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Wisconsin football recruiting: Counting the stars of quarterbacks past, present and future

Wisconsin landed several highly-touted quarterback commits in the last couple of seasons. Where do previous signal callers stand in terms of recruiting rankings and success on the field?

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In the past six months, Wisconsin has reeled in three impressive quarterback commits to help in the immediate and distant future in Tanner McEvoy, Austin Kafentzis and D.J. Gillins. Together with 2012 commit Bart Houston, the football program, if Gillins and Kafentzis honor their verbals, will arguably have the most talented and highest-ranked group of athletes playing under center to come out of high school in program history.

But another question lingers nevertheless: Has the recruitment of previous quarterbacks translated to success in recent seasons? History shows a rash of injuries and the emergence of transfers, as well as lesser-known "diamonds in the rough," have played a large role in Wisconsin's starting quarterback situation.

A look back shows injuries, transfers

The chart below shows Wisconsin's starters since 2004, dating back nine seasons. Records are provided by

Starter Badger By: Years* Class* 247 247C ESPN Rivals Scout Record* College Career
Curt Phillips Scholarship 2012 2008 NA 3 "79" 4 3 2 - 3 Named starter via injury to Stave & led UW to Rose Bowl; 540 yds, 5 TD, 2 INT
Danny O'Brien Transfer 2012 2008 NA NA "73" 3 3 2 - 1 Benched vs. Utah State; 523 yds, 3 TD, 1 INT in 3 starts; transferred to Catawba College
Joel Stave Walk-On 2012 2011 NR NR NR 2 2 4 - 2 Subbed for O'Brien vs. Utah State, 1,104 yds, 6 TD - 149.6 efficiency, injured vs. MSU
Russell Wilson Transfer 2011 2007 NA 3 "73" 2 2 11 - 3 B1G title/Rose Bowl; threw for 3,175 yds, 33 TD, 72.8 comp. %, 191.8 efficiency
Scott Tolzien Scholarship 2009-10 2006 NA NA "66" 2 2 21 - 5 Led UW to B1G Title/Rose Bowl in 2010; threw for 5,271 career yards, 32 TD in 26 starts
Dustin Sherer Scholarship 2008 2005 NA NA NA 3 3 4 - 3 1,389 yds, 6 TD, 5 INT in '08
Allan Evridge Transfer 2008 2004 NA NA NR 3 2 3 - 3 Transferred from K-State in '06; benched in '08 season for Sherer
Tyler Donovan Scholarship 2006-07 2003 NA NA NA 4 3 9 - 4 '07 season - 2,607 yds, 17 TD, 11 INT; 22 career TD passes
John Stocco Scholarship 2004-06 2002 NA NA NA 3 NA 29 - 7 7,227 yds, 46 TD, 22 INT, 2 Capital One Bowl victories

Several key things to note:

  • In seven of those nine years, the quarterback started the majority of the season (Stocco was injured the last two regular-season games of 2006 season, Tolzien and Wilson started all regular- and post-season games), showing great consistency once a starter was named.
  • No starter was a unanimous four-star recruit, but most found much success under center (sans Evridge, Sherer and O'Brien).
  • Four of the nine starters in the past nine seasons were not initially recruited as a scholarship player at Wisconsin, but rather transferred or walked on to the football program.

The latter point brings up another question, as almost half of the starting quarterbacks for Wisconsin were not scholarship players: What happened to the commits Wisconsin recruited? Injuries, position changes and transfers.

Commits Class* 247 247C ESPN Rivals Scout Starts* College Career
Bart Houston 2012 4 4 4 3 4 0 Shoulder injury - redshirted 2012 season
Nate Hammon 2011 2 2 NR 2 2 0 Services listed him as QB/ATH, now a DB
Joe Brennan 2010 NA 3 3 3 3 0 Lost out to Joel Stave in spring 2012; now at Towson
Jon Budmayr 2009 NA 3 "80" 3 3 0 Injuries derailed his career, gave up football in 2013
Curt Phillips 2008 NA 3 "79" 4 3 5 Injuries derailed him early career, started 5 games & B1G title in '13
James Stallons 2007 NA NA "74" 3 2 0 Transferred out of UW in 2009; ended up at Shaw University
Scott Tolzien 2006 NA NA "66" 2 2 26 Led UW to B1G Title/Rose Bowl in '10; Threw for 5,271 career yards, 32 TD
Dustin Sherer 2005 NA NA NA 3 3 7 1,389 yds, 6 TD, 5 INT in '08
Bryan Savage 2004 NA NA NA 3 3 0 Transferred to Coffeyville Community College then to Hofstra
Marcus Randle El 2004 NA NA NA 3 3 0 Listed as QB/ATH/CB; converted to WR; 4 career catches at UW
Sean Lewis 2004 NA NA NA 3 3 0 Moved to TE in '04, now coaches at Eastern Illinois
Tyler Donovan 2003 NA NA NA 4 3 15 '07 season: 2,607 yds, 17 TD, 11 INT; 22 career TD passes
John Stocco 2002 NA NA NA 3 NA 36 7,227 yds, 46 TD, 22 INT, 2 Capital One Bowl victories

The last two seasons saw Wisconsin court transfers Russell Wilson and Danny O'Brien due to lack of depth, as injuries stalled the progress of two players, Curt Phillips and Jon Budmayr. The latter, unfortunately, ultimately had to quit football due to lingering elbow issues. Phillips had three ACL surgeries during his time at Wisconsin, but is still in the running for the starting job against McEvoy and Joel Stave. Oddly enough, it was Stave's injury vs. Michigan State last year, along with the decline of O'Brien, that gave Phillips the starting nod in the latter part of last season. Bart Houston's shoulder injury forced the much-heralded and anticipated four-star commit to redshirt his first collegiate year and he only saw his first real consistent practice time this past spring.

