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February 25, 2014

Spring preview: Quarterbacks

MADISON, Wis. - After three years of question marks and guesswork the Wisconsin Badgers will have a returning starter at quarterback when they start spring practice on March 5. Whether you think that's a good or a bad thing largely depends on how you look at Joel Stave, who started all 13 games for the Badgers last year.

It was a season of highs and lows for Stave, who started six games for the Badgers as a redshirt freshman in 2012. He completed 61.9 percent of his passes (third in the Big Ten), but also threw 13 interceptions (tied for most in the Big Ten). He usually came out sharp and didn't lose his confidence after those turnovers, but his footwork and throwing motion got him into trouble, especially when he was under pressure. The arm strength is there, but he also had too many passes where he just plain missed an open Jared Abbrederis -- who he won't be able to lean on in 2014.

In short the Badgers have a conundrum to deal with. Stave was Wisconsin's best option at quarterback in 2013, but he's an inconsistent player who doesn't fit the dual-threat mold Gary Andersen and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig have and will recruit to in the coming years.

So even with a returning starter under center the Badgers still have an air of uncertainty around Stave and the quarterback position. With just over a week to go until the Badgers open their camp, here are three questions I think they need to answer during spring camp:

Just how safe is Stave's job?

My guess is that he's safer than his critics would like to admit. Andersen said on Signing Day this month that the starting job is Stave's to lose, and the fact remains that the Badgers don't have an obvious candidate to replace him if they decide to pull the plug.

"Joel's our starting quarterback," Andersen said. "He started all the games last year. It's his spot to lose. So he'll be given that opportunity to obviously compete and get the team around him."

It would be one thing to just bench Stave and blame his inconsistency. Picking one of Wisconsin's other quarterbacks and asking them to give the team a better chance to win is the hard part.

Bart Houston struggled to connect with receivers consistently on his downfield throws and needed to work on his touch when he last took public reps during the fall. Tanner McEvoy's arm wasn't as strong as Stave's during fall camp, and if the Badgers were to pick the former junior college transfer they would just be subbing Stave's long, baseball-like throwing motion for McEvoy's three-quarters delivery that causes its own problems at the line of scrimmage.

Both Houston and McEvoy have had time to work on their weaknesses during the offseason, but it's not as though Stave was denied the same opportunity to improve his game. He'll be working with the same quarterbacks coach in consecutive seasons for the first time since he was in high school, and shouldn't be abandoned as a lost cause just yet.

Nobody would say that Stave has a stranglehold on the starting job. But if he improves his technique and develops good chemistry with a new crop of wide receivers he has to remain the favorite to start against LSU on Aug. 30.

Can Tanner McEvoy play well enough to stick at quarterback?

Think back to last year's Capital One Bowl and how South Carolina's Connor Shaw was able to beat the Badgers both through the air and on the ground when a play wasn't there. That's in essence what Wisconsin wants to see out of their quarterback, eventually. And while McEvoy has the athletic ability to extend plays and pick up first downs with his legs, I'm not sure he's a good enough passer where it would be worth it for the Badgers to start him at quarterback

McEvoy struggled on long and intermediate throws last fall when he did get first or second team reps, and has a non-traditional three-quarters throwing motion that can make his passes easier to tip at the line of scrimmage. He does have an extra advantage this time around: McEvoy has had access to Wisconsin's playbook for several months now, whereas he was trying to learn and compete on the fly last fall.

My gut says that McEvoy is more likely to see the field at wide receiver or safety this season (two positions of need for the Badgers) but there's a long way to go until the regular season starts.

How well developed is D.J. Gillins?

Gillins has already set himself up for success by enrolling early with the Badgers, but he's more likely to reap the benefits in a year or two -- not this season. Like many freshmen Gillins is probably too raw to win a starting job in his first year on campus, but how well he plays this spring should give us an idea of when he could realistically start contributing.

"D.J., an athletic quarterback, brings a lot to the table, if he's prepared to be able to do that mentally," Andersen said. "That's what has to take place for him to have that opportunity."

I'm curious to see just what kind of athlete the Badgers got when they signed him. Gillins fell off some recruiting radars after he tore an ACL during his junior season, so it will be interesting to see just how mobile Wisconsin's newest dual-threat quarterback actually is. If he can make throws downfield and move around in the pocket Gillins will be a serious candidate whenever they have their next true 'open' competition.

Projected Depth Chart

Joel Stave
Bart Houston
Tanner McEvoy
D.J. Gillins
Connor Senger

John Veldhuis covers Wisconsin football, basketball and recruiting for BadgerBlitz.com on the Rivals.com network. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnVeldhuis.

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