It’s time to think about the future.
Lost in the exuberance of Saturday’s thrilling 47–44 triple-overtime road win over Purdue was the continued up-and-down play of sophomore quarterback Jack Coan.
Thrust into the starting position due to Alex Hornibrook’s continued issues with concussion-like symptoms, Coan has shown growth over the past four games, but up until about six minutes left in regulation, the story Saturday was Wisconsin’s continued offensive stagnation.
With a four-game sample set now in the books, there is enough data to show that Coan should sit for the rest of the season, for his own good and the good of the team’s future. Here’s why.
Redshirting Coan was the plan all along
Under the NCAA’s new redshirt rules, players can play up to four games and maintain their redshirts. With Coan hitting his limit against Purdue, it’s time to return to the original plan.
Prior to Hornibrook’s injury, Wisconsin intended for Coan to redshirt in 2018 in order to maintain an extra season of eligibility. Redshirt freshman quarterback Danny Vanden Boom saw mop-up duty early in the year in lieu of Coan, who was technically the back-up on the two-deep. All that changed, obviously, after Hornibrook’s injuries.
Wisconsin has just two games left, Saturday’s showdown with Minnesota and a non-New Year’s Six bowl. Sitting Coan to preserve his redshirt would not be done punitively; rather, it would be a way to preserve future options without significantly harming the present.
The gap between Coan and Vanden Boom is not significant enough to warrant burning a redshirt
By virtue of the fact that he has gotten the start in lieu of Hornibrook, it is obvious that the coaching staff views Coan as a better quarterback than Vanden Boom. Frankly, the former’s play over the past four games shows that he is a sophomore with a lot of room for growth.
Feverish comeback against Purdue aside, over the past four games it’s not entirely clear that Coan has been asked to do anything Vanden Boom could not.
In four games, Coan is 50-of-82 for 488 yards, four touchdowns, and two interceptions. Against Rutgers, Coan only attempted seven passes during his second-half relief of Hornibrook. The playbook against Penn State was severely limited with the coaching staff opting to go very conservative, a decision validated by Coan’s two interceptions and two lost fumbles.
Against Purdue, Coan was 16-of-24 for 206 yards and two touchdowns. Typical statistics for a Wisconsin quarterback, particularly in a game that saw Wisconsin rush for 385 yards. While the Badgers moved the ball better than they had in a few weeks, the stats include three overtimes worth of yards and the reality is that the offense struggled mightily on those rare occasions when Purdue was actually able to stop the run. Had the Boilermakers’ run defense been slightly more stout, Wisconsin would not have pulled off the comeback.
One or two games does not warrant mortgaging the future
Hornibrook, absent serious health issues, will be back for the bowl, meaning Paul Chryst and Joe Rudolph will need to decide whether to burn Coan’s redshirt for what amounts to just one game against the Gophers. It’s not worth it.
Preserving Coan’s redshirt would give Wisconsin significant quarterback depth for the next five years. Coan would retain three years of eligibility, with true freshman Chase Wolf (currently in his own redshirt year) and highly-touted 2019 recruit Graham Mertz each with the four years.
Much has been made about Coan potentially beating out Hornibrook for the starting job in 2019. Given what we have seen in 2018, however, the gap between the two quarterbacks is actually more significant than some of the fan base would like to admit.
While another week (or six) of first-team reps would help Coan close the gap between the two, Hornibrook would appear to have the inside track for 2019. Since Coan may be looking at 2020 for a starting job anyway, an extra year would allow him to maximize his opportunities if he becomes the full-time starter.
All that said...
There are two scenarios in which it makes sense for Coan to keep playing in 2018.
The first is if Hornibrook is unable to play in the bowl. If Hornibrook is not recovered by then, it signals that an already serious injury may be career-threatening. That changes the 2019 calculus. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the coaching staff will know Hornibrook’s status until later in December, well after Wisconsin’s rivalry week match-up with Minnesota.
The other scenario is unfortunately less favorable to Coan. If Hornibrook returns as full-time starter in 2019 (which I believe is the most likely scenario unless his injuries linger), the 2020 starting competition would be fierce, with Coan, Wolf, and Mertz all in the mix with at least of year of seasoning under their belt. It is not inconceivable that Coan finishes third in that competition. (Regardless, I suspect whomever ends up third-string in 2020 decides to transfer.) In that case, preserving an extra year of eligibility is less important than wins over the Gophers and in the bowl.
The best-case scenario for all concerned would be for Hornibrook to come back healthy against the Gophers, rendering a decision moot. If Chryst has to make a hard call, however, Coan should sit, for his benefit and the long-term good of the team.