MADISON - For the third straight fall camp, Joel Stave is in a quarterback battle for the starting job at the University of Wisconsin. That’s fine with him. After all, he doesn’t know anything different.
“Doing this year after year after year, I’m familiar with the quarterback competition and what needs to be done,” said Stave. “Really it comes down to me competing with myself to be the best player I can be. As long as I am doing that, I’m not worried about anything else.”
Stave is 1-for-2 in his quarterback battles during his time in the Wisconsin program. He lost out to transfer quarterback Danny O’Brien in 2012, but ended up playing in eight games with six starts when O’Brien and the offense struggled. He won the starting job last season over a competitive camp battle with sixth-year senior Curt Phillips and started all 13 games.
His latest threat is arguably what Wisconsin’s offensive coaching staff is looking for in a quarterback – a dual-threat athlete with mobility outside the pocket in fellow redshirt junior Tanner McEvoy.
Through six days of practices entering this afternoon’s scrimmage, both players appear to be neck and neck, a stark change from the spring.
Each of Stave’s first two seasons ended in injury. He missed eight weeks and four games after sustaining a broken left collarbone in the second half against Michigan State, but made a brief cameo in the Rose Bowl. In January, Stave was knocked out of the second half against South Carolina on a violent hit when he failed to slide to avoid contact.
The diagnosis on his right (throwing) shoulder was never revealed but Stave missed most of the first two weeks of spring ball and was eventually shut down by the staff when discomfort lingered on his throws.
“It was very frustrating, no question,” he said.
Since being cleared to resume throwing activities in the summer, Stave went through a variety of different exercises and stretches in order to balance out the weight distribution through all the different muscles in the shoulder.
“There are a lot of really small muscles in the shoulder that don’t necessarily get worked unless you specifically focus on them,” said Stave. “I did a lot of that to make sure I am feeling balanced and feeling strong when I am throwing.”
Being unable to practice at full capacity in the spring, Stave spent plenty of time in the film room studying his sophomore season. He threw for a UW sophomore record 2,494 yards and 22 touchdown passes, the second-most in UW history.
But for a quarterback who set the school record with 336 pass attempts, only completing 208 passes (61.9 percent) wasn’t good enough in his eyes.
“You can always be more consistent,” said Stave. “I’ve made very good throws, and I’ve also missed throws you just can’t miss. That’s how the game goes. There’s going to be ups and downs. You’re not always going to be perfect, but that’s always the goal. You are always striving to be perfect and just play consistently at a high level.”
There was no one thing Stave pinpointed that was consistently off. He acknowledged that he didn’t always trust in the protection, causing him to take unnecessary evasive action that would result in bad footwork or open him up to a bigger hit.
“Coach Ludwig always says, ‘just have quiet feet,’” said Stave. “I don’t need to be taking big steps if I don’t need to.”
With his shoulder still healing, Stave was able to work on his lower body and his footwork at great lengths, practicing staying balanced, controlled and having small quick steps.
“You don’t need big out-of-controlled steps,” said Stave. “You just need a small step here and there to stay alive and get the ball to someone who can run with it.”
Wisconsin took a different approach to the first four days of camp in part to give the young players on the roster, and the quarterbacks, more repetitions. Splitting the roster into two groups, with the top offensive linemen, tailbacks and receivers working in the morning practice and the rest in the afternoon, Stave and McEvoy rotated each day with one working in the morning and one in the afternoon.
“The opportunity to succeed in the morning is much better to succeed in the afternoon,” Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said. “I think performances have probably been better in the mornings, for both of them. We've got to get them in those live scenarios, get the whole scheme in and see how they're handling it from there."
The full roster in full pads practices the past two days with each quarterback arguably winning one of the days.
It was the same scenario a year ago for Stave and Phillips. The big difference this year is that offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig is back for a second straight season, the first time that’s happened at Wisconsin since Paul Chryst left following the 2011 season, giving Stave the edge in experience.
“For not only me, but everybody has good idea of what we’re doing with the terminology, the schematics and what we’re trying to accomplish,” said Stave. “It’s just taking the same thing from last year.”