It is no secret that the most scrutinized position on the field this spring and next fall for the Wisconsin football team will be quarterback.
The Badgers have 17 primary starters returning from 2003 and plenty of experience among returning second-string players as well. The main question is who calls the signals in 2004?
John Stocco, who will be a sophomore next season, will enter spring practice at No. 1, but his is a tenuous top seat at best, with three more quarterbacks vying for reps with the first unit as spring practices get underway Friday.
Stocco began to earn his place atop the spring depth chart with a strong performance in relief of Matt Schabert in the regular-season finale against Iowa. Schabert was ineffective in that game after replacing injured starter Jim Sorgi.
When bowl practices began in December, Stocco and Schabert were in an open competition for the right to backup Sorgi in the Music City Bowl, a role Stocco won and put to use when Sorgi went down with an injury late in the fourth quarter of that game.
All told, Stocco took snaps in parts of three games last year, his redshirt freshman campaign, and completed 10 of 17 passes for 123 yards. He has a strong arm and has displayed solid athleticism in both game action and practice sessions during his brief career.
The only other quarterback in spring practices who has stepped on the field is Schabert, far and away Wisconsin's most experienced option. A fifth-year senior in 2004, Schabert completed 33 of 65 passes for 441 yards, one touchdown and four interceptions last season. The touchdown was one of the most endearing images of the year, a 79-yard pass-and-catch to Lee Evans that gave the Badgers a 17-10 win over Ohio State, snapping the Buckeyes' 19-game winning streak. After a respectable performance in relief the following week against Purdue, Schabert started and played poorly in a 16-7 loss at Northwestern. His season culminated with a rather forgettable performance against Iowa: 4-for-11, 49 yards, three interceptions.
Schabert is limited physically, with the weakest arm and slowest legs of any of the quarterbacks, but he knows the offense as well as anyone and has been in the fire far more than any other quarterback who will don the Cardinal and White in the fall. While the good feelings about his play against Ohio State and Purdue fell to disrepair by season's end, it should be noted that neither Stocco nor any other Badger quarterback has had so much as one start. How each may fare if he receives the call is the biggest question Wisconsin's coaching staff will have to try to answer.
Donovan was the team's Scout Offensive Player of the Year last year. Often compared to Brooks Bollinger, Donovan is very athletic and coaches and teammates have lauded his natural leadership abilities. He looked sharp in bowl practices and put his strong arm and mobility on display.
As a senior at Arrowhead High School, Donovan passed for 1,650 yards and 16 touchdowns and rushed for 455 yards, leading his team to the state championship game and earning Associated Press Wisconsin State Player of the Year acclaim.
At 6-foot-7, Lewis will certainly stand out. He can deliver every pass imaginable and also runs very well. He played in both an option, I-formation offense in high school and a four-wide Purdue-style spread attack.
Lewis, who rooms with Stocco, is just 17-years old, but he appears quite mature and has blended with the team well. He holds the school record at H.L. Richards (Oak Lawn, Ill.) for career passing yards (3,131) and passing touchdowns (39). In his three seasons as the starting quarterback, he also had 915 rushing yards and 15 rushing touchdowns.
There will be a fifth quarterback on the roster this spring: Chris White, a walk-on from Kokomo, Ind. White remained listed at quarterback throughout the year last season and was on the scout team, though he took very few snaps.
The coming battle at quarterback will almost assuredly continue throughout the spring and well into fall camp, when two more freshmen, Bryan Savage and Marcus Randle El, will join the fray. Who comes out above the rest is anyone's guess at this point.