With Scott Tolzien headed to the NFL, the four quarterbacks that took snaps in UW's spring game unofficially went a combined 22 of 61 for 241 yards, zero touchdowns and four interceptions. UW coach Bret Bielema and the quarterbacks were blunt following the below average performance, saying the position was nowhere where it needed to be and that the success of the squad was dependent on the improvement of the position.
But as the group moved forward on the field and in the film room, the Wisconsin coaches work on the recruiting trail landed them a massive upgrade at the position.
In three seasons as quarterback for N.C. State, Russell Wilson, the runner up for ACC Player of the Year in 2010, completed 57.8 percent of his passes for 8,545 yards. No quarterback in the ACC has thrown more touchdown passes than Wilson, as his 76 touchdown passes is 26 more than Miami quarterback Jacory Harris. And he's bringing that savvy to Wisconsin's offense.
He was released from his N.C. State scholarship when head coach Tom O'Brien became frustrated with Wilson dividing his commitments between football and baseball, and the coach wanting to have his quarterback participate through spring football. Wilson visited Auburn May 24 but on his visit to Wisconsin June 7-8, Wilson was welcomed to a lit up Camp Randall Stadium and the Jumbotron playing a replay of Wisconsin's primetime win over No.1 Ohio State last October. Talk about a selling point.
Wilson, who spent the summer playing Class A baseball for the Colorado Rockies, is a one-year rental, as his abilities would allow redshirt sophomore Jon Budmayr another year of seasoning. A college scout described Wilson as, "an accurate thrower that puts the ball in the right spot, throws a good deep ball and has good decision making with knowing when to throw the ball away and when to take a risk." When the Badgers open the season on Sept.1 against UNLV, it is widely expected that Wilson will be the man under center.
"He wasn't promised the starting job, but I told him as a guy with one year of eligibility, I am not bringing you in with the intention of seeing how you sit on the bench," Bielema said. "He's going to come in, try to earn the starting job. I was very cautious with the way our current quarterbacks and our current players, and he was very well received on the short visit he was here.
"The part I learned about him is that he is a very quick learning. He learns things quickly not only from a … obviously graduating in three years at N.C. State, but also I think it will carry over to the football field very easily."
There are questions, as well, like how is Wilson's arm going to be after throwing 40 times a game last season and playing a whole summer of minor league baseball? How quickly will he pick up Wisconsin's pro-style offense after playing with an offense that ran a lot of shotgun, one-back formations to take advantage of Wilson's athleticism, a formation the Badgers rarely? Time will tell, but the Badgers have a quarterback with winning experience, something the other four quarterbacks on the roster don't have.
The acquisition of Wilson and redshirt junior Curt Phillips missing the upcoming season means Budmayr will be the back-up for the second year in a row. Budmayr has done a lot in his young football career with his 6-foot frame, particularly overcoming two shoulder injuries to the point where one would never realize his troubled past by watching him throw. Still, he was blunt after finishing his third spring with Wisconsin, saying that while he's grown mentally with the playbook, he's still got work that needs to be done.
"The biggest thing we have to take away is grow from today and not just today, but from all of spring (practices)," Budmayr said following the spring game where he completed 10-of-23 passes for 113 yards, one interception and not one touchdown drive. "We can't be satisfied at all with where we are at and we have to take that mindset into the summer. We have to get some improvement that and hit the ground running in the fall."
Even though he is still young, Budmayr showed last season in mop up duty and in the spring that he is a very capable quarterback. Finally healthy after battling through collarbone and arm fatigue injuries, Budmayr completed 8-of-10 passes for 129 yards, including a 74-yard touchdown pass against Indiana.
"It was very valuable (because) anytime you can get game experience, I think it was benefit you down the road," Budmayr said. "Whether you are in grade school, college level or professional level, that game experience really helps you understand the game, the speed of the game. Not only that but off the field, going through the experience with Scott Tolzien and the preparation before the game, putting those two things together are valuable."
Behind Wilson and Budmayr, the Badgers will have redshirt freshman Joe Brennan and freshman Joel Stave. Brennan, who passed 18 TDs his senior year for Camden Catholic (NJ) High, has been progressing throughout his two seasons, but still needs more time after interceptions and inconsistency plagued him throughout spring, culminating with a 3-of-17, 42-yard, one-interception spring game.
Like Budmayr, Brennan put a lot of time and effort in watching Tolzien go through his steps. A quarterback that always seemed to be moving forward and not taking any steps back, Brennan has tried to command the huddle and keep the same daily routine that Tolzien did, finding a sense of consistency to allow him to perform up to his capabilities.
"It's a growing process for me," Brennan said. "I just have to take each day as it is and try to get better. Most of these plays, I have gotten familiar with my freshman year in the summer, but there are also some new plays and new schemes I need to learn. It's about taking on rep at a time and just trying to get better."
After turning down a scholarship offer from Western Michigan to take a preferred walk-on opportunity, Stave enrolled early so he could participate in spring practices. UW coach Bret Bielema called it, "a bonus for us there at the end in the recruiting world," as Wisconsin will pay for three of his five years of his tuition. Described as a quarterback who uses his natural size (6-foot-5) to throw the ball well, the spring was Stave's first introduction learning the pro-style offense after playing in a spread formation the past four years. Ironically, he was the quarterback that had the best spring game.
Stave's biggest hurdle was adjusting to the speed of the receivers, a problem that was obvious in the first couple spring practice with his throws falling behind his receivers. Once he got the confidence to really lead his receiver, Stave cut down on his bad throws and up his completion percentage, a good sign for UW's future at the position.
Fifth in the pecking order for Wisconsin is fifth-year senior Nate Tice, son of former Minnesota Vikings head coach and current Chicago Bears offensive line coach Mike Tice, who transferred to Wisconsin in the summer of 2008. Though he had a moment of glory when he scored a diving touchdown on a naked bootleg call late in the Indiana game, Tice will only be used in emergency situations or late in blowouts.
It's not going to be easy to replace Tolzien, who went 21-5 as a starter and holds school records for career completion percentage at .681 (min. 300 att.) and career QB efficiency rating of 153.2 (min. 300 att.). With Wilson in the mix, however, the Badgers might have found something just as good.