CHICAGO – It’s back to the grind for the Wisconsin football team, and the unofficial start to the college football season usually means one thing for Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen: answering questions about the quarterback position.
True, Andersen has an open quarterback competition heading into the season opener against LSU in Houston on Aug.30, but the theme throughout his briefings during Big Ten Media Days at the Hilton Chicago was the Badgers are young and they’ve got to get better in a hurry.
“You go rewind in one year and say ‘where are we?’ We want to be better in a lot of spots,” said Andersen, whose team returns only nine starters from last season. “We want to protect the passer a lot better than we did a year ago, whoever that is. We want to have more than one receiver we consistently throw the ball to if that’s going to help the quarterback position.”
In his second year as head coach, Andersen says he is more comfortable and ready to watch position competitions play out. And while he doesn’t like to put more emphasis on the quarterback spot than any other spot, Andersen noted at the beginning of the day that the quarterback competition – mainly between redshirt juniors Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy – is still an open one.
With practices being split between two squads and two time slots in the first week, McEvoy and Stave will get the majority of the reps with true freshman D.J. Gillins also getting some opportunities, but not as many as the other two.
“I've been through this a few times in my career and it will all settle out, just like every position battle does,” Andersen said. “It's just the highlight of the quarterback position. Everyone wants to talk about it. I understand it. I get that, but it's no different than the battle that may be taking place at a wide receiver position. The kids on the team will understand it, the coaches will understand it, and at that time we'll make a statement and have a starting quarterback.”
Andersen said there is no timeline to name a starting quarterback, even hinting that the announcement might not come until the offense jogs onto the field for the first snap against LSU.“It's going to be interesting to watch,” he said about the quarterback battle. “It was a great competitive battle in spring, even though Joel was very limited. I think in the summer, (he) has continued to grow. The kids are handling it very well amongst themselves, and they're also handling it very well amongst the team.”
Despite Stave’s injury in the Capitol One Bowl and his struggles toward the end of the season, Andersen noted he was happy with the way Stave played in his first season as the full-time starter. Stave’s shoulder has healed, and Andersen has no doubts about its strength and health moving into the season.
“Joel did some very good things,” Andersen said. “Joel played good football, you cannot discount that - Joel’s a tremendous competitor. You think in the game of college football, and really in the game of life you have to compete and you have to fight every single year, every single day for your job. We’ve tried to create competition at the quarterback position, just as well as we have at the right tackle position for Rob (Havenstein). It’s not quite the same competition for Rob, but we try to create the competition throughout the football team.”
No matter who wins the starting job, Wisconsin will need receivers to throw to, especially since Jared Abbrederis won’t be coming out of the huddle anymore.
Before being drafted in the fifth round of the 2014 NFL draft by the Green Bay Packers, Abbrederis was one of Wisconsin’s all-time leading receivers. Last season, he had 3.5 times more yards than the other UW receivers combined. His 202 career receptions tied the school record while his 23 touchdowns place him No. 2 all-time in Wisconsin history.
Needless to say, replacing Abbrederis will be as important – if not more – the quarterback position for the offense.
“The challenge is for the youth to step up,” Andersen said.
Replacing those numbers starts with Kenzel Doe and Jordan Fredrick, who both started last season and played in more than 10 games. With Abbrederis grabbing 78 receptions and gaining 1,081 yards, there weren’t many more to go around. And it showed. James White and Jacob Pedersen (300 and 551 yards) each caught 39 passes and five total touchdowns, while Doe and Frederick combined for just 163 yards and no touchdowns.
But Andersen sees that production increasing after strong spring practices from those two.
“Kenzel Doe has had an unbelievable offseason, a very good spring, became dynamic at the end of the year in the return game,” said Andersen. “He'll be a presence for us in that situation. Jordan Fredrick has had his role.”
Andersen also pointed to some of the youth in the program as critical swing factors to the offense. Alex Erickson finished with nine receptions and 127 yards in 13 games last season; Andersen said it’s sophomore Rob Wheelwright’s “time to shine,” and that Jazz Peavy looks more confident after his redshirt season.
“They need to be ready to step up and play this year if we're going to be a factor at the wide receiver position,” said Andersen.
Peavy’s big jump in Andersen’s eyes was his ability develop physically, learn the offense and improve his route running.
“His (Peavy’s) ability to be involved in the offense this summer is impressive,” he said. “I think the kids go through learning the offense in camp, going through their redshirt year, learning it again in the spring and then being actively involved. But to be able to go back and start at zero in the summertime and do it again, it’s not a retake but they sure pick up a lot of the little things they didn’t in the past.”
“We have some young men that came in, three young men that are with us, feel good about all three of them,” said Andersen. “Two of the three need to get on the airplane and fly to the LSU game for us. So we'll see how all that boils down.”