Spring Football: Two Times the Loss

The day is quickly arriving when new leaders will be needed for the Badgers football team. When Joe Thomas and John Stocco left they took more than their skills, but also created the need for new leaders. This problem will probably be addressed in the next few weeks of spring practice.

MADISON – New leaders on the Badgers will have to rise up and unite next year's team, most notably at quarterback and left tackle. In the NFL these are the two highest paid positions because they are the most difficult to replace. Currently last year's senior leaders John Stocco and Joe Thomas are trying to get drafted into the NFL, leaving a massive chasm in Wisconsin's leadership.

The football team is set to find their replacements with the start of their spring practices last Tuesday at the McClain Center.

In 2005, the Badgers scored more points, gained more yards and completed a better third down conversion percentage than they did in 2006. If that offense was less efficient than the previous year, next year's offense needs to make giant improvement. That will be difficult because the two most important offensive leaders will never wear the cardinal and white again.

At the most important position in all sports, Stocco came to work everyday with the same consistent attitude and production. The reserved quarterback never did anything that amazed fans of great passing attacks. His quiet and stoic demeanor made him a reliable player in Brett Bielema's offensive system. He led with actions and not words. But when did speak players listened because he rarely asked anything of them, making his seldom statements that much more important.

His success at Wisconsin was unprecedented statistically. He set single season records in 2005 for passing yards, TD passes and pass completions. He ranks second in those categories for his career at Wisconsin. Under center he won 80 percent of his games and had a streak of 35 consecutive starts.

Delivering in the clutch became one of Stocco's greatest attributes, something that all leaders must do. His heroic TD scramble to win the game against Michigan in 2005 defined that regime of players as winners. He has played well in both Capitol One Bowl games; he threw for over 330 yards and two TDs in 2005 and the next year he played well after returning from a devastating shoulder injury.

Fortunately for the Badgers, their future quarterback shouldn't be that hard to find. Returning senior Tyler Donovan has all the tools and accomplishments necessary to be a winner. It's his job to lose at this point. As Stocco's backup last year, Donovan has proven himself capable of being a worthy successor.

An argument could almost be made that Donovan played better than Stocco last year. Evidence comes from his higher quarterback last year. While playing in five games, including the last two starts of the regular season, Donovan completed 37 of 58 passes for a 63 completion percentage. More impressive than that were his four touchdowns and just two interceptions.

Yet those pleas never came for Donovan to play instead of Stocco in the Capitol One Bowl game. That's because even with his dynamic rushing ability, Donovan hasn't been asked to lead the team.

If Donovan continues to showcase his athleticism while growing as a passer, the Badgers will be more than adequate at quarterback. In his start at Iowa, Donovan ran thirteen times for 61 yards with a long of 18 yards. For his four year career, Stocco has totaled a negative 144 yards rushing and his longest run was just 20 yards.

It was only a few years ago when the run heavy Badgers had scrambling quarterback Brooks Bollinger compile a 30-12 record.

The question Bielema needs to decide on quarterback is how often does he loosen his chains on the offense now. If he opens up the playbook and lets Donovan become more of a gunslinger, which might not play into Donovan's strengths, it might hinder the Badger's greatest strength. With their great tailbacks and power football Wisconsin can usually produce on the ground. But, if Bielema holds a tight leash on his quarterback the team's aerial attack could suffer along with the confidence in their quarterback.

Teammates call Donovan "Mr. GQ" because of his handsome looks and cocky personality. That confidence bodes will for the Badgers because they need a leader at the quarterback position. Donovan becomes one of next year's leaders by playing well in games that matter. More than anything he needs to win the games that Stocco would have won.

The quarterback plays the most important position, but Joe Thomas was Wisconsin's most important leader.

Thomas needs to be replaced at left tackle because he meant everything to the team. His resume includes Co-Team MVP, Team Captain, All-American, Outland Trophy Winner of nation's best lineman, and consensus top three pick for the NFL draft.

That was just the beginning for Joe-T. When asking players who do they look to for leadership, every Badger without question would point to one man.

At 6-foot-6 and 311 pounds Thomas was the best, and largest, leader because he said the right things and produced. His leadership came in many forms. He was serious but quick to laugh, strong-willed but humble, disciplined with underclassmen but was open to any request they had, and most importantly he commanded respect but gave it too. He was everything for this team. His massive place on the offensive line will difficult to replace, but his leadership might be missed more.

Incoming prospect Josh Oglesby could be a possible replacement. He is the top ranked offensive lineman by Scout.com, and has received high praise from everyone in Badger camp. But asking a true freshman to replace an All-American will be more than difficult, if not impossible.

So Wisconsin needs to look at returning players, such as Mike Someren or Danny Kaye. In any case, it will be someone who hasn't started at left tackle for the Badgers.

That's why the left tackle and quarterback positions are linked together so heavily, because if one plays poorly the other has no chance to be successful.

Victories came often during the time Stocco and Thomas played at Wisconsin. Winning consecutive Capitol One Bowl games has raised expectations for 2007. The team can only go as far as next year's leaders will take them. As of right now, there's uncertainty surrounding the play of next year's quarterback along with who will protect his blindside. Practices have already started so Badger fans should have an idea very soon.

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