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August 24, 2011

Wilson's addition adds to Wisconsin's excitement

Russell Wilson wasn't on the Wisconsin campus long before he was dumped in a tub of ice by teammates.

Was he mad? Nope. In fact, he loved it.

"It has been great," says Wilson, who transferred in from North Carolina State over the summer. "They were just having fun with me. It's all been a part of team building, bonding, being accepted."

Developing chemistry and trust with teammates will be vital for Wilson as he embarks on his one and only season as Wisconsin's quarterback. His arrival means the Badgers are perhaps the Big Ten favorite and a preseason top-10 team. Last season's Rose Bowl appearance was the school's first since the 1999 season, and the Badgers could make it two in a row.

"We just want to focus on today," says Wilson, who is immediately eligible because he has graduated from NC State and is enrolled in a graduate school program at Wisconsin not offered in Raleigh. "Just focus on the next practice. We don't want to get ahead of ourselves."

But it's difficult for Badgers fans not to be excited about Wilson's arrival. Heck, even rival coaches are weighing in.

"Any time you have a high-profile player in there, it creates excitement," Illinois coach Ron Zook says. "It creates stories for [the media]. That once again raises the level of interest in the game.

"I think any time you have any positive things that happen in the conference, I think it's great for the conference."

In three seasons as the Wolfpack's starter, Wilson threw for 8,545 yards, ranking 12th in ACC history. His 76 career touchdown passes are third in conference history. His yardage total is fourth-most among active quarterbacks, and the touchdown total is third.

"I will say this," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema says. "No matter how good a football player Russell Wilson is, the first thing I wanted to find out is what kind of person he is.

"I always say that in recruiting, you recruit your own problems. I wanted to make sure that I wasn't recruiting somebody that was going to potentially be a problem at Wisconsin. He's a stand-up guy, great character. Just a really, really neat kid."

Wilson's arrival answers one of Wisconsin's biggest issues entering 2011: the identity of the starting quarterback. Scott Tolzien, a two-year starter, is gone after leading the Badgers to a 21-5 record the past two seasons.

badge of honor
Here are a look at some key single-season passing marks in Wisconsin history:
Passing yards: 2,920, by John Stocco in 2005
Completions: 211, by Scott Tolzien in 2009
Attempts: 333, by Tyler Donovan in 2007
TD passes: 21, by John Stocco in 2005

The staff wasn't able to answer the quarterback question in the spring. Jon Budmayr and Joe Brennan battled for the job. It wasn't pretty, as the Wisconsin attack failed to score a touchdown in the spring game. Joel Stave showed promise in the spring, but he's just a true freshman. Curt Phillips would have figured in the mix, but he will miss the season after having knee surgery. Not surprisingly, Wilson has emerged as the starter in fall camp.

Wilson's courtship started with an innocuous fax.

"In the middle of spring, I had a fax on my desk," says Bielema, who said he didn't talk to NC State coach Tom O'Brien about Wilson. "We get a lot of that, where kids want to talk to us about transfer opportunities. Russell Wilson jumped right in my head right away.

"I remember watching him on some games the past couple seasons. Reached out to my quarterback coach, offensive coordinator -- he was aware of it as well. Just began the recruiting process."

Once Wilson arrived on campus, he immediately began immersing himself in the playbook.

"His teammates saw how hard he works," Bielema says. "They see what a good person he is. He got here and just went to work. He didn't say much to anybody. He didn't come here with an ego or a chip on his shoulder."

It's not a shock that Wilson has a grip on the starting spot as Wisconsin steams toward its season-opening game against UNLV on Sept. 1. But it was a bit surprising that Wilson landed at Wisconsin.

Once NC State released Wilson, he looked hard at transferring to Auburn before ultimately deciding on Wisconsin on June 27.

Wilson was selected in the fourth round of the baseball draft in June 2010 by the Colorado Rockies, and he hit .228 with three home runs and 15 RBIs as a second baseman for Class A Asheville (N.C.) this summer. Wilson has been placed on the Rockies' minor league restricted list, and they will retain his rights if he opts to return to baseball.

"I am just focused on football right now," Wilson says. "And I am happy to be at Wisconsin."

Wilson's arrival should pump some air into the famously physical Badgers offense. Last season, Wisconsin ranked second in the Big Ten and 12th in the nation in rushing (245.7). Conversely, the passing attack ranked ninth in the league and 75th in the country (199.5 ypg).

By the numbers
Wisconsin has had some good quarterbacks in recent seasons, but the Badgers never have had a quarterback throw for 3,000 yards in a season. NC State transfer Russell Wilson has eclipsed the 3,000-yard passing mark in each of the past two seasons. In fact, all of his single-season highs at NC State would be Wisconsin records. Following is a look at Wilson's career, year-by-year.
Still, while Wilson attempted an average of 20 more passes per game in 2010 than Tolzien, it's difficult to imagine the Badgers straying far from their ground-loving ways.

"If there is something he does well, we will capitalize on it," Bielema says. "But [tailbacks] Montee [Ball] and James [White] have been looking good. And our line is as deep as it ever has been since I've been here.

"But the thing I may be most impressed with about Russell is his ability to grasp not just the little things, but the big picture, too. He's a good person and football player. We are glad to have him."

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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