It hasn’t taken University of Wisconsin offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig long to understand the essence of quarterback Curt Phillips.
“He’s competitive,” said Ludwig, who coaches the quarterbacks. “He is a competitive, competitive player.”
Whether Phillips, a sixth-year senior, is playing ping-pong in the new players lounge or going through a spring practice, his competitive desire never wanes.
It’s a big reason he overcame three ACL surgeries to his right knee, starting the final five games last season after Joel Stave suffered a broken collarbone. It was the first extensive playing time in Phillips’ career.
It’s also a reason, as the Badgers conclude spring drills with their intrasquad game on Saturday, Phillips doggedly clings to the top spot on the depth chart.
The competition between Phillips and Stave, a sophomore, will continue into preseason camp, when they will be joined by junior college transfer Tanner McEvoy. But Phillips has been first in the rotation all spring.
Ludwig stopped short of saying Phillips has the best grasp of the new offense, but said his overall experiences are a strength.
“He’s been there and done that,” Ludwig said. “There’s a tremendous amount of respect for Curt in the meeting room and on the football team for what he’s been through and the leadership he provides for this football team. His voice carries a lot of weight. I appreciate it very much.”
As good as Phillips’ story was last season, it lacked a fairytale ending.
The Badgers had the ball with a little more than 2 minutes remaining in the 20-14 loss to Stanford in the Rose Bowl, driving past midfield for a potential winning touchdown. Phillips threw a pass for tight end Jacob Pedersen that was tipped at the line of scrimmage and intercepted. Fighting back tears in the post-game locker room while talking to reporters, Phillips looked devastated.
“It was tough, at the time, I didn’t know it was tipped,” Phillips said. “So, I think I felt a lot worse about it. I kind of got hit on the play, so I didn’t know what happened.”
While he may not be obsessed by the memory, the competitor in him desperately wants another chance to make it right.
“You move on, but at the same time, any loss sticks with you,” he said. “It’s definitely a motivating factor. As soon as you get a taste of it, especially being in a big game like that, you want more of it.”
It wasn’t just that missed opportunity that drives Phillips. He was 2-3 as a starter, with agonizing losses to Ohio State and Penn State.
Phillips tied both games with touchdown passes in the final seconds, only to lose in overtime.
“We were in a position to win the game three times when I was in there and we didn’t do it,” Phillips said. “It’s an advantage having been in those situations, so you’re more comfortable in them, but we’ve got to find a way to finish them.”
Phillips played the final quarter of the Rose Bowl with torn meniscus cartilage in his right knee, suffered on a run near the end of the third quarter. He threw for only 83 yards in the game, adding 64 rushing.
“With that much adrenaline, it wasn’t an issue,” he said of the injury. “To be honest, I don’t feel much in my right knee anyway. ”
Said Ludwig, “He’s a tough son of a gun now. Incredible physical toughness, mental toughness. I’ve got great respect for that.”
Another year removed from his knee problems, Phillips expects to throw the ball better this season. He threw for less than 100 yards in three of his starts and finished with 540 passing yards, completing 46 of 81 passes with five touchdowns and two interceptions.
He is starting to get some zip back on his passes, which he said also has to do with the increased work he gets in practice.
“A lot of that has to do with confidence, just cutting it loose, when you’re not second-guessing things,” he said. “Also, having the knee (injuries), it definitely changed my throwing motion. I was having to throw without really planting off my back foot.
“I think having a chance to work on that (over the summer), along with the confidence, it’ll be completely different (in the fall).”
Phillips knows he may not be a popular choice among fans to win the starting job. Stave is a more polished passer with a stronger arm, and some fans would be happy to go with McEvoy, sight unseen.
“I like it when they (doubt me),” Phillips said. “I think every now and then you do kind of need something to (tick) you off and give you a little bit of a spark. I welcome that.”
With the Rose Bowl memories still fresh, Phillips has plenty to spark him. The NCAA granted him a sixth year due to missing two full seasons with knee injuries.
“I’m just trying to make the most of it and not have any regrets with it,” Phillips said of his final year. “I couldn’t be more excited to have it. I will continue to push myself toward being healthy and being the player I was before I was hurt.”