When junior college transfer Tanner McEvoy showed up for football practice at the University of Wisconsin last fall, he wasn’t ready to compete for the starting quarterback job.
That is no longer the case.
You probably missed it — and with only 8,204 fans at Camp Randall Stadium, most did — but McEvoy showed in UW’s spring game Saturday he’s now comfortable with the offense and ready to challenge incumbent Joel Stave for the starting job.
Although McEvoy did more with his feet than his arm, he stamped himself as a viable option should the shoulder injury that caused coach Gary Andersen to shut down Stave last week continue to be a problem or should the coaches decide to go with a dual-threat quarterback over a dropback passer — something they’ve talked about in the past.
“I think he’s proven through spring that he’s continually gotten better,” Andersen said of McEvoy. “He had a nice day today. He threw the ball well. He showed you what he can do with his feet. There’s a lot of the offense that you have with an athletic quarterback, that we’ll have with an athletic quarterback, that did not show itself today. That’s by design.”
In addition to seeing that McEvoy might live up to the hype that accompanied his arrival, UW fans got some clarity at the position Saturday. Andersen said Stave and McEvoy will get most of the practice reps in the fall and that sophomore-to-be Bart Houston and freshman D.J. Gillins, who graduated from high school in December, aren’t expected to be in the mix for the starting job.
“Joel fought like crazy,” Andersen said. “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.”
Unlike last fall, McEvoy looks like he’s up for the fight. During the first half, in which hitting was allowed but no tackling, he mostly used his feet to help the offense put up 17 points on his three possessions. He only completed one pass, but it was a beauty — a perfectly thrown 27-yard touchdown pass to Kenzel Doe.
Tackling was allowed in the second half and the offense sputtered, scoring only two field goals. McEvoy moved the team, though, and was 4-for-10 passing for 55 yards.
“I ran the ball a little more than I wanted to,” he said. “I could have stepped up and thrown the ball a couple of times. But other than that, I think the offense had a pretty well-rounded day and I think I played all right.”
McEvoy is so athletic he played safety after failing to mount a challenge for the quarterback job last fall. Given Stave’s history of shoulder problems and the staff’s preference for a quarterback who can make plays with his feet, McEvoy’s days on defense are over. The comfort level he displayed Saturday should be the clincher.
“The demeanor he carried himself with last August and what he carries himself with today is really completely different,” Andersen said. “You can always have the athleticism, you can have the ability to throw the football, but you’ve got to fit within the system. What I’m most proud about (with) Tanner is he has fit himself into the system.”
Andersen said he expects Stave, who was shut down due to soreness in the shoulder he hurt in the bowl game, to return for summer workouts in June and “tell me his shoulder feels very good.” That’s when the battle for the starting job should begin.
But if there is separation by the top two quarterbacks, everything after that is a mystery. Gillins showed Saturday he has all the tools but needs to refine them. The most curious development is that Houston, a pro-style quarterback who was highly touted coming out of high school, failed to mount a challenge this spring.
It’s not entirely clear whether that’s due to his decision-making or because he’s not Andersen’s ideal quarterback type, but Houston has fallen behind Stave and McEvoy. He said he hit a rough patch midway through the spring where he was trying to do too much, then came on strong after that.
Unlike McEvoy, who faced the second-team defense, the strong-armed Houston worked against UW’s starters and still was 3-for-4 for 19 yards in the second half. He vowed to return a better quarterback in the fall.
“Everyone wants to be No. 1 and I want to be No. 1,” he said. “But it looks like Tanner is No. 1 from the reps they’re giving him. Joel is hurt and he’ll get his shot in fall camp. But my big goal was to just get better day by day. I had a little slump right in the middle of spring but I got better from there. I worked through it.”
Neither Houston nor Gillins reacted well to the pass rush Saturday. Afterward, Andersen stressed that quarterback evaluations are based on throws in all types of drills and the ability to run the offense.
“It’s the way it went,” Andersen said. “Bart’s a tremendous young man ... but he’s not in the fight right now for the starting quarterback position. We’ll see what that brings for the future, but he’s a vital part to this program and will continue to be.”
After Saturday, so is McEvoy.