MADISON, Wis. - The Wisconsin Badgers were in a remarkably similar situation just one year ago. Coming off a Big Ten championship season and a Rose Bowl appearance, the Badgers had to find a new starting quarterback.
But while Russell Wilson transferred to Wisconsin and ran away with the starting job last fall, it doesn't seem like new Badgers quarterback Danny O'Brien will be able to lock up the job as easily. If O'Brien wants to follow in Wilson's footsteps, he's going to have to beat out more than a pair of underclassmen this time.
In fact, the Badgers appear to have two other legitimate candidates to start this fall, and new offensive coordinator Matt Canada said they're all getting an equal chance to compete.
"Right now we're giving everybody a fair shot," Canada said after Tuesday's practice. "And reps come as good plays happen. It's a very fluid situation. A guy who's playing well will continue to get more reps."
By "everybody," Canada is referring to O'Brien, senior Curt Phillips, redshirt freshman Joel Stave, and probably redshirt sophomore Joe Brennan. But it appears as though Phillips and Stave will pose the biggest threats to O'Brien, whom many people assumed would step right in to Wilson's shoes after he arrived on campus in early June.
Phillips' apparent resurgence is the biggest surprise so far this fall, as the dual-threat quarterback hasn't played in a game for the Badgers since 2009. The 6-foot-3 senior from Tennessee has sustained multiple ACL injuries during his career; but despite his previous setbacks, he seems healthy enough to have forced himself back into contention for the starting spot he nearly won in 2009.
"I was excited to see how (Phillips) was going to adapt, coming off what he did injury-wise," Canada said. "He's a guy who's worked really hard at it, trying to compete and rehabbing, and after two days he's doing a really good job."
But challenges remain for Phillips, who hasn't been able to participate in contact drills for several months. The Badgers will practice in pads for the first time this fall on Wednesday, and they'll know a lot more about Phillips' status after he gets back to playing "real football." If Phillips can make the necessary cuts and unanticipated movements without holding back, the Badgers will probably feel a lot better about his health.
"He's done a good job for two days, (but) obviously real football isn't here yet," Canada said. "I think he's probably as healthy as he's going to get. But right now I think he's where he's going to be."
As for O'Brien, Canada said the 6-foot-3 junior from North Carolina hasn't had any trouble adapting to his new surroundings.
"Danny's been great," Canada said. "We're excited to have him here, he's jumped right in and competes with the other guys. We've got a real good situation with him, and he throws the football well."
Canada also said O'Brien has one big advantage over the rest of the Badger signal callers. Even though he's new to Wisconsin, O'Brien started for two years at Maryland, and Canada feels like that game experience will help him this fall.
"(That's) something that's hard to get," Canada said. "You've got to play to have it experience is invaluable."
As for when he'll name a starting quarterback, Canada said he's not sure when the players will begin to separate themselves from the pack. The Badgers have only been practicing for two days, and they haven't even begun to install the finer points of their offense yet.
"(The competition) can narrow down tomorrow," Canada said. "I'm looking at practice 12 or so to install our offense, the way we're going to be in the fall. And then what each guy does well is what we'll do."
It's unlikely that one player will break away from the pack by the end of this week, so the Badgers should begin to narrow down their quarterback situation in their second week of practices. But in the meantime, Canada said he isn't concerned about his main position group.
"I'm not overly concerned about it," Canada said. "The quarterback position will continue to be a position of strength at Wisconsin."