After Tanner McEvoy couldn’t find his way into the starting quarterback position last season following his transfer to the University of Wisconsin from junior college, he switched sides of the ball and played in 11 games at safety, with his future at being quarterback uncertain.
Fast-forward a few months to Saturday’s Wisconsin football spring game, and McEvoy is commanding the No. 1 offense single-handedly, throwing his name square in the running to be the Badgers’ starting quarterback when they take the field in Houston against LSU.
Last year’s starter, Joel Stave, sat out the last week of spring practices and Saturday’s game to rehab a shoulder injury he sustained in January’s bowl game, giving McEvoy center stage Saturday in front of the 8,204 people.
“I think the offense played pretty well all around,” McEvoy said. “It was fun to get out there in front of the fans and just give them a little show and finish up spring ball the right way.
“I think I played alright. I ran the ball a little more than I wanted to. I could have stepped up and thrown the ball a couple times. But other than that, I think the offense had a pretty well-rounded day.”
McEvoy’s numbers during the second half of the Badgers’ Spring Game — a true scrimmage between the Cardinal and White teams — weren’t spectacular, going just 4-for-10 with 55 yards passing, while rushing three times for nine yards. He performed much better in the controlled scrimmage portion earlier in the day that was not scored. After a perfect throw and catch to senior Kenzel Doe for a 27-yard touchdown, McEvoy showed off his legs with runs of 37 yards and seven yards, with the second of those going for a touchdown. McEvoy looked every bit the part of a quarterback — and one that’s competing for a starting job nonetheless.
“[McEvoy] carries himself like a quarterback,” head coach Gary Andersen said. “You can always have the athleticism, ability to throw the football, but you’ve got to fit within the system, and what I’m most proud about Tanner is he has fit himself in the system.
“He walks up to the huddle, he looks more comfortable, and I think the football team is more comfortable around him, similar to how they were with Joel walking in and saying, hey, this guy can get it done for us.”
The second half of the scrimmage, which was broken up into two 15-minute quarters with scoring, was fairly uneventful, with the Cardinal walking away with a 6-0 victory over the White team, thanks to two Jack Russell field goals from 41 and 30 yards away.
McEvoy led both scoring drives for the Cardinal, while early-enrollee D.J. Gillins, Bart Houston and Thad Armstrong led the White team but produced few yards and no points in four series. In the controlled scrimmage, McEvoy was 1-for-4, Gillins was 4-for-6 and Houston was 0-for-3.
In the second half of the Spring Game, when stats were officially kept, Gillins was 0-for-1, Houston was 3-for-4, Armstrong was 2-for-2 and Connor Senger was 1-for-2. Jazz Peavy led the Cardinal team with one catch for 30 yards, while Reggie Love led the White team with four catches for 24 yards.
Heisman finalist Melvin Gordon and sophomore running back Corey Clement, participated in only the non-scoring, controlled scrimmage and weren’t tackled. Gordon ran for approximately 60 yards on eight carries, looking just as quick and agile as always. Clement carried a heavier load that included a “touchdown” run from inside the five-yard line. Austin Ramesh filled in nicely for Gordon and Clement in the scoring portion, rushing 12 times for 71 yards.
Offense was hard to come by with Stave, Gordon, Clement and a plethora of receivers missing the scoring portion of the day. Potential starting receivers Rob Wheelwright, Alex Erickson and Jordan Fredrick were held out of the game as they were dealing with injuries. The Badgers’ receiving core could be the most competitive position when fall practices begin in August with five recruits coming in at receiver who could see playing time right away as freshman.
As the offense fought through injuries and key players sitting out, the defense appeared to be much further ahead of their offensive counterparts. Replacing the entire front-seven this season, the defensive line appeared to be a position of strength and depth on Saturday.
Senior Warren Herring, who practiced all of spring at nose tackle, played Saturday at defensive end, and will likely be one of the main cogs on the line this season, especially with his versatility. He will continue to get work in at defensive end in fall, with the emergence of Arthur Goldberg and Bryce Gilbert at nose tackle.
“Especially coming off of last season, one of my goals this season is to be more consistent,” Herring said. “So I feel I can help the defense from my stand point by getting low, getting more pressure, making more tackles in the backfield and helping the defense get off the field.
“I’m open to wherever coach wants to put me. I’m going to do my best to produce wherever they put me.”
The linebackers are dealing with the departure of seniors as well, most notably All-American Chris Borland. Derek Landisch and Marcus Trotter manned the inside linebacker position for most of spring and Saturday, with both of them tallying tackles for losses in the first few plays of the day. Junior Joe Schobert excelled at outside linebacker Saturday, especially in the controlled scrimmage. In the first six plays, Schobert assisted on a sack, broke up a pass and had a tackle for a loss.
The most experience returns at defensive back with Sojourn Shelton, Darius Hillary and Michael Caputo all returning. Peniel Jean played with the first team at safety with Leo Musso sitting out due to an injury. Both will compete for the final starting safety job in fall practices.
Shelton was happy with the intensity and energy of the defense Saturday and only giving up six points. It’s something that they plan to build on and bring with them when fall practice begins in four months.
“I think we showed really good out there today. Everyone’s flying around,” Shelton said. “I think that’s the best part. If we do break something off, you know there’s going to be guys down there chasing them, trying to make sure they don’t score, get any extra yardage, so that’s a good thing to see. Everybody’s just flying around, making plays and I’m pretty excited moving toward summer.”
The 15 spring practices and spring game are over and the team will return to the field in August to prepare for LSU. With a lot of question marks on the team, said he Andersen feels that the spring season was a successful one.
“So, overall, mission accomplished,” Andersen said. “[I'm] proud of the way the kids handled spring, all 15 practices. I don’t think we had a bunch of ups and downs. Some days were better than others, but they always are. But it was a good group. Now the challenge will be to continually move forward and get the right pieces of the puzzle in the right spots and make sure the kids stay fresh and excited about the game of football and prepared for summer conditioning and then obviously fall camp.”