University of Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst had a snappy comeback whenever he was asked in the offseason about the luxury of having a returning starter at quarterback in senior Scott Tolzien.
“Yeah, as long as he wins the job,” Chryst would say.
The coaches don’t want any of their starters getting too comfortable and that includes the quarterback who exceeded almost every expectation last season.
Tolzien started all 13 games, leading the Badgers to 10 victories and topping the Big Ten Conference in pass efficiency rating at 143.
He had a reputation as a “game manager,” but he was more than that, throwing for 2,705 yards, the second-most in school history. His completion percentage of 64.3 was third-best all time.
Still, going into the first spring practice Saturday, the coaches were talking about providing competition for Tolzien.
“Scotty’s not safe now,” Chryst said recently. “We’re going to heat him up.”
Nobody truly believes the quarterback job is up for grabs, as it has been the last three springs.
Even so, there’s not a hint of complacency when it comes to Tolzien.
“I still take the approach, it’s open competition,” Tolzien said. “Every day it means something. You’ve got to come out every day and you can’t get lackadaisical or complacent.
“We’ve got some great young talent at the quarterback position and at a lot of other positions as well. I don’t think there’s any spot that’s really sealed for the season.”
Tolzien’s humble background helps keep him grounded. He didn’t get a scholarship offer from UW until the weekend before signing day and was buried on the depth his first three years. He was still No. 3 going into 2009 fall camp.
If that’s not enough, he’s also smart enough to know there are two talented young quarterbacks behind him.
Sophomore Curt Phillips played in four games last season, completing seven of 12 passes for 65 yards and rushing 14 times for 143 yards. He is starting to become a more refined quarterback, to go with his athleticism.
“Curt, I think, is the most athletic (quarterback) I’ve been around and have recruited,” Chryst said.
Redshirt freshman Jon Budmayr showed his arm is completely healthy after suffering a partially torn muscle in his right (throwing) forearm in camp last year. One of the highlights of the first practice was a perfectly thrown deep ball from Budmayr to wide receiver Jared Abbrederis.
“Jon can throw the deep ball, there’s no doubt about that,” UW coach Bret Bielema said.
The benefit of having experienced quarterbacks was evident in a fairly crisp first practice. That was despite several key players being out on offense, including four starters: left tackle Gabe Carimi (knee), center-guard John Moffitt (hernia), center Peter Konz (blood clots) and tailback John Clay (ankle).
The hope is that the experience at quarterback will help smooth out some rough edges on offense while dealing with some of the injuries, as well as having to find replacements for departed tight ends Garrett Graham and Mickey Turner.
“Now, you don’t really have to limit the install,” Bielema said of having veteran quarterbacks. “You can kind of grow and say, ‘He couldn’t see this read a year ago, but he can see it now.’ ”
Tolzien could see for himself, over winter workouts, how far the quarterbacks behind him have come.
“Those guys have worked really, really hard this winter,” he said. “I think everyone knows, they are tremendously talented and hard workers. They’ve got great attitudes. You combine all those things and I think they’re going to make some noise in the spring.”
Competition at a position is always a good thing, although Tolzien doesn’t need much to stay motivated.
“Scott doesn’t need competition behind him,” Bielema said. “His competition comes from within.”
Chryst saw plenty of evidence since last season ended that Tolzien hasn’t lost his edge. Tozlien was almost a daily visitor to the football offices to watch film.
“It’s neat to see what playing does (for somebody),” Chryst said. “We ran close to a thousand plays (last season). If he was in 900 of them, there’s 900 snaps ... to study, go over it again.”
That’s what Tolzien did all winter. Prior to last season, his only playing time was mop-up duty at the end of three games in 2008.
“One thing I can honestly say, it’s a lot more enjoyable watching film when it’s you on film,” Tolzien said. “There’s so much more you can look for, it’s not just looking at reads, but your own footwork, recalling what you saw pre-snap on a play.”
Even with his success, Tolzien saw plenty of areas that need polishing, things like footwork, making better reads and correcting any pre-snap alignment problems.
Tolzien also struggled in losses to Ohio State, Iowa and Northwestern, throwing six of his 11 interceptions in those games.
“There were so many missed opportunities,” he said. “It’s easy when people are telling you, ‘You had a great year,’ and everything like that.
“All you’ve got to do is flip that film on, especially in those three games, and it’s really humbling and really motivational.”