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Raining on Wisconsin’s Parade (Sort Of)

Continuity, the supporting cast and the knowledge that he’d be in good hands are the prime factors that drew Danny O’Brien to Wisconsin ahead of Penn State, Vanderbilt and Mississippi, the other three schools on his final shortlist of transfer destinations. O’Brien touched on these points during yesterday’s teleconference, saying that “the vibe [he] got at Wisconsin was special,” and noting how the path blazed by Russell Wilson last fall proved that it’s possible — especially in Madison — for a transfer to hit the ground running at a high level during his first season in a new offense.

At this time yesterday, the Badgers’ two-deep at quarterback featured sophomore Joe Brennan as the starter and former walk-on Joel Stave, a redshirt freshman, as his backup. This was due to injuries to Wisconsin’s three other options — Curt Phillips’ knee, Jon Budmayr’s elbow and Bart Houston’s shoulder.

In his university-issued statement yesterday afternoon, Bret Bielema made it clear that O’Brien was not guaranteed anything more than an equal chance at the starting nod. “As is the case with any player who joins our program, we have not promised Danny anything other than the chance to come in during the fall and compete for the starting quarterback position. He understands that and is excited for that opportunity.”

The depth chart will shuffle, but not until the fall. O’Brien still needs to earn his degree at Maryland, which will keep him in College Park through May. During his teleconference, O’Brien said that he’ll leave for Madison shortly after graduation in order to participate in summer workouts. He’ll follow the same timetable that Wilson was on last year.

But by August, look for the depth chart to read as follows: O’Brien, Brennan, Stave. If he recovers some of the arm strength robbed by his nerve issues, Budmayr should end up as O’Brien’s backup; if he can’t, look for Wisconsin to try to gain a medical redshirt for either 2011 or 2012.

This would slow Budmayr’s clock by a year: currently a redshirt junior, Budmayr would exhaust his eligibility at the same time as O’Brien if the Badgers fail to land him a hardship waiver. In a perfect world, perhaps, Wisconsin would have a healthy Budmayr, then a sixth-year senior, compete with Houston for the starting role after O’Brien’s two years with the program.

This is putting the cart well ahead of the horse. But as we’ve seen over the last two years, Wisconsin needs to do a better job planning for the future at the quarterback position. Bielema’s recruiting strategy is to recruit only one quarterback and one running back in each class. This hasn’t hurt him at running back, but the strategy is to blame for his team’s quarterback woes.

It has opened Wisconsin up to the everyday issues that occur with every team: injuries and attrition. Others offset such losses by taking three or more quarterbacks over a two-year span; over the same period, the Badgers add only a pair of options at the position.

How much longer can Wisconsin afford to roll the dice with high-profile transfers? One factor that’s gone under the radar in terms of O’Brien’s addition is that he has two years of eligibility remaining, unlike in Wilson’s case. What that does for the Badgers is allow them to develop Houston, Brennan and another youngster — in the recruiting class of 2013 — while O’Brien holds down the fort.

At some point, however, the Badgers need to hit a home run with its own quarterback, not a rental from another B.C.S. conference. It’s somewhat easy to forget that for the better part of a decade, Wisconsin’s quarterback consistency was the envy of all but a select few F.B.S. programs. From 2000 through 2010, the Badgers had multiple-year starters in Brooks Bollinger, Jim Sorgi, John Stocco and Scott Tolzien.

Landing O’Brien waylays the overriding concerns over the quarterback position for at least two years. In 2014, after he’s exhausted his eligibility, Wisconsin may be back in the same boat. It would be foolish for Bielema to simply take the same tack — entering the transfer pool — when looking for his next starter two years down the road.

O’Brien is a Band-Aid in the same way that Wilson was a Band-Aid, with the difference being that O’Brien is a two-year rental. There’s nothing wrong with this: If he’s anything like Wilson, O’Brien might lead the Badgers to even greater heights in 2012 and 2013. But lightning rarely strikes twice. Even if O’Brien is a hit — and here’s guessing he will be — it’s even less likely that lightning will strike a third time in 2014.

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  1. Jeff says:

    If we would have recruited more than one QB this class we would have lost Bart Houston with our coaching changes. FYI.

  2. David Wang says:

    No matter what you do, you take a chance that a position somewhere or another will get shortchanged. Wisconsin, despite what they have played to, always struggles to get good QBs to come to Madison despite best efforts and even having one of the best QB coaches in the country working for Bielima (Chryst is now at Pitt of course). Wisconsin is short on bodies on o-line this coming year, and they have tried to bring in bigger numbers at where they really need to be better, like pass rushers, secondary, and athletes. But this has been at the expense of taking fewer running backs and QBs.

