Following the leader

Wisconsin athletes, coaches have faith in Stocco's abilities

Comparing the University of Wisconsin's returning starting quarterback John Stocco to the Badgers' winningest quarterbacks of all time — Brooks Bollinger — is not a topic of discussion you hear about every day.

But Wednesday at UW's annual media day, that is just what his teammate Brandon Williams was doing, comparing Stocco to the Rose Bowl winning quarterback.

"[John's] been in the offense for two years now, he's going to be the starting quarterback for another year. The last guy to do that was Brooks (Bollinger) and you see how productive he was in the offense, every year he got better. That can be John," Williams said.

"He threw for probably 2,000 yards last year, that's not a slouch by any means so with that being said I feel he can probably push up to the 3,000 mark and to be one of the top passers in the Big Ten," Williams added

Three thousand yards might be a bit too much to ask of the Richfield, Minn., native. After all, no Badger quarterback has thrown for more than 2,400 yards in a season. Williams' praise of his quarterback has some merits, however; Stocco's inaugural season behind center was more productive than some may realize, particularly in a historical context.

Stocco's passing total last year, 1,999 yards, is better than any year Bollinger ever had, and is the seventh best total in school history. A big part of that statistic, of course, is that Stocco stayed healthy throughout last season, stringing 12 games worth of passing yards together. Still, after just one full season and parts of three games in 2003, Stocco is already in the top 20 in passing yards in school history. Should he again pass for 1,999 yards, he would be sixth in school history in career passing yards.

But passing stats mean little without the victories to go along with them. Again, a fan needs to look no further than Bollinger for an example of this. The Badger great never passed for more than 1,800 yards, but he still has his three bowl victories to his name, including a Rose Bowl title.

So Stocco remains, in the eyes of some, a quarterback on the hot seat this season. This belief has been fueled by head coach Barry Alvarez's stated desire to get backup quarterback Tyler Donovan on the field more this season, leading to speculation that early struggles from the returning starter could lead to a quick hook.

Alvarez, however is also quick to point out the positives in Stocco's game and the experience he gained last year.

"John doesn't have a bigger fan than me and I thought he improved through nine games," Alvarez said. "But starting 12 games, winning big games, being in front of large crowds in big venues has to help him. I think he has to go into this season with much more confidence."

A confidence that might have shattered after last season's three-game skid to end the year. But Stocco says he is taking it in stride, just like the criticism he endured all of last season.

"I'm far enough to understand what I did last season and take the good things with the bad, and improve on the bad things and just get better with the good," Stocco said.

His teammates' confidence in him does not appear to be shaken either as not one player asked about Stocco holding onto the starting job felt the job was not his.

"I feel he's more focused and confident, and he's ready to take the reins over as the starting quarterback," Williams said.

To be fair not all of Wisconsin's offensive woes last year could be blamed on its first-year quarterback. The Badgers suffered a glut of injuries at the tailback position, at one point turning to fullback Matt Bernstein to carry the rushing load.

"When [Anthony Davis] went down, everybody really felt like they needed to put it upon themselves to win more games and that's really not what you need to do. You need to stay in your game and just do what you have to do," Bernstein said. "I think he probably put a little bit too much on himself."

Not all was bad for Stocco last year either, as he ripped apart Minnesota for 297 passing yards in a 38-14 win and quite possibly won the Ohio State contest with his 15-of-24, 160-yard, two-touchdown performance.

"I think I was in just about every situation you can be in and I just think experience always helps," Stocco said.

Wisconsin's signal caller spent the summer working diligently with his receivers, including Jonathan Orr, Owen Daniels and Williams. The group spent numerous hours practicing in 1-on-1 drills, a change of pace from the usual 7-on-7 drills of summer, in an attempt to improve their timing, a vital component of new co-offensive coordinator Paul Chryst's passing attack.

"We all put in a lot of extra work, whether it be scheduled times we're going to come in and throw or just grabbing guys right after a workout, whatever it may be," Stocco said.

"In 7-on-7 you may run 20 routes and you only get five balls. But when we do 1-on-1 you run 15 routes, you get 15 balls. You're catching from the quarterback more and more and more and that timing helps a lot," Williams said.

More than anything else it's that work ethic, displayed all offseason, that has Stocco's teammates placing their trust in him.

"I think he's taken it upon himself to work harder, I think he was a little disappointed with last year," Bernstein said. "I think that's great because he wants to be better and he shows it everyday."

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