Freshman quarterback and early enrollee D.J. Gillins vividly remembers his first cold weather experience in Madison. A Jacksonville, Fla. native, Gillins found out just how cold Wisconsin can be in January when classes were cancelled early in the semester until noon due to the cold temperatures and wind chills that approached negative 40 degrees.
Gillins had been in Madison for just a few weeks at that point and had yet to figure out the bus system. He braced himself for a 45-minute walk across campus in negative 20 degree temperatures while wearing less an than adequate amount of clothes. It was a tough task for native Wisconsinites, but almost unbearable for a Florida native experiencing that kind of cold for the first time. Nearly an hour later, Gillins had conquered the cold and made it to his class, only to find out he had walked all that way for nothing. The class was cancelled. Gillins waited an hour in the building before deciding to make the return trek home.
The cold weather has been just one of the challenges that the freshman quarterback has had to face as an early enrollee. While most people his age are finishing their last semester of high school deep in the perils of “senioritis,” Gillins has begun life as a quarterback at Wisconsin.
Gillins, standing 6-foot-3 and weighing 185 pounds, comes to Wisconsin as one of Gary Andersen’s prized recruits in his first official recruiting class at the helm of the Badgers.
At Ribault High School in Jacksonville this past fall, Gillins threw 2,371 yards and 22 touchdowns while also running on the ground for 602 yards and eight rushing scores. He received all-state honors and was a four-star recruit, according to ESPN, and the 17th rated dual-threat quarterback overall. Gillins committed to the Badgers this past summer, choosing UW over Boston College, Arizona, Georgia Tech and Vanderbilt.
But despite his high accolades and talent, Gillins admits that his first few weeks of practice at the college level have at times been overwhelming. However, the reason Gillins decided to enroll early is to get these bumps out of the way early in the less-strenuous spring practices.
As any freshman, athlete or not, knows, there’s an adjustment period to college life. Gillins is adjusting now, as opposed to in the fall, so he can have a leg-up and better understand the Badgers’ playbook come August.
“At times it does [get overwhelming],” Gillins said. “That and adjusting to this college system. You have class, then you have practice, then you have to study, then you go home and go to sleep. It’s a lot different than high school.
“I have the ups and downs. It’s a learning experience but I’m glad that I’m here to be honest.”
However, with the Badgers finishing up spring practices in the next week, closing with the Spring Game this Saturday, Andersen has seen plenty of improvement from his only quarterback. He said Gillins is ahead of where he expected him to be at this point in the season as he improves every day.
“[Gillins] continues to get better every single day,” Andersen said. “The way he handles the amount of offense coming at him. He improves daily and he studies hard at it and it means a lot to him, which is a good sight for him.”
As a freshman, Gillins has a lot of people to look up to, especially at the quarterback position. Currently in the midst of a competition for the starting job, Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy take snaps ahead of Gillins as upperclassmen. Combined with the help Gillins has received from offensive coordinator, Andy Ludwig, he has had the chance to see how things should be done at the collegiate level.
“I’ve been holding up pretty well,” Gillins said. “Coach Ludwig always helps me go through [the offense]. And I have players in front of me, like Joel Stave and Tanner [McEvoy]. That always helps; [they're] probably some of the nicest guys I’ve ever met.”
Adjusting to the college lifestyle and football experience isn’t easy, so Gillins has confided in freshmen Keelon Brookins and Sojourn Shelton, who enrolled early last year and went through the same process.
Another player who Gillins has looked to is senior wide receiver Kenzel Doe. Doe has taken Gillins under his wing from day one as an older player, giving him a familiar face to talk to and to share his experiences with. Doe was also an early enrollee with the Badgers four years ago.
Despite having just 12 practices together, Doe can already see improvement from Gillins, and just how much of a weapon his running ability is.
“I feel like D.J. is handling it well,” Doe said. “He’s right beside me in the locker room, so I ask him every day, ‘How are you doing?’. I’m just trying to keep that comfort zone so he won’t over think stuff like that. But he’s impressed me so far. Especially with running, taking off sometimes and throwing the ball.”
It will be tough for Gillins to crack into the starting job at quarterback with McEvoy, Stave and even Bart Houston in the mix this season. Although it’s still early, Gillins said that redshirting isn’t out of the realm of possibilities and he will accept whatever the coaches think is best for him in his freshman season.
“If I redshirt, I’ll be satisfied. It doesn’t really matter,” he said. “I wouldn’t want the coaches to throw me out there if I don’t know what I’m doing. Whatever coach Andersen and coach Ludwig have for me is fine with me.”
That sense of maturity may be Gillins’ most valuable attribute and should help him as he navigates his way through his first season of collegiate football.