MADISON, Wis. — Despite the lack of an official announcement from Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen, it appears that LSU can focus on preparing for dual-threat quarterback Tanner McEvoy for the season opener Saturday against the 14th-ranked Badgers.
Although the Badgers’ second fall scrimmage a week ago and subsequent practices were closed to the public and media, word leaked out of Camp Randall Stadium late Friday citing multiple unnamed sources that McEvoy had won the starting job over incumbent Joel Stave, who started all 13 games last season for the Badgers, who finished 9-4.
The only acknowledgment of the decision was a post the following morning on McEvoy’s Twitter account, “So thankful for this opportunity! I appreciate all the love from our fans and its time to get to work!”
Despite his lack of game experience, McEvoy offers more of the versatility preferred by Andersen, in his second year as coach at Wisconsin. Stave, considered more of pocket passer, rushed 37 times for minus-22 yards last season.
After transferring from Arizona Western College, McEvoy lost out in the quarterback battle last fall to Stave and backup Curt Phillips. McEvoy played wide receiver in the Badgers opener against Massachusetts. After a wrist injury that required surgery, the 6-foot-6, 220-pound McEvoy was moved to safety for the final 10 games, including three starts.
McEvoy redshirted at South Carolina in 2011 and then transferred to Arizona Western, where he passed for 1,943 yards and 25 touchdowns and rushed for 414 yards and six touchdowns.
As a high school senior at Bergen Catholic in Oradell, New Jersey, McEvoy was the 2010 New Jersey offensive player of the year, passing for 2,264 yards and 32 touchdowns while rushing for 1,196 yards and 14 touchdowns.
During the Badgers first scrimmage on Aug. 10, McEvoy and Stave, both juniors, had roughly the same number of plays, each throwing two touchdown passes. Stave had more than twice as many passing attempts, but McEvoy also ran several option plays.
“If you were going to look and say you wanted to be a speed-option opportunity team and really have it be a viable speed option, it’s going to be Tanner,” Anderson said after the scrimmage. “If we played a game today, we would have some scenarios where we would want to be a very multiple offense. And if that means that another guy’s got to get under center every once in a while and make us be more multiple for people having to prepare, then so be it.”
McEvoy said he was much better prepared this season for a shot at starting at quarterback.
“Last year was obviously my first year,” McEvoy said earlier in camp. “I mean it’s no excuse, but it’s something different. This year, my second year, I know the offense a little better. I had a spring under my belt. That’s really the main difference.”
From a statistical standpoint, Stave did not have a bad season in 2013, which ended with a shoulder injury in the Badgers' 34-23 loss to South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl.
Stave’s 336 pass attempts were a single-season school record, and the 208 completions were third-highest. Stave’s 22 touchdown passes were second most in school history, trailing only Russell Wilson, who led the Seattle Seahawks to the Super Bowl title. Stave’s 2,494 passing yards were the fifth-best all time and most by a sophomore.
But Stave also threw 13 interceptions and missed open receivers in several key situations, which was cause enough to have to fight again for the position.
“You can always be more consistent,” Stave said at the start of fall camp. “I’ve made very good throws and also missed throws that you just can’t miss. So that’s how the game goes. There’s going to be ups and downs. You’re not always going to be perfect. That’s always the goal, you’re going to want to strive to be perfect and just play consistently at a high level.”
Stave, a 6-5, 220-pound junior, also missed the final week of spring practice because of soreness in his right shoulder.
Freshman D.J. Gillins, another dual threat, has moved into the No. 3 quarterback spot. Gillins, from Jacksonville, Florida, passed for 2,371 yards and 22 touchdowns and ran for 602 yards and eight touchdowns as a high school senior.
Two other factors might have influenced Andersen’s decision to go with the more mobile McEvoy.
Regardless of who starts under center, the Badgers are likely to continue their reputation as a run-first team thanks to returning speedster Melvin Gordon.
Last season as a sophomore, the 6-1, 213-pound Gordon rushed for 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns, averaging 7.8 yards per carry while splitting time with James White, a fourth-round pick of the New England Patriots who rushed for 1,444 yards last season.
The Badgers also have sophomore Corey Clement, who ran for 547 yards last season, averaging 8.2 yards per carry.
Wisconsin is inexperienced at wide receiver after the graduation of Jared Abbrederis, the Green Bay Packers’ draft pick who had 78 receptions last season. No other wide receiver had more than 12 catches.
In the early part of camp and through the first scrimmage, Stave appeared to have the edge. With LSU as the first game, it also was thought that Stave’s game experience would factor into the decision. Last season, the Badgers opened with blowout victories over Massachusetts and Tennessee Tech.
“It’s not really philosophical, it’s tactical,” Andersen said of the quarterback spot after the closed second scrimmage. “Does that gain an advantage? I think you can probably sit down and watch practice and see the direction it’s headed, but I just don’t think we need to make it a big – it doesn’t need to come across the wire because we named a starting quarterback. We’ll just keep it in those lines.”
By closing the second scrimmages and practices, Andersen did his best to keep the quarterback switch — and any plays geared toward McEvoy — under wraps, but to no avail.
“I just felt like there was information that could possibly help us win the game,” Andersen said after the final scrimmage. “We did a lot of things from a scheme standpoint that we want to definitely protect from an offensive side, from a defensive side and a special teams side. I know it’s your guys’ job to cover it, so if you see it, you’re going to talk about it because it’s your job. That’s the real reason.”
“I expect good quarterback play, whichever one of those young men play,” Andersen said before the McEvoy decision leaked out. “The same thing is expected from the D-Line, the O-Line or wherever you want to take it. But we’ll put out a good quarterback out there that will give us a chance to go out there and absolutely win.”