Lucas: Tolzien's star continues to rise

2010-07-21T07:00:00Z Lucas: Tolzien's star continues to riseMike Lucas | 608-252-6470 | mlucas@madison.com madison.com

MIKE LUCASOklahoma’s Sam Bradford, Florida’s Tim Tebow, Texas’ Colt McCoy, Notre Dame’s Jimmy Clausen and Boise State’s Kellen Moore were all on the 2009 Davey O’Brien quarterback award watch list.

Ohio State’s Terrelle Pryor, Penn State’s Daryll Clark, Illinois’ Juice Williams and Minnesota’s Adam Weber were also on the list.

University of Wisconsin quarterback Scott Tolzien didn’t make the list.

Fact is, Tolzien was on nobody’s radar at this time last summer. He wasn’t even on the first line of the Badger depth chart at quarterback. Dustin Sherer got top billing, followed by Curt Phillips and/or Tolzien.

Consider how far Tolzien has traveled since then: Last week, he was one of 30 quarterbacks named to the 2010 O’Brien watch list as selected by “player performance during the previous year and expectations heading” into a new season. (McCoy was the 2009 winner.)

Tolzien, one of 14 seniors on the watch list, is one of only three Big Ten quarterbacks represented. The others are Pryor and Iowa’s Ricky Stanzi.

Pryor is among the preseason favorites for the O’Brien, along with Moore, Houston’s Case Keenum, Washington’s Jake Locker, and Arkansas’ Ryan Mallett (the former Michigan quarterback).

In a curious omission, Pryor is not among the 33 players scheduled to attend the Aug. 3 Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon in Chicago. Instead, the Buckeyes will take guard Bryant Browning, defensive end Cameron Heyward and wideout Dane Sanzenbacher. All are seniors.

The quarterback pool, minus Pryor, will include Tolzien, Stanzi, Weber, Indiana’s Ben Chappell, Michigan State’s Kirk Cousins, Northwestern’s Dan Persa, and Purdue’s Robert Marve, who sat out last season after transferring from the University of Miami (Fla).

Tolzien, a native of Rolling Meadows, Ill., who prepped at Palatine Fremd High School, will be joined in Chicago by Badger teammates John Clay, a junior tailback, and Jay Valai, a senior defensive back.

Consider again how far Tolzien has traveled since last year at this time — especially since he had done little during the spring of 2009 to inspire anyone’s confidence in his ability to be UW’s starting quarterback.

“I hadn’t played up to my potential or anywhere near it,” Tolzien admitted. “So I really focused on making the most out of every day last summer and fall. I had a sense of urgency knowing that it was my best shot at becoming the starter here.

“Early on during my career there were doubts because I hadn’t played my best football, and my confidence was lacking a little bit. But over time you build a comfort zone with the offense and the guys around you, and then you string together a few good practices and the light bulb goes on: ‘Hey, you can do this.’ ”

That was the case throughout the 2009 season, during which Tolzien led the Big Ten in passing efficiency and helped lead the Badgers to 10 victories. His 2,705 passing yards were the second most in school history (behind John Stocco’s 2,920 in ’05).

“My strength as a quarterback is being a smart quarterback,” said Tolzien, whose completion percentage (.643) was 14th-best in the nation. “I’m not the strongest guy. I’m not the fastest guy. I’m not a flashy guy.

“That being said, I have to know when to throw the ball away and when to throw it under the chains.”

What Tolzien means by the latter is that sometimes a punt on fourth down is a higher percentage play than a risky pass on third down.

“I know sometimes that’s not what the fans want to see,” he said. “They want to see a bomb. They don’t want to see a nine-yard route when there are 10 yards to go. But there’s an old saying: Punting is sometimes the best play in football.”

When UW guard John Moffitt was asked whether he had any inkling that Tolzien could turn out to be this good, Moffitt shrugged and said, “No, because I know nothing about quarterbacks.”

Always the prankster, Moffitt quickly added, “Scotty has always had a great work ethic. He was an understudy for three years — really an understudy, because he studied the game and learned the playbook. That showed in his play.”

Commanding respect in the huddle was not an issue for Tolzien even though he was a first-year starter. “If the 10 other guys don’t believe in you, I don’t think you’ve got a chance,” Tolzien said. “I’ve been a quarterback since I was 10 years old. That’s a lot of snaps to learn game situations.”

And what it takes to be an offensive leader. “He doesn’t rattle under pressure,” Clay said of Tolzien. “He’s confident in what he can do, and he’s confident in us doing the right thing.”

The Badgers have never had a quarterback win the O’Brien Award; Stocco was a semifinalist in ’06. Just making the preliminary watch list is another big step for Tolzien, who has already covered a lot of ground in the past year, from understudy to interesting study.

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