    Now, if the running back depth chart was decimated, would not a runner with a degree want to go there (Wisconsin gave away a runner who stared games as a true frosh; he graduated and was buried on the depth chart). And it looks like the same works for QB. So the system is working.

  3. Adam says:

    Second to that Jeff! too many QB’s isn’t exactly a positive for a high level recruit coming out of high school. If Wisco has success with O’brien and Bart is ready 2 years from now, then why wouldn’t WI be a very attractive destination for another 4-star kid?
    I see nothing but positives here

  4. Nick says:

    Wisconsin had 5 QB’s (Curt Phillips, Jon Budmayr, Joe Brennan, Joel Stave and Bart Houston) before Danny O’Brien joined. They missed the Qb they wanted last year or they would of had 6. Five or six QB’s on the roster seems fairly normal, so I don’t agree with your point.

    Paul: You have a good point, but you’re missing one thing. Wisconsin has known that Phillips’ career was essentially over more than 18 months ago. Bielema knew that Budmayr had these nerve issues a little less than a year ago. My point is that knowing this, he should have altered his recruiting strategy. (Stave’s a walk-on, so we can’t really count him for this exercise.) Here’s the biggest thing, however: Nothing’s broken. It’s not like the wheels are falling off. Bielema’s plan has worked, but he might want to amend his recruiting approach to ensure that he doesn’t need to rely on transfers.

  5. Randy says:

    I think the problem you face is will QB recruits be concerned that they bust their hump to learn the system and work their way up the depth chart only to be sent to the pine by a “one year wonder”

  6. Dillon says:

    The problem with your argument is Wisconsin was successful before the transfer of Russell Wilson & now Danny O’Brien. Scott Tolzien was a little known kid offered a scholarship on the last minute. A few years later he wins the starting job, wins 10 games, and then the following year he wins 11 games and takes UW to Pasadena. Tolzien also won the Senior QB of the Year award his senior year as well. Before him there was John Stocco, a guy who went 12-1 his Sr season in 2006 under Bielema.

    This is what annoys me about people dissing on UW accepting transfers. They all act like UW sucked before Russell Wilson, yet this team has had 3 straight double digit win seasons and since 2004, there have been only 2 seasons of less than 9 wins.

    I suppose you can argue about the lack of successful NFL QBs from UW, but arguing their collegiate success is a reach.

    Paul: From the article:

    “It’s somewhat easy to forget that for the better part of a decade, Wisconsin’s quarterback consistency was the envy of all but a select few F.B.S. programs. From 2000 through 2010, the Badgers had multiple-year starters in Brooks Bollinger, Jim Sorgi, John Stocco and Scott Tolzien.”

    That’s why the program’s need for transfers now is a bit surprising. Who knows? Maybe Brennan is the next Stocco, who was fantastic, or Tolzien, who was one of the best in the nation as a senior. We won’t know for a little while, however. And I have zero interest whatsoever in how a college Q.B. fares in the N.F.L. Not part of my logic in any discussion here.

  7. Louis Bien says:

    The biggest mistake Wisconsin made was not signing a quarterback class of 2011. Phillips tore his ACL twice during that recruiting cycle, yet of the 18 scholarships they handed out not one was a QB.

    If Wisconsin does that, then they would have an option entering his third year to potentially take the reins. The problem is that Wisconsin doesn’t recruit anywhere near the talent level its BCS rankings suggest. There is no guarantee that mystery junior QB would even be any good. Presumably they offered several top prospects and went .000.

    Wisconsin got very lucky to have quality grad transfer QBs fall into their lap. With that said, Nick is right. Having five quarterbacks on the depth chart (four scholarship) isn’t abnormal. Wisconsin is down the two quarterbacks that should have been competing for the starting job due to serious injuries … that’s just unlucky and really difficult for any program to bear. Especially one that recruits on a mid-major level and expects to compete with the elite.

  8. Louis Bien says:

    *Make that, they would have a second-year QB if they picked one up for the class of 2011. Point still stands.

  9. Brandon says:

    Come on Paul. Our QB situation (numbers-wise) is in line with the rest of the NCAA. We’ve just had a particularly bad streak of luck. Stallon flunked out, Phillips/Budmayr have had injury issues, and Houston had surgery as well. None of those things are planned for.

    It’s reasonable to expect that of the two non-freshman and the highly touted freshman on the roster who would all be expected to be able to compete for the starting position, at least one would be healthy.

    And this talk of hurting recruiting is bunk. We landed Houston in part because of the success of Wilson. And transfers are looking for places they’ll be able to play, so if we have an established starting QB we wouldn’t have the interest of players like DO’B. If Budmayr and Phillips are actually competing for the job right now, with Houston redshirting, there’s NO WAY O’Brien comes to the UW. He’d be at Penn State.

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