With a proven transfer and a highly touted freshman coming in and as many as four others coming back, the quarterback meeting room at the University of Wisconsin will have a different look during the football season.
“It’s going to be a lot more full, I can tell you that,” sophomore-to-be Joe Brennan said Thursday.
But will it be competitive?
When UW coach Bret Bielema landed good-to-go transfer Danny O’Brien, a two-year starter at Maryland, two weeks ago, it was natural to wonder how the news would be received by the quarterbacks already in the program.
Senior-to-be Curt Phillips and junior-to-be Jon Budmayr face uncertain futures after their promising careers were derailed by injuries and, though they can’t be counted out, they can’t be counted on, either. That has left Brennan and redshirt freshman-to-be Joel Stave to battle during spring practice and try to make an impression before O’Brien and true freshman Bart Houston arrive in the summer.
First-year offensive coordinator Matt Canada said Brennan and Stave are even at this point and, more important, insisted there will be a “legitimate competition” for the starting job even after the arrival of O’Brien, who has 17 college starts. Of course, the coaches said the same thing about North Carolina State transfer Russell Wilson last year and we all know what happened then.
So how did Brennan and Stave react when UW recruited over the top of them by importing an experienced quarterback with two years of eligibility remaining? Did they feel slighted? Were they angry? Discouraged?
“My first thoughts are that I’m a competitor,” Brennan said. “Just being in college football, as you get older you learn just to focus on things you can control. Him coming here, it is what it is. ... It’s nothing I can control. It’s not going to change my daily preparation. It’s not going to change my goal, and that’s just to get better each day and just to be the best football player I can be.”
And how did Stave feel about the O’Brien news?
“You can see the need for it because, as of now, we have two healthy guys taking snaps,” he said. “You don’t want to go into a season with two healthy quarterbacks. You want to have more. But my mindset hasn’t changed at all. I’m, of course, going to compete, hopefully just get better every day and whatever happens, happens. Nothing has really changed for me. I was told I’m going to be able to compete for the spot and I’m going to continue to do that.”
Another good answer.
So even though their road to the starting job just got a lot tougher, both young quarterbacks responded the way you want players to respond. And it’s not just talk, either, because they’re getting better. In the two spring practices open to the media so far, it is clear that both have made significant strides since last fall and certainly last spring.
Canada, who took over for the departed Paul Chryst as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, talked to both of his young hopefuls immediately after O’Brien came on board because “I wanted them understand it was strictly based upon our numbers situation.”
The fact that UW could get a proven starter for a team poised to make a run at its third consecutive Big Ten Conference title might have been a factor as well, but Canada appreciates the business-like approach both quarterbacks have taken during spring ball.
“I think they’ve handled it great,” he said. “We’ve got really smart players at Wisconsin. I think that’s the great thing we have. We’ve got very good players, but they’re very smart. We only have two quarterbacks who can play right now. We’re playing big-boy football and things happen, so we have to have depth at that position. They understand that, and they’re competitors. Nobody’s going to turn it down.”
Neither quarterback has shown the consistency to go out and start a Big Ten game at this point, but both have good size and decent arms. However, making the proper decisions and throws play after play has been, and still is, an issue.
“All of us, we can make throws,” Stave said. “But it’s a matter of doing it every time. It’s a matter of not making the mental mistakes.”
That hasn’t been easy, especially while learning the new offense installed by Canada. But both young quarterbacks are embracing the challenge the way the coaches hoped they would.
“I feel you can never be complacent about your spot,” said Brennan, the backup to Wilson last year. “You always have to be competing. You can never be satisfied. I don’t think you can ever feel like, ‘Hey man, I’ve arrived.’ With me, that’s a virtue that my mom instilled in me, just to get better each day and no one’s going to give you anything. You’ve got to go out and you’ve got to earn it each day.”
Contact Tom Oates at firstname.lastname@example.org or 608-252-6172.