It wasn’t too long ago that Wisconsin was a top destination for efficient game-manager snap-it-and-get-rid-of-it type quarterbacks.
While the running backs carry a storied history at Wisconsin – including Heisman winners Ron Dayne and Alan Ameche – UW has never exactly been a top quarterback destination. The Badgers have never had a hard time landing top-notch bruisers in the backfield, but it’s always been a bit of a challenge to attract the best signal callers in the country to a program known for its power running game.
If you could hand the ball off and keep the team out of trouble (i.e. limit interceptions), you were nearly guaranteed a spot as the Badgers’ starter.
Case and point: Scott Tolzien. The fifth-year senior undoubtedly played a critical role in Wisconsin’s epic run to the 2011 Rose Bowl, but he was not exactly the guy you counted on to throw a bomb down the sideline to Nick Toon in a last-minute scoring drive. Completing almost 73 percent of his passes on the year, he was unbelievably consistent, much like many of the Badger signal callers before him.
But all of that’s changing thanks to a guy by the name of Russell Wilson. Camp Randall was home to the likes of Tyler Donovan, Allan Evridge and the ever-efficient Tolzien, but now it’s home to one of the most exciting, explosive players in the country in Wilson.
More than halfway to Tolzien’s total passing yards last year and just three touchdowns behind the Rose Bowl quarterback’s 2010 touchdown total through five games, Wilson is rebranding the quarterback position at Wisconsin. Despite a standout performance for Tolzien last year, Wilson is making Tolzien’s Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award look like the WAC Player of the Year Award.
It’s true that this will be the one and only year suiting up in the cardinal and white for the fifth-year transfer from N.C. State, but the legacy he leaves behind will last much longer than a season. In an impressive stretch for the UW program that many see as one of the strongest in recent history – and one that could turn them into one of the premier programs in college football – Wilson’s timing couldn’t have been better.
Coming off a year that marked their first appearance in the Granddaddy of Them All in a decade, Wilson could have the Badgers back in Pasadena (or, dare I say it … even better) for the second time in as many years. Already gaining plenty of national attention for his 216.9 efficiency rating and 13 touchdowns, Wisconsin fans aren’t the only ones noticing that he is the best quarterback to play for the Badgers in a long, long time.
So what does this mean for the future? A new quarterback tradition in Madison, and by quarterback tradition, I don’t mean more of the guys who experts refer to as “game managers.”
Unless by some magical stroke of luck the Badgers pick up another stellar transfer quarterback next year, it may appear that the offense is headed back to the days of running the ball on 29 straight plays (remember that, Michigan?), but UW has already lined up a stellar quarterback recruit who could win the starting job as a freshman. Four-star recruit and California native Bart Houston, listed as the No. 6 pro-style quarterback by Rivals, committed to Wisconsin in May.
Turning down offers from several Pac-12 schools, Houston could be the next guy in line to continue the rebranding of what it means to be a Wisconsin quarterback.
After narrowly missing out on dual-threat quarterback Jacoby Brissett, who picked his hometown Gators, last year, it’s clear that quarterbacks are quickly gaining glamor in Madison. While Bret Bielema can preach all day about how his team “isn’t sexy,” (it was mildly humorous the first time – get a new line, coach) Wilson is making the Badger quarterback position just that – sexy.
The UW offense won’t be giving up on the run any time soon, but after producing several NFL-caliber receiving tight ends in the last couple years and armed with a group of talented receivers, the Badgers might not be regaining their “run it, then run some” mentality any time soon.
After all, what quarterback wouldn’t want to play behind a mammoth, athletic offensive line that perennially ranks among the nation’s best? Recruiting at other positions may have its highs and lows, but Wisconsin will never have a shortage of massive Wisconsinites to line up in front of the signal caller.
On top of that, choosing the Badgers means playing in a pro-style offense directed by the offensive mastermind that is Paul Chryst. As many quarterbacks come to college with ambitions of playing in the NFL, UW’s offensive system serves as the perfect runway to show that you can take a snap under center and lead an offense that actually works at the next level.
If Wilson can continue putting up ridiculous numbers this year and remain in contention for the Heisman, it could be just the break the Badgers need to attract the top signal callers from around the country to Madison. In a couple years, Brissett may be wishing he took the long trek to Wisconsin as Houston lights up Camp Randall on a game-winning drive. At that point, we’ll look back and remember it all started with a one-and-done Heisman winner by the name of Russell Wilson.
Welcome to the new era of Wisconsin football: the era of the quarterback.
Ian is a junior majoring in journalism. Think Russell Wilson is the answer to every Badger fan’s hopes and dreams? Let him know at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @imccue.