Just the other day, University of Wisconsin football coach Bret Bielema was justifying to reporters why he only recruits one high school quarterback per year.
The media query was pertinent because the Badgers' quarterback reserves had fallen to dangerously low levels when spring practice opened last week, with only redshirt sophomore-to-be Joe Brennan and redshirt freshman walk-on Joel Stave healthy enough to participate in all drills.
At the time, Bielema didn't seem overly worried about his depleted quarterback situation, and for good reason. Who needs to recruit high school quarterbacks when you have a farm system like the Atlantic Coast Conference?
Russell Wilson, a one-and-done transfer from North Carolina State, bailed out Bielema big-time by emigrating from an ACC school last year and Maryland's Danny O'Brien has a chance to do the same thing for the Badgers this year.
O'Brien said Wednesday he turned down Penn State to follow in Wilson's rather large footsteps at UW. O'Brien isn't as decorated as Wilson was, but he has two years of eligibility remaining and, like Wilson, is available to play immediately because he will graduate from Maryland this spring.
Injuries and dropouts created a quarterback shortage at UW and, for whatever reason, the ACC keeps training some pretty good ones and then running them off. That has played into Bielema's willing hands because the Badgers, the two-time defending Big Ten Conference champions, are built to win right now at every position except one: quarterback.
"The thing that gets exciting for me is not only does next year look promising, but the year after that," Bielema said Monday. "Our two-year forecast is pretty exceptional."
It improved significantly with the addition of O'Brien, who was the 2010 ACC freshman of the year while playing in coach Ralph Friedgen's pro-style offense but lost his starting job late last season after he struggled in the spread used by first-year coach Randy Edsall. UW and Ohio State would have been the prohibitive favorites in the Big Ten's Leaders Division heading into next season, but the Badgers might have inched ahead now that the quarterback position isn't threatening to take down the entire team.
You knew how badly UW needed O'Brien earlier in the offseason when Bielema pursued Notre Dame's Dayne Crist, who was looking to transfer under the same NCAA rule that allowed Wilson and O'Brien to play right away at UW. Crist eventually went to Kansas to play for Charlie Weis, his former coach with the Irish. Bielema's need for a quarterback showed further when he and his staff put a full-court press on O'Brien for well over a month.
Last year's 11-3 record and Rose Bowl repeat wouldn't have been possible without Wilson, who finished among the top 10 in the Heisman Trophy voting. Although the Badgers were solid in most areas going into the spring, a Big Ten three-peat would have been out of the question had they not found quarterback help somewhere.
The reason UW had potentially debilitating issues at quarterback last year and this year was because three consecutive quarterback recruits failed to fulfill their promise. James Stallons, the 2007 recruit who reminded some of Jim Sorgi, flunked out. The next two — Curt Phillips in 2008 and Jon Budmayr in 2009 — had their careers derailed by injuries. Phillips (three surgeries on the same knee) and Budmayr (persistent nerve problems in his throwing arm) hope to return, but Bielema would be foolish to count on that.
Brennan and Stave were on campus last fall but neither has shown they have what it takes to win in the Big Ten. Freshman-to-be Bart Houston might be UW's most highly rated quarterback recruit ever but any chance he had to compete for the job this fall probably ended with his recent shoulder surgery.
Some look at Bielema's second consecutive foray into college football's equivalent of free agency as a sign of weakness. Some think it will hurt recruiting by discouraging top prep quarterbacks to come to UW. I say the opposite is true.
First of all, Bielema's barren quarterback cupboard all but forced him to seek immediate help. Second, UW has a growing reputation as a program that prepares quarterbacks for NFL and the interest shown by Wilson, Houston and now O'Brien proves it.
O'Brien's two-year window coincides nicely with Bielema's and he could serve as a bridge to Houston. Reports indicate O'Brien is conscientious, intelligent and experienced, not unlike Wilson.
But can he pick up the scheme as quickly as Wilson did? Can he fit in as seamlessly as Wilson did? Can he perform on the field like Wilson did?
Those questions won't be answered until this fall. Until then, it's safe to say O'Brien, like Wilson, has covered Bielema's behind in a big way.
Contact Tom Oates at firstname.lastname@example.org or 608-252-6172.