Tyler Donovan looked a little disoriented last fall. The Hartland (Wis.) Arrowhead star, known for his quick feet, strong arm and heady decision making, was a step behind. He was far from assertive and seemed a little lost at times.
"It was tough at first, I'm not going to lie to you," Donovan said. "I mean coming into camp my head was spinning. I didn't have a clue. I didn't feel confident in my game, I was just trying to think of plays and trying to do what I was told."
The growing pains, though, ran their course. Donovan grew more and more comfortable through fall camp and that progression continued when he donned a redshirt and set out to run the scout offense this season. At Wisconsin's annual team awards banquet Friday, Donovan was honored as the Scout Offensive Player of the Year.
"It was an honor to receive the award," Donovan said. "Basically what I did was go out and work hard every day, have fun and try to get better, along with the all the younger players. I think we accomplished that. Coaches saw me take on more of a leadership roll throughout this year. I think that's one of the keys to why they gave me the award."
Quarterbacks coach Jeff Horton agrees.
"I think that's key as a quarterback because the guys he's with down there are going to be his future teammates," Horton said. "So if they start developing trust in him and knowing that he can help them win that is three-quarters of the battle."
"I think our freshman class has something special," Donovan said. "I think we are a very tight group and we know how to play together and stick together."
Donovan, like the bulk of the freshman class, received extended reps with Wisconsin's scout teams this season. Early in the semester, Donovan shared some of the scout quarterback reps with walk-on Chris White. For the most part, though, Donovan was at the helm, play-after-play, trusted to ready the first-team defense.
"They (Wisconsin coaches) said I was giving good looks and working hard every day," Donovan said. "We played a lot of mobile quarterbacks this year and…that's the type of quarterback I am, more of a mobile quarterback."
"He's very athletic and he's got a nice arm," Offensive coordinator Brian White said of Donovan. "I think he's similar to (former UW quarterback) Brooks (Bollinger) athletically."
"It was fun. The offense was based around him so he basically had the ball on every snap," Donovan said.
As part of the scout offense, Donovan worked off play cards, mirroring the opponent's plays each week.
"Obviously you can look at a card and know your route," Donovan said. "But as much as anything you are getting used to the tempo of the game. You are getting looks against the No. 1s every day. I think that was one of the key components in me trying to be more successful in practice and getting the feel for things and being more confident."
The first three Bowl practices this winter, which took place Dec. 5-7, were a different story entirely. With an opponent still up in the air, the team had not formulated a game plan and Donovan's practice routine changed significantly.
"I have been getting a lot more reps with the twos," Donovan said. "I'm working more with that offense and things are going pretty smooth for me right now. I'm just trying to be more confident with the plays, play calling, speaking in front of the huddle—that kind of thing."
"That's what's great about going to a Bowl is the chance to have more practice and give the young guys a chance to get a lot of work in," Horton said.
Despite spending the season working from opponents' play cards, Donovan felt comfortable running Wisconsin's offense over the weekend.
"I've been studying throughout the semester," he said. "I'm a lot more confident than I was coming into camp."
"Now, I feel like I'm starting to get a feel for the game. I'm more confident in myself, just going out and trying to play my game and be a leader."
Now that the Badgers Music City Bowl matchup with Auburn is set, Donovan will return to scout team duties. The remaining Bowl practices, though, will continue to serve as a launch point for spring practices and the budding competition to take over for Jim Sorgi at quarterback.
"I'm just looking forward to compete, have fun and try to make the team better however I can. Whether it is working with my class more, whether it is three-deep, two-deep, one-deep, whatever it is, I'm just going to do my best to help the team out whatever way."