The Wisconsin Badgers’ football team had a rough go last season. The team finished the year at 7-6, capped off by the Florida State dissection of the Cardinal in the Champs Sports Bowl.
The defense, a unit that had three front-seven players go in the third round of the 2009 NFL draft, greatly under-achieved. They produced mediocre statistics after an abundance of preseason praise and high expectations.
Injuries knocked Wisconsin’s premier playmaker Travis Beckum out for most of the season. Top performers P.J. Hill and Garrett Graham were also forced to sit out a few games with injuries. But the real reason for the Badgers’ dismal season was the poor play from the quarterback position.
Allan Everidge and Dustin Sherer didn’t come close to the effectiveness of 2007’s starter Tyler Donavan. Both 2008 quarterbacks were indecisive, inaccurate, and at times, too conservative with their throws, and both put the ball on the ground way too often.
Although the run game produced outstanding numbers as it does every year for Wisconsin, with the passing game lacking Badger running backs were constantly facing eight defenders in the box.
For the upcoming season, there will be a full-out quarterback competition between senior Sherer, redshirt freshman Curt Phillips, sophomore Scott Tolzien, and true freshman Jon Budmayr.
Though Budmayr has piqued some of the coaches’ interest, the competition will come down to Sherer, the starter through the second half of last season, and Phillips, the MVP of the scout team in 2008 who has the potential to grow into a similar mold as Texas quarterback Colt McCoy.
Phillips came to Wisconsin last year labeled as a duel-threat quarterback. Much like Donavan, he has the ability to tuck and run if he gets pressured in the pocket or if no one is open downfield.
Sherer moves a few steps slower, which is why he didn’t scramble much last year. Instead, he was throwing the ball away out of bounds or forcing a pass into coverage and creating turnovers.
For a college quarterback, the ability to run with the ball is a necessity. There is so much transition and turnover amongst the starting units due to graduation, early-entry into the draft, or simply one player out-competing another for a starting spot.
Miscommunications will happen with the lack of continuity among the starters and plays will break down.
A quarterback has to be able to run the ball when this happens and salvage downs by picking up what yardage he can. Taking a sack will kill a drive and throwing the ball away is essentially giving up a down.
In the spring intra-squad scrimmage, both Sherer and Phillips took an equal share of reps at quarterback and their passer ratings couldn’t have been farther apart. Phillips rushed for a score and threw for two more while helping the offense to four total scores.
Sherer, on the other hand, threw one touchdown and one pick-six. Given their respective performances, coupled with the superior skill set that Phillips has over Sherer, the redshirt freshman should be the starter for the 2009 season.
In addition, Sherer is graduating after this season. Phillips will have three more years of eligibility remaining.
As for the rest of the team, the Badgers will be returning studs like John Clay, Graham, Jay Valai, and David Gilreath. At 6'2", 237 lbs, Clay is a load to bring down and is a dominant runner between the tackles.
Graham is a complete tight end who can in-line block and get open downfield. He has become a favorite target of Wisconsin quarterbacks.
Valai is a thumper at the safety spot and will force turnovers with his physical style of play. And though Gilreath has made steady progress at receiver, he remains an electric return man and should produce a few more highlights this season on special teams.
The Badgers will be expecting some bounce-back seasons from players who showed promise in 2007 but didn’t progress in 2008, guys like Aaron Henry and Kyle Jefferson.
Henry has speed to burn at cornerback and plays receivers tight in man-to-man coverage, but he couldn’t stay healthy in 2008. Jefferson is a tall, long-striding receiver and was a great deep threat for Donavan two years ago, but he never seemed to establish a rapport with the quarterbacks last year.
A few new additions at defensive tackle (Bryce Gilbert and J.J. Watt) and some notably improved players like Lance Kendricks at tight end and Nick Toon at wide receiver should also add big-play potential to this 2009 Wisconsin team.
There are so many new faces across much of the roster, players who are expected to step into starting roles for the first time in their collegiate careers. Coach Bret Bielema and his staff will be very busy trying to prepare this young group, though the talent is there.
Wisconsin could surprise this season.