No one is ready to refer to the quarterback situation for the University of Wisconsin football team as an abundance of talented players.
But the Badgers do have a glut of players to sort out at the position as spring practice opens today, which is going to put pressure on offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Andy Ludwig to make some quick decisions.
The Badgers go into spring practice with six quarterbacks: junior Joel Stave, sophomore Bart Houston, junior Tanner McEvoy, freshman D.J. Gillins (an early enrollee) and two walk-ons — redshirt freshman Connor Senger and sophomore Thad Armstrong.
Stave has started 19 games over the past two seasons, including all 13 last year. But he was knocked out of the Capital One Bowl with a shoulder injury that is expected to keep him out of the start of spring drills.
“Joel’s our starting quarterback,” UW coach Gary Andersen said. “He started all the games last year. It’s his spot to lose.”
In early February, Ludwig expressed no concerns about Stave being ready in the spring. But ESPN indicated last week via its ESPN_Big Ten Twitter account that Stave would be limited for the first part of spring, with Houston, McEvoy and Gillins all getting work with the first team.
The tweet also indicated Ludwig wants to reduce the quarterback pool to three. With Stave a lock to be part of that group when he returns, that means Houston, McEvoy, Gillins and possibly Senger could be battling for two spots.
“They all want to play,” Andersen said last month. “There’s a lot of quarterbacks, but there’s only so many reps to go around.”
Ludwig mentioned “production” and “potential” as factors when it comes to dividing the practice snaps.
“Who’s doing things right?” Ludwig said. “And then, the biggest thing is making sure, to evaluate guys, that they’re getting the same reps. They’re each throwing that corner route or that curl route in a team situation.
“In seven-on-seven, you’re just learning plays and you’re going as fast as you can. But in the team reps, trying to orchestrate it where they’re getting the same type of plays, so you get a good chance to evaluate them equally.”
Gillins, from Jacksonville, Fla., is the kind of dual-threat quarterback the Badgers have sought since the coaching staff arrived in December 2012. But he also has the furthest to go, missing almost his entire junior season of high school with a torn ACL.
“He needs to develop himself more as a dropback passer,” Ludwig said. “Obviously, on the film you can see him run and make plays, but he’s real raw in terms of his mechanics and throwing the football and his footwork in the dropback pass game. That’s something he started working on already. That’s where his upside is tremendous.”
Gillins, 6-foot-3, 185 pounds, was a four-year starter at quarterback in high school, operating in spread offenses. He spent three years at Eagle’s View Academy before transferring to Ribault as a senior. He threw for 7,271 yards and 76 touchdowns in high school while running for 775 yards and 13 TDs.
“They’d roll the ball out and (say), ‘D.J., make a play,’ ” Ludwig said. “There will be a little more structure here.”
Ludwig said Gillins’ high school coaches refer to him as a “gym rat,” which has also proved true in his brief time on campus.
“He knocks on my door every day,” Ludwig said. “That’s the kind of guy you want.”
Ludwig thinks he can have a big impact on Gillins’ mechanics, which is why getting him to enroll early was crucial.
“He hasn’t had a lot of quarterback coaching in his life,” Ludwig said. “He’s got all of the raw talent to do it. He can really spin it.”
Houston spent last season as the No. 3 quarterback and could be ready to make a big jump. He has a strong arm and can make all of the throws, with a quick release and loads of confidence. He’s not considered a strong runner, though he played in an option offense in high school at De La Salle in Concord, Calif.
McEvoy, 6-6, 223, opened eyes after moving to safety last season and playing well at the position in the second half of the season. He is determined to give quarterback another shot. That’s the position he was recruited to play last season as a junior-college transfer from Arizona Western.
He didn’t have time to get comfortable in the offense and the plan was to try him at receiver. That was foiled by a wrist injury that required surgery late in preseason camp. After that, he moved to free safety and flourished.
“He looked so much more comfortable (at quarterback) when he came to us in bowl prep,” Ludwig said. “He was a different guy. A big part of that is just being more settled in Wisconsin and knowing the program and how we operate.
“Ask him, he’d tell you he’s throwing it the best he’s ever thrown it right now, as the guys are working out on their own.”
McEvoy didn’t get a chance to show off his running skills at quarterback last season. Ludwig said that gets added later, usually after a starter is picked.
But McEvoy flashed his speed, athleticism and competitiveness at safety.
Ludwig was asked if there was anything he saw McEvoy do at safety that will translate to playing quarterback.
“Yeah, the way he went out and competed and the way he hit,” he said. “You just don’t know (about the hitting). He wasn’t doing that in my (quarterback) drills. He’s a competitive guy.”
Senger, 5-10, 175 pounds, is another dual threat who was named Offensive Scout Player of the Year last season. He’s a bit of a long shot, but the coaches love his leadership potential, athleticism and personality.
And don’t forget Stave, who put up decent numbers last season, throwing for 2,494 yards and 22 touchdowns while completing 61.9 percent of his throws. His problems were too many interceptions (13) and too many missed throws with open receivers.
“I saw improvement, but not enough,” Ludwig said. “We want more.
“If you look at it, we need two more completions a game out of Joel. If he does that, he’s throwing 68 percent completions on the year. That’s a whole ’nother level.”
Stave completed nine of 13 passes for 80 yards and two touchdowns before injuring his right shoulder late in the third quarter of the Capital One Bowl.
Until that point, Ludwig was encouraged by how Stave played in the game.
“We made some adjustments in the bowl prep with some of the things we were doing,” Ludwig said. “I think he took to it well.
“He’s working on his feet (last month); he’s not throwing just yet, but he’s continuing to work on some of those things. I anticipate, as does he, great improvement from a year ago.”