Something To Prove: Wisconsin's passing game
By Zac Ellis
Throughout the offseason, SI.com will spotlight several teams, players and coaches with something to prove heading into the 2013 season. To check out every edition of this series, click here.
It took Gary Andersen four seasons to complete his makeover of Utah State, but he eventually got there; the Aggies went 11-2 and won their first bowl game in 19 seasons in 2012. Andersen's success landed him a job as Bret Bielema's replacement at Wisconsin, a situation that should call more for caretaking than rebuilding: The Badgers have won at least 11 games and have gone to the Rose Bowl in three consecutive years.
For Andersen to continue that momentum, he'll have to bolster an offense that averaged just 393.3 yards per game last season, seventh in the Big Ten. Namely, he'll have to make sense of Wisconsin's ongoing uncertainty under center.
The Badgers had three quarterbacks take the field last year. The first was Danny O'Brien, the Maryland transfer who many believed would lead the team into the post-Russell Wilson era. He didn't pan out: O'Brien started just three games last season before being relegated to the bench by Week 4 against UTEP. Joel Stave was the next in line, but he broke his collarbone in a Week 9 loss to Michigan State. Curt Phillips led the Badgers the rest of the way; he went 10-of-16 for 83 yards and a touchdown in the Rose Bowl against Stanford.
The constant changes under center prevented the passing game from finding any rhythm, something the stats abet. Despite boasting a stable of talented running backs (Montee Ball, James White and Melvin Gordon), the Badgers mustered only 156.9 passing yards per game, last in the conference and 111th in the nation. Wisconsin quarterbacks tossed just 15 touchdowns all season, also the lowest total in the Big Ten.
Experience should help this year's crop of passers acclimate to Andersen's offense. Stave and Phillips both return, and Stave completed 15-of-20 passes for 161 yards and a touchdown in the spring game. The logjam at the top of the depth chart was enough to persuade O'Brien to transfer from the program, his second such move in as many seasons.
Stave (58.8 percent) was a slightly more accurate passer than Phillips (56.8) in 2012, and his 148.3 quarterback rating topped Phillips' 128.2 mark. But Phillips is a more mobile threat: He's certainly more comfortable on the run -- a quality Andersen valued at Utah State -- and carried five times for 64 yards in the Rose Bowl.
Two wild cards remain in Wisconsin's quarterback equation. First, there's the banged-up offensive line; the Badgers' roster had only eight healthy linemen during spring workouts. Even with three returning starters, depth in the trenches could factor into Andersen's decision to employ a more traditional pocket passer or a dual-threat quarterback. Then there's juco transfer Tanner McEvoy. The Hillside, N.J., native spent a year at Arizona Western Community College after transferring from South Carolina last August, and he racked up 1,813 passing yards and 24 touchdowns. McEvoy signed with Wisconsin over the likes of Florida, Oregon and West Virginia in February. He's already on campus for the summer.
It's worth noting that McEvoy was a receiver until his senior season at Bergen Catholic (N.J.) High, when he moved to quarterback and amassed 32 passing touchdowns and 14 rushing scores. His athleticism is well documented, and he'll likely give both Stave and Phillips a strong run for the starting gig -- if he can stay out of trouble. Andersen utilized a spread-option attack at Utah State.
Whoever emerges as Wisconsin's starter will have plenty of weapons at his disposal. Despite backing up Ball, White registered 806 yards (6.4 yards per carry) and 12 touchdowns last year, while Melvin Gordon rushed for 621 (10.0 ypc) and three scores. The Badgers also bring back former walk-on wideout Jared Abbrederis, a consensus first-team All-Big Ten selection who tallied 837 receiving yards and five touchdowns as a junior.
Andersen and his staff have molded standout quarterbacks in the past. Utah State's Chuckie Keeton was a first-team WAC honoreein 2012, when he set single-season school records for touchdown passes (27), passing yards (3,373), completions (275) and completion percentage (67.6 percent). Andersen also hired San Diego State's Andy Ludwig as the Badgers' offensive coordinator. Ludwig helped shape former Aztecs quarterback Ryan Lindley into one of the most productive passers in FBS history before he was drafted by the NFL's Arizona Cardinals last April.
For Wisconsin to reach its third straight Big Ten title game, it'll need a capable quarterback to take it there. There's cause for optimism, but there's a lot for Andersen to figure out.