University of Wisconsin junior quarterback Tanner McEvoy laughed in the spring while describing his football career as “a bit of a ride.”
He didn’t play quarterback until his senior year of high school before signing with South Carolina. He was buried on the depth chart, so he went to a junior college in Arizona and then signed with UW.
McEvoy struggled to pick up the offense in preseason camp last year but wound up making a strong impression after moving to safety after the season started.
“Now I’m back at quarterback,” McEvoy said, and regardless of how many times he gets asked, that’s where he plans on staying.
“(Playing safety) is behind me,” he said. “I know the offense a lot better now. I hope it’s showing. Coaches seem to like it.”
Junior Joel Stave started every game last season and is 13-6 overall as a starter. But an injury to his throwing shoulder in the Capital One Bowl last season — when he didn’t slide on a scramble — limited him in the spring and opened up the competition between him and McEvoy.
Freshman D.J. Gillins was an early enrollee and is a dual threat, like McEvoy. The coaching staff has expressed a preference for mobile quarterbacks and also is trying to stockpile wide receivers for a move toward more spread formations at some point.
But that’s the future, and UW coach Gary Andersen first must concern himself with finding the right quarterback to beat LSU in the opener on Aug. 30 in Houston.
McEvoy looked comfortable enough in the offense in the spring game to push Stave for the starting job.
“He carries himself like a quarterback,” Andersen said of the difference in McEvoy this year. “I think when he walked in here before, he carried himself like a quarterback that was absorbing a very difficult offense and new terminology. …
“You can always have the athleticism (and) ability to throw the football, but you’ve got to fit within the system. What I’m most proud (of) about Tanner is he has fit himself in the system. He’s getting the run checks down, he’s understanding the play-action throws. He’s definitely improved in that area.
“(When) he walks up to the huddle, he looks more comfortable and I think the football team is more comfortable around him, similar to how they were with Joel, walking in and saying, ‘Hey, this guy can get it done for us.’ ”
McEvoy did more with his feet than his arm in the spring game, though he did have a 27-yard touchdown pass to Kenzel Doe in the first half, when scoring was not kept.
In addition, McEvoy carried the ball three times for 50 yards, including a 35-yard scramble and a 7-yard “touchdown.”
During the second half, when tackling was allowed, the offense sputtered, managing just two field goals. McEvoy was 4-for-10 passing for 55 yards.
That was enough to satisfy Andersen, since the offense again declined to show much.
“There was a lot of the offense that you have with an athletic quarterback ... that did not show itself,” Andersen said. “That’s by design. And there’s a lot of things that you can do to open it up if that’s the direction (we want to go).
“But I’m proud of both quarterbacks. … Joel fought like crazy. He’s got an injury and it’s hard to deal with, and we expect him to be better. He’s got a great attitude, so does Tanner, and it will be a fight.”
Andersen also made it clear Gillins is No. 3. That leaves sophomore Bart Houston, who is a dropback passer like Stave, at No. 4.
“Everyone wants to be No. 1,” Houston said. “I want to be No. 1, but coming out, it looks like Tanner is No. 1, from what the reps they are giving (him). … My big goal was just to get better, day by day. I had a little slump right in the middle of spring but got better from there, worked through it.”
Houston said his issue had nothing to do with grasp of the offense.
“It was trying to do more than I can do ... trying to force a ball here and there,” he said. “I’ve got the arm to do it, but if a guy’s not open, a guy’s not open. I’ve just got to be a little smarter.”
While it appears Houston will have a tough fight to get back in the race, he insisted he is capable of mounting a challenge in the fall. “When fall camp rolls around, I’ll be a different quarterback,” he said.
While the quarterback position should have more depth than a year ago, the problems haven’t changed. Stave is the most experienced, but he doesn’t run the kind of offense the coaches prefer.
McEvoy runs well but hasn’t shown yet he can throw consistently enough.
Gillis looked promising in the spring but likely won’t challenge as a potential starter for at least another year.
And as highly recruited as Houston was, he has yet to show he can challenge for a starting job.
So, unless there is a drastic change, it’ll come down to Stave’s arm against McEvoy’s legs.
“I think I’m a lot more comfortable,” McEvoy said. “I think it shows. Hopefully, I’m playing like it as well.”