Others, for certain reasons, changed positions. Dating back to 2004, Sean Lewis and Marcus Randle El were three-star recruits who played predominantly at quarterback in high school. Both commits wound up playing different positions at UW, with Lewis playing tight end and Randle El moving to wide receiver. Different recruiting services designated Hammon as either a QB or an "Athlete", but he is now listed as a defensive back.

All five scholarship quarterbacks that did stick it out and started, including Phillips, compiled a 67-22 record in 89 career starts, won two Big Ten titles and took their respective teams to bowl games.

If it wasn't injuries or change of positions, players transferred due to lack of opportunity or lost the chance at starting under center. Most recently, Danny O'Brien, after transferring to Wisconsin from Maryland after a rough series of coaching transitions, transferred to Division II Catawba College after Bret Bielema benched him in favor of Stave and then he fell out of contention for a spot as the starter in 2013 under Gary Andersen. Joe Brennan, the three-star quarterback who was the heir apparent to Russell Wilson after the 2011 season, buckled in 2012 spring football and was out-performed by none other than Stave. Brennan now is enrolled at Towson. Stallons and Savage also left for other programs.

These transfers either were instigated by or led to the emergence of lesser-known recruits taking the bull by the hornand running with it. Scott Tolzien, a two-star prospect out of high school, is one of those special stories of a player who worked his way up from deep on the depth chart to having an impressive career for the Badgers, with 32 career touchdowns and a Rose Bowl berth to his credit. Greenfield native Stave, a two-star quarterback out of Whitnall High School, walked-on to the Wisconsin program and turned heads, beating out the likes of Brennan and Phillips, as well as ultimately replacing O'Brien in 2012. He has the opportunity to do the same starting next month.

Not all scholarship quarterbacks were bit by a major injury bug or lost the job. Tolzien, Dustin Sherer, Tyler Donovan and John Stocco combined for 84 starts, with Stocco and Tolzien starting for multiple seasons (36 and 26 games, respectively). All five scholarship quarterbacks that did stick it out and started, including Phillips, compiled a 67-22 record in 89 career starts, won two Big Ten titles and took their respective teams to bowl games.

Quarterback recruits pre- and post-Russell Wilson
Player Commit/Walk-On/Transfer Class 247 247C ESPN Rivals Scout
Austin Kafentzis Commit; Verbal 2015 3 4 4 NA NA
DJ Gillins Commit; Verbal 2014 4 4 4 4 3
Tanner McEvoy Transfer (JUCO) 2013 4 3 3 3 3
Bart Houston Commit; Scholarship 2012 4 4 4 3 4

From the 2012 through the 2015 classes, Wisconsin has courted and continues to court an impressive group of signal callers. The success of Russell Wilson, himself a two-star prospect out of high school, is an obvious factor, showing what a Wisconsin offense can produce with a dual-threat quarterback. Houston's verbal did come in May 2011 before Wisconsin won the Russell Wilson Sweepstakes, but he showed he could score through the air and on the ground at De La Salle.

With Wisconsin having three different offenses in three seasons now, credit has to be given to Gary Andersen, who covets quarterbacks with dual-threat ability. Andersen utilized Chuckie Keeton at Utah State, who threw for over 3,300 yards and ran for over 600 yards in 2012. Stating he wanted to have the threat of the read option in the offensive game plan, Andersen recruited the athletically-gifted McEvoy to come to Wisconsin earlier in 2013, and now with verbals from Kafentzis and Gillins in a matter of weeks this summer, the talent and potential athletic level in the position could jump significantly if all stay the course.

Three straight Rose Bowl appearances and Big Ten championships have also shown Wisconsin to be a more nationally-recognized program. As Benjamin Worgull of answered on our Kielbasa Kings Sports Extravaganza episode last week, it's highly likely a combination of all three of these factors has contributed to the recruiting successes of late.

The charts above also show Wisconsin did not slouch when it came to recruiting quarterbacks before 2010. Between the 2002 and 2005 classes, the last years of the Barry Alvarez coaching era, the Badgers recruited solid three-star players. Stocco, in 2002, was a three-star by Rivals who started 36 games. Rivals rated Tyler Donovan as a four-star prospect, with Scout giving him three stars. Lewis, Savage, Randle El and Sherer all were three-star commits across the board, although three of those four never made it onto the field as a legitimate starter.

Clearly, it's an exciting time for Badgers football. Summer camp starts in a couple weeks, students come back to campus a couple weeks thereafter and downtown Madison begins to buzz with the approach of a new season.McEvoy will get his shot to see if he can win the starting quarterback job from two solid players with experience leading this team, and two high school prospects loom on the horizon. Wisconsin has impressed with its coup of commits lately, but it's not just about high school rankings or hoopla surrounding these kids that will get them to lead the team in their careers, as recent history has dictated. You never know when a player might sneak up on a program undetected and leave a mark, like Tolzien did, or what Stave has done so far only as a redshirt sophomore. Who knows, it could be 2013 walk-on Connor Senger. In this team's recent history, these clusters of stars have never seemed to shine so bright, but it's been the ones with fewer stars that have provided the brightest light.