day as we learn the offense more and more. Guys start to trust each other more and we start to be able to trust our reads, trust what we're seeing and just throw."
On Tuesday, Stave placed his trust in the hands -- and route -- of redshirt sophomore wide receiver Jazz Peavy. At the 10-yard line, Stave fired to the end zone while Peavy was in his break and before he turned his head around. The ball was timed perfectly for Peavy, who made the catch for a touchdown.
The signal caller -- who many could describe as the "Most Polarizing Man in Wisconsin Football" over the past two seasons -- is also looking to make more big plays in the passing game, something the Badgers lacked for the most part last season.
"It's something that we can use to keep the offense more balance," Stave said of throwing deep more often and with more success in 2015. "Especially first and second down, when you're able to be in a normal down-and-distance situation. You can take a shot like that and try to keep the defense on their toes and keep the safeties playing honestly. I think that's something that we can take advantage of."
Badgers redshirt junior safety Leo Musso may be having the most impressive camp of anyone, which he continued Tuesday with another interception. Musso took over the first-team defense spot from sophomore Lubern Figaro last week and hasn't shown any willingness to give it up. Makes sense for a guy who defensive coordinator Dave Aranda called a "gym rat".
Secondary coach Daronte Jones still expects McEvoy to play some safety this season -- but as Musso continues to impress during practice, it allows the Badgers dual-threat receiver/safety to continue to hone his craft on offense.
It's a big Deal, don't-Shaw know?
Junior running back Corey Clement watched from the sidelines during Tuesday's practice (coaches' decision for rest), which was almost entirely offense vs. defense, and the presumed backup, redshirt junior Dare Ogunbowale, wasn't seen much, either. That meant a whole lot of live action for freshmen running backs Taiwan Deal and Bradrick Shaw.
Both had impressive showings. Deal, 6'1 and 220 pounds., scored on a fourth-and-goal from the one and added another touchdown scamper later in practice. Shaw broke two big runs of 35 and 40-plus yards, bouncing outside the tackles and showing good lateral speed.
Other Notes and Observations
- True freshman wide receiver Andrew James left practice with an injured right leg. He made a catch near the sideline and attempted to spin upfield while being dragged by one arm by a defender.
- Offensive lineman Hayden Biegel attended practice for the first time in 11 days after suffering a concussion. The redshirt sophomore did not practice, but was on the sidelines.
- Redshirt sophomore defensive end Alec James, absent since Aug. 20 with an ankle injury, was in pads on the sidelines but did not practice. His estimated recovery time was about one week, so he's expected to practice soon.
- While the offense and defense practiced, the kickers worked on soccer-style onside kicks for a portion of the day. Like a free kick on the pitch, two kickers would be lined up on opposite sides of the ball. One would run over the ball as a misdirection while still staying behind the line of scrimmage. The other kicker then bounced the ball to the other side.
- A trio of redshirt freshmen were on the first-team offensive line. Micah Kapoi stayed at right guard. Jacob Maxwell continued to fill in for the injured Walker Williams at right tackle, and Michael Dieter was at left guard.
- Junior wide receiver Robert Wheelwright made the catch of the day, leaping and reaching over the defender with his back turned for a touchdown.
- Senior safety Michael Caputo had an interception off Stave, but the blame lies elsewhere. Stave threw a strike to McEvoy and it bounced off his hands right to Caputo.