On Monday, former North Carolina State quarterback Russell Wilson announced his decision to join the University of Wisconsin football team. Never before has the motion ‘W’ had more momentum behind it.
Fans and critics alike praised the matrimony between Wilson, a quarterback with three years of starting experience, and the Badgers, whose only missing puzzle piece seemed to belong under center.
Overnight – no, in a matter of hours – the expectations and possibilities for some fans and critics of the 2011 Badgers soared into the ranks of national title contention.
But hold on a minute. Are we really about to start talking about a national championship or even a “Big Ten title or bust” type of season? How exactly realistic is that at this juncture?
At this point, I for one would only accept the expectation of taking the Leaders Division crown and nothing more. I’m not discrediting anyone’s belief in the possibility of a conference or national title, but I am if you expect it.
Why? Because it’s mid-summer and expecting too much of the Badgers wouldn’t be worth it until after the season’s already begun. This is a pretty radical addition that’s occurred on short notice – Wilson’s athletic capacity means he won’t just be plugged into the standard UW quarterback role by handing the ball off. If he’s the starter (which isn’t guaranteed), more will be expected and we don’t know how well that will work just yet.
There’s a common concern I’m sure you’re already aware of: It’s June, summer camps start in two weeks and this guy is supposed to establish a firm hold on an NFL-style playbook and attain a leadership position just like that. Sounds like it could be tough.
But then there are other concerns as well. Wilson, even though he obviously has talent (threw over 3,000 yards each of the last two seasons, tossed 76 career TDs) and diligence (received a diploma from N.C. State in three years), spent his time in a weaker league than the Big Ten, the Atlantic Coast Conference.
And in the weaker ACC under his tenure, the Wolfpack went 20-18 and won one bowl game. He probably did not have had the same kind of talent around him then as he does now, but it will be different playing under the kind of pressure that is swarming around the Badgers and it will be different facing Big Ten defenses.
Just because he has the added dimension of mobility doesn’t mean he’ll dominate; the defenses are more talented and more bruising in the Big Ten. Another mobile quarterback, Terrelle Pryor, won the preseason Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Award the last two years but he never fulfilled a level of play to earn that award in the postseason.
Of course, there are also reasons for optimism despite his arrival on short notice. Wilson’s smaller size (5-foot-11) fits him well into what UW’s offense had been doing with Jon Budmayr during spring camp.
In the spring, Budmayr’s own lack of height (6 feet) at least partially led to a habit of getting passes batted down at the line of scrimmage. The Badgers showed efforts in trying to swing Budmayr out of the pocket to throw through less traffic, and that’s one area Wilson specializes in. He excels in keeping plays alive by rolling out of the pocket and throwing downfield or going with the tuck-and-run.
Perhaps more importantly, however, is that Wilson seems to be, by all accounts, a mature athlete with a good head on his shoulders who also understands the amount of work required to make an impact on a team after joining in the middle of summer.
But national title contention suggests the ability to finish a season undefeated, or surely with no more than one loss (and should there be one loss, it would have to come against a respectable opponent early in the season so lost ground can be accounted for later).
Looking at UW’s schedule, the three biggest challenges should come from Nebraska, Michigan State and Ohio State – the latter two of which come late enough in the season to make any stumble a deadly one.
(It’s so easy to write them off, but Badger fans would be wise not to disregard the Buckeyes so easily after the catastrophe in Columbus. OSU still boasts a world-class defense and UW will go against it on Halloween weekend on the road. The Horseshoe will be as vibrant and electrifying as last year’s game at Camp Randall.)
So are the Badgers, with Wilson in hand, capable of running the table? We’ve seen them struggle so many times over the last few years against non-conference poofs. Might the Badgers trip up against one this year while the offense is still getting its bearings, or might the Badgers simply fall against one too many Big Ten foes?
What I mean to say is this: the Badgers are not head and shoulders above anyone in the Big Ten with Wilson quarterbacking or not. Yes, they look a rocking bunch that nobody will breathe easy about facing, but expecting a conference title – let alone a national championship – is taking it a bit too far.
Wilson can certainly give the Badgers a boost. They rightly look like the favorites in the Leaders Division now, but it’s a competitive conference and leading an offense on short notice is a complicated affair. Nevertheless, Wisconsin is capable of another special season; let’s leave it at that.
Elliot is a senior majoring in journalism. What are your thoughts on Russell Wilson joining the Badgers? Let him know at firstname.lastname@example.org.