The Wisconsin Badgers are quietly gathering national intrigue for the 2010 season. They carry a No. 12 preseason ranking in the polls and bring back 10 starters on offense.
Most people are well aware of John Clay and the always reliable Wisconsin offensive line. However, the team’s success will ride on the shoulders of one Badger in particular this year: Scott Tolzien.
Tolzien is well off the radar as of right now, but he won’t go unnoticed for much longer.
Tolzien had a very underrated season last year, his first as the Wisconsin Badgers’ starting quarterback. His statistics (2,705 yards passing, 16 touchdowns, 11 interceptions) in 2009 don’t do much to support that thought, but his tough, clutch play on the field is a different story.
Tolzien gained a lot of respect for his poise in the pocket. As a first-year starter, opposing defenses went after him regularly on third down, trying to force a hurried throw into an incompletion or turnover, but Tolzien never flinched.
On numerous 3rd-and-long situations, he stood tall in the pocket and delivered accurate passes for first down conversions right before getting drilled by a defender. He rarely allowed the pass rush to affect his delivery of the ball.
His mechanics remained sound in the face of adversity, and only after the ball was away would he brace for impact. Every time he got hit following a first down conversion, he would bounce right back up.
He took some nasty hits in a few games but started every contest for his team last season. He’s tough, much like 2007 starting quarterback Tyler Donovan was before him.
Tolzien was also a disciplined first-year passer. On plays when his protection broke down or when his receivers weren’t getting open, he made the wise decision to check the ball down to his backs or throw it away and play for the next down.
His accuracy was a plus last year, completing 64.3 percent of his passes, and he’s got a great supporting cast on the offensive side of the ball.
Clay is a legitimate Heisman hopeful, returning for his junior season after rushing for 1,517 yards last year (5.3 yards per carry) and 18 touchdowns.
Clay will be running behind one of the best offensive lines in football, as is Wisconsin tradition, anchored by two 6’7” behemoths at the tackle position, Gabe Carimi and Josh Oglesby.
Nick Toon and Lance Kendricks will provide great options for Tolzien in the passing game.
Toon is a big body (6’3”, 218 lbs.) at wide receiver who runs precise routes and has strong hands, making him a great target for Tolzien.
Kendricks is yet another athletic tight end in a long list of Wisconsin greats that includes Owen Daniels, Travis Beckum, and Garrett Graham. Kendricks showcased his athleticism and speed on a 54-yard reverse last year against Purdue.
The defense lost a number of starters, most notably on the defensive line, including O’Brien Schofield, who finished second in the nation in tackles for loss last year and second in the Big Ten in sacks. However, the Badgers’ defense returns some rising stars like Big Ten Freshman of the Year Chris Borland at linebacker, hard-hitting safety Jay Valai, and J.J. Watt, the lone returning starter along the defensive line.
But for Wisconsin to be in contention for the BCS national championship this season, Tolzien will have to take the next step at quarterback for the Badgers. While his accuracy was outstanding for a first-year starter, he had a tendency to sail the ball when throwing down the middle of the field. That proved to be costly last year, particularly in the matchup against Ohio State.
Kurt Coleman of the Buckeyes picked off an overthrow from Tolzien and returned it 89 yards for the first score of the opening half. After Wisconsin battled back and took the lead in that game, Tolzien threw a similar interception, which OSU’s Jermale Hines returned 32 yards for another score.
Tolzien also has to improve his awareness in the pocket when the defense is pressuring him. He did a good job of recognizing the rush and getting rid of the ball when the pressure was coming straight up the middle, but he was less aware of the outside rush.
The Big Ten features some of the top defensive ends in the country, such as Adrian Clayborn of Iowa and Cameron Heyward of Ohio State. Tolzien must learn to feel the pressure around him rather than see only the rush in front of him.
The reliability of the Wisconsin running game means he often doesn’t need to put up monster performances, statistically speaking, but he has proven capable of such performances. In wins against Michigan and Michigan State last year, Tolzien threw for a combined 483 yards and eight touchdowns.
He also proved opportunistic running the ball last year with a pair of rushing touchdowns and a 47-yard scramble to boot.
Tolzien’s maturation process can best be judged once the season begins and the bullets start to fly. If he can improve his accuracy over the middle, improve his pocket awareness, and continue to progress with the rest of his game, the Wisconsin offense could be lethal with the combination of Clay and the rushing attack.
Tolzien will be entering his second season as the starting quarterback for the Badgers. They know what he can do. Now it’s time for the rest of the nation to notice.
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