Now you see it, now you don’t.
One of the underappreciated aspects so far of University of Wisconsin senior quarterback Russell Wilson has been his work with ball fakes.
The way Wilson approaches that part of his job is the same way he approaches everything else.
“He’s an extremist,” UW coach Bret Bielema said. “He takes a lot of pride in it. I’ve never really heard a quarterback critique running backs in carrying out ball fakes better.”
Handling the football is a big part of a quarterback’s job and Wilson treats it that way. He is adept at all facets, whether it’s bending over to hide the ball on a fake, concealing it on his hip or finishing fakes by running at full speed.
“I think it’s definitely important to have good ballhandling as a quarterback,” Wilson said. “You’ve really got to be able to facilitate the ball, but you also have to understand what you’re trying to do, whether you’re handing the ball off, or trying to set something up for later.
“If you’re running the ball, you have to make sure you don’t fumble, high and tight. It’s just good, solid football and that’s what I want to be a part of.”
Wilson’s ballhandling is so fundamentally strong, it serves as an example for the younger quarterbacks.
“Russell takes pride in every little aspect of his game,” offensive coordinator Paul Chryst said. “If this is what the quarterback is doing, then why not make it great? ‘Are my runs looking like the play actions? Are my play actions looking like the runs? Am I carrying out the fake?’
“He doesn’t allow himself to cut corners. Obviously, it’s a great example for all the guys. When your better players are your better workers, that’s a good environment.”
Play-action passing is an integral part of UW’s offense, thanks to its strong running game. It also was a big part of Wilson’s success at North Carolina State, where he played before transferring.
According to statistics compiled by ESPN.com, Wilson had a passer efficiency rating in conference games last season of 158.7 after play action, compared to 114.1 with no play action.
Wilson’s completion percentage of 64 percent (48 of 75) on play action also was significantly better than his 57.2 percent (175 of 306) with no play action.
“What makes play action the best is being able to run the football and, obviously, taking advantage of some overplay,” tight ends coach Joe Rudolph said. “Russell helps you a ton in that regard, because he can beat you with his feet (running) as well.
“That should be a big component to what we do.”
The keys to selling play action rest mostly with the offensive line and the quarterback.
Bielema used to teach his linebackers, when he coached that position, to listen, since running plays make a distinctive sound.
“(With) runs, you’ve got pads (going) downhill and you hear the click and the clack of (linemen) coming off the ball,” Bielema said. “With play action, it may be the same type of look but there’s no sound, because everybody is putting their pads back.”
That’s why Chryst instructs his players, “Make it sound like the play, don’t make it look like the play.”
“You’ve got to come off (the ball) and you’ve got to sell it,” Rudolph said. “It’s got to feel like (a run) to that defense.”
Then it’s up to the quarterback to sell the rest with the fake handoff to the running back.
“I think the main thing is the offensive line,” Wilson said. “They’re doing a great job flying off the ball. It has to be a great fake. All 11 guys on the football field have to be on point, understanding what they have to do and what the purpose of the play is.”
When Wilson hands the ball off on running plays, he finishes the play by running hard — like it’s a bootleg. It’s a simple thing that could help freeze a defensive end, who might be unsure who has the ball.
“I think you can slide and get away with it,” Chryst said of not carrying out fakes. “You’re cutting corners. Why are you (as a quarterback) any different?
“In this offense, we don’t ask our quarterback to block anyone, but if you can do a good job of carrying out a fake, maybe you cause some hesitation. We have to be a part of every play as a quarterback.”