University of Wisconsin football coach Bret Bielema was so pleased with how his offense handled the three-player quarterback battle during the first two weeks of preseason camp, he stepped into each of the position meetings on Sunday.
That’s not something Bielema normally likes to do, preferring to leave that time for position coaches.
But Bielema wanted to express his gratitude for the straightforward way in which the players approached what could have been a divisive competition.
“It would have been easy, maybe, for guys to take a side ... and have a favorite,” Bielema said on Monday. “I think everybody just wanted to get better, wanted to see who could help us win football games.”
The choice to be the starter, which Bielema announced on Sunday via Twitter, is junior Danny O’Brien, the transfer from Maryland. He beat out fifth-year senior Curt Phillips and redshirt freshman Joel Stave.
Bielema insisted the choice of O’Brien, the heavy favorite going into camp, was anything but a foregone conclusion.
“I think we came in, not only me as a head coach, (the) quarterback coach, players, there wasn’t any doubt it was an open race for all three people,” Bielema said. “I think it might have swayed back and forth between the three of them, for me as many as four or five times before the actual (decision).”
In the end, the thing that pushed O’Brien above the other two was his ability to protect the football. O’Brien threw his first interception of camp on Friday in a 7-on-7 drill. He had his second one on Monday, in the same drill, when his receiver fell down.
“I think his ability to take care of the football,” offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Matt Canada said of what the decision came down to. “He didn’t throw interceptions and that was probably the deciding factor for me.”
The lack of interceptions proved O’Brien was able to grasp the offense quickly after arriving here in June.
“I think he’s got a real good grasp of our offense and our system,” Canada said. “He puts the ball where it needs to be for the most part. ... There’s good and bad in a day. You just have to be smart with those things.”
Beyond his comfort level in the offense, O’Brien has a shown a willingness to take what the defense gives him and not take unnecessary risks.
“In this type of offense, I’ve kind of prided myself on taking care of the ball,” he said. “Not necessarily not taking risks, but taking them when they’re there and when they’re calculated and safe. Just getting the ball on time to the right people. If you just go through your reads, that kind of stuff takes care of itself.”
Much has been made of O’Brien’s 17 starts at Maryland — compared with none for Stave and Phillips. Yet Bielema said O’Brien won the job solely on his performance since camp started.
But it’s impossible to separate the quarterback O’Brien has become and the experiences that shaped him.
“I think playing a lot of football gears you into how you’re supposed to go into things,” he said. “How you handle scrimmage situations. moving the chains, kind of knowing situational deals that get away from the playbook. I think it helped, for sure.”
So, what kind of quarterback can fans expect to see in O’Brien? In addition to limiting turnovers, he has gotten rid of the ball quickly, which Canada has emphasized.
“A lot of it is pre-snap reads, knowing where you’re going to go, or having an idea,” O’Brien said.
He has also shown more mobility than some people expected.
“The thing that’s kind of intrigued me ... is his ability to make something happen when there’s nothing there,” Bielema said. “He has the ability to do some things with his feet, which I really didn’t know coming into this, that he was as good as he is.”
O’Brien said Phillips and Stave were disappointed but quickly put it behind them.
“We all came out (Monday) and worked really hard,” O’Brien said. “You still want to push each other. It’s not necessarily over; we’re still working really hard and trying to get this team ready to go.”
Bielema did not name a backup and said Phillips and Stave will continue competing for the spot.
Now that O’Brien has won the job, he can start to become more of a leader.
“It’s something I’ve talked to him about,” Canada said. “Now, it’s time to be him, whatever that is. (It) doesn’t mean you have to be a vocal guy, it just means you have to be who you are and lead us in a way you see fit.”