For the third straight season, the quarterback position will go into fall camp with immense question marks. Joel Stave started all 13 games last season, but needed to have a good spring to suppress some doubts about him. Could Stave be a championship-level quarterback? Could be become more consistent in the passing game? Could he be a playmaker?
Those questions remain unanswered since Stave was limited the first six practices of spring ball, competed for six practices and then was shut down for this past week because of shoulder problems still lingering from that hit he took in the third quarter against South Carolina. Head coach Gary Andersen said this week that surgery is not necessary at this point and the junior has already begun his rehabilitation in hopes to be ready by summer conditioning. Either way this spring was a setback for Stave but opened a door for Tanner McEvoy.
McEvoy looked over his head last fall in his first camp after transitioning from Arizona Western Junior College, but made a strong impact late in the season at the safety position. Committing himself to the quarterback role in the offseason and the spring, McEvoy appears to have closed spring as the starting quarterback.
In the first part of the scrimmage, McEvoy threw a 27-yard touchdown pass to Kenzel Doe (the only passing touchdown of either half), scrambled for 35 yards on third-and-7 and finished the first half with a 7-yard touchdown scramble.
In the second half of the scrimmage that resembled actual football, McEvoy went 4-for-10 for 55 yards.
"I wanted to step up and throw the ball a couple more times instead of running it," said McEvoy. "That happens, so I have to keep on working on my decisions in that area of the game. I think I had a pretty well rounded day. I think the offense had a great day, and it's good to leave on a strong note like that."
Unlike Stave, McEvoy has the real ability to beat defenses with his throws and his ability to scramble, extend plays or run for first downs. Andersen added following the game that McEvoy and Stave will get the majority of the reps in the fall, which leaves Bart Houston on the outside looking in again.
Houston got very little work in the two scrimmages leading up to Saturday but went 3-for-4 for 19 yards working with the second-team offense. Houston has got a laser arm and can really sling the football, but doesn't appear like he's in the coaching staff's plans for this upcoming season.
"Bart's a tremendous young man, a tremendous kid, but he's not in the fight right now for the starting quarterback position," said Andersen. "We'll see what that brings for the future, but he's a vital part of this program and he continues to be."
A source said Houston loves it in Madison and that transferring hasn't come up, but you have to wonder what Houston's role will be on a team that has recruited a dual-threat quarterback the last three recruiting cycles.
D.J. Gillins did himself a huge favor by enrolling a semester early and getting into the playbook. Gillins is one of the quickest guys on the team and has shown that on numerous occasions.
Once he gets comfortable with his footwork, mechanics and is on point with his delivery, he'll be a realistic candidate to start for Wisconsin. Until that point comes, he could find himself a role in the offense with a package designed for him.
"He knows he's got a lot to work on and a long way to go to be a starter at this level," said Andersen, "but he also will be excited about expecting that responsibility and working hard."
Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement were often spectators in Wisconsin's third scrimmages this spring, but the duo certainly shined when we saw them in action. Clement broke off some impressive runs two weeks ago in the first scrimmage and Gordon looks fit, confident and motivated after spurring the NFL draft.
In the non-tackle portion of the scrimmage, Clement capped off a 9-play, 70-yard drive with a six-yard touchdown, while Gordon unofficially went over 100 yards in the first half before being relegated to spectator status.
"It was real good," said Gordon. "Coach talked about all last week, just getting me out there and getting some work in. He just wants us prepared because he knows what we have ahead of us."
The majority of the reps went to redshirt freshman Austin Ramesh, who carried a game-high 12 times for 71 yards in the second half, averaging 5.9 yards per carry.
Derek Straus also got the bulk of the work at fullback since the coaching staff decided to move Derek Watt to tight end for the spring to get him some work at pass catching and running routes, a sign that Wisconsin is going to hopefully incorporate the sure-handed athlete more after he only caught three passes for 20 yards last year.
"It was a unique opportunity where I got to play at both fullback and tight end, learn the majority of the tight end playbook," said Watt. "I think it will be good moving forward. I think I did well showing the coaches I am able to do it."
Position coach Chris Beatty said he's not the least bit nervous about his group at this point heading into the summer. He either knows something we don't or he's a very good liar, because the group of wide receivers Wisconsin has (or doesn't have) on the field certainly does not breath confidence.
Wisconsin knew it needed guys to step since Jared Abbrederis had 1,081 of the group's 1,380 receiver yards last year and all seven of the touchdowns. UW was hoping Rob Wheelwright would have a big spring to lay a good foundation for the summer and the fall, but the sophomore hardly practiced because of a knee injury. UW also has seen Reggie Love, Jordan Fredrick, Alex Erickson and Connor Cummins all miss time this spring due to injuries, thereby stunting their on-field growth.
In addition to his touchdown catch, Doe took a nice step forward after being limited last year because of hamstring issues, which made him unable to carry the momentum forward he generated from the spring.
"Just keeping working, staying positive," said Doe when asked about what he needed to do to carry over the momentum. "We don't have Abby anymore, so we're going to need somebody to step up. I just have to have that mentality every time I go out there that they need somebody to step up. Kenzel, you had a good spring but now spring ball is over. That's the past, so I have to keep moving forward and keep working. Hopefully I'm going to do the same thing come fall."
No matter what, Wisconsin will need at least one, probably more, of its true freshmen to step right in and contribute in the fall, as Andersen and his staff were left significantly handicapped by the recruiting failures of the former regime.
Although Wisconsin loses three senior tight ends, including the 2012 Big Ten tight end of the year in Jacob Pedersen, the Badger could be sneaky good at the position based on a lot of unproven depth. Sam Arneson is the lone senior of the group and while he has done most of his damage in the red zone (in 36 games, Arneson doesn't have a catch over 20 yards or one game over 40 total yards), he's worked on expanding his game from sideline to sideline.
"I'm looking forward to being an every down player, maybe splitting around, moving in the motion down the line, just all the different things that come with different situations when you are in the middle of the field," Arneson said. "You get that third-and-long or that third-and-short and you are counted on to make a play. I'm excited about that role."
Austin Traylor has asserted himself as a solid No.2 option for Wisconsin with his work in the passing game over spring, showing strong catching abilities over the middle of the field and has a big frame to handle bigger defensive ends. UW has also seen Austin Maly, Eric Steffes, T.J. Watt and Troy Fumagalli see increased roles in the offense, the latter two making strides after putting on a lot of weight and strength in the offseason.
"I think we're really deep," said Arneson. "I think it's one of the deepest groups we've had. Obviously last year we had more proven depth. This year there is a lot of talent there."
Losing only one senior starter (left guard Ryan Groy) off last year's offensive line, the trenches should be strong again for Wisconsin, which was why the spring was going to be more about building depth among the twos. It was a good thing considering UW was handcuffed with depth problems for the second straight spring.
Sophomore center Dan Voltz and senior lineman Dallas Lewallen have not practices because of offseason surgeries, while right guard Kyle Costigan and right tackle Rob Havenstein has had their reps limited to save his legs.
That has allowed Ray Ball and early enrollee Michael Deiter to get the most extensive work of their careers. Andersen, offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, offensive line coach T.J. Woods and Wisconsin linemen have talked glowingly about Deiter's progression since the beginning of camp, especially since Deiter didn't have any snapping experience before coming to Wisconsin. Deiter will get reps at guard over the summer and fall camp, but now gives UW flexibility should injuries arise on the line.
Ball worked throughout the scrimmage at the left guard position, a sign that the redshirt junior has finally taken a big step forward and could be in the position to challenge for significant playing time in the fall.