Imagine you are Dustin Sherer.
Last fall, your dream of starting at quarterback for a Division I school was realized when you took over for Allan Evridge against Iowa. From there you maintained the top spot on the Badgers’ depth chart through the rest of the season, finishing with a 4-3 record as a starter and leading Wisconsin to a Champs Sports Bowl berth.
Then you entered spring camp as the odds-on favorite to start at quarterback in the fall and performed well enough to maintain that top spot on the final depth chart after spring ball.
And as fall camp rolled around, you were still the consensus favorite to start, though some thought redshirt freshman Curt Phillips would give you a run for your money. That’s when something totally unexpected happened: junior Scott Tolzien was named the starter and you were dropped to third on the depth chart behind Phillips.
How do you react to something like that?
“It wasn’t a good one, obviously,” Sherer said of his reaction. “When you come to a place like this and you work as hard as you have for five years and get that news it isn’t fun. But I just took it as something that you learn from.”
Still, the last time Sherer took a snap for the Badgers in a game was Dec. 27 against Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl. Needless to say, the game was not Sherer’s best.
The Cicero, Ind., native completed just 9-of-16 passes for 132 yards and a touchdown while taking three sacks and fumbling twice, both of which were recovered by the Seminoles and returned for touchdowns.
Yet, he continued to compete with Tolzien and Phillips for the starting spot, and according to UW offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, they never lost confidence in him as a quarterback.
“Dustin came in last year and we appreciate what he did winning some games for us,” Chryst said. “I’ve never been down on Dustin, you know, and we had an opportunity through spring and fall camp where we kept it an open competition and Scotty came out on top, but I appreciate Dustin. He is who he is and that’s a great thing.”
Aside from giving advice to Tolzien and Phillips in practice and games, Sherer’s biggest impact over the nine months since his last start also helped develop the Badgers top two signal callers. He provided excellent competition for the two of them, helping each improve significantly.
Sherer never gave up on earning the spot as the Badgers’ starter behind center, continuing to work hard throughout the offseason in preparation for the position he hoped to maintain. And though he was confident in his abilities, he knew he had to improve from the previous season.
Unfortunately for Sherer, he obviously did not earn the starting spot and had to adjust to a new role in the UW offense as the Badgers’ third-string quarterback.
Yet, with neither Tolzien nor Phillips having started a collegiate game, Sherer’s experience from 2009 proved invaluable throughout spring and fall camps as he continued to push his fellow quarterbacks to get better.
“Like everybody says, competition brings out the best in everybody,” Phillips said. “It definitely was a competition. We’re good friends, but when we’re out on the field, we’re definitely competing.”
As the competition continued, however, it became clear Sherer was no longer the favored quarterback to be the Badgers’ starter for the 2009 season. He started taking fewer reps in practice, while both Tolzien and Phillips started getting more work with the No. 1 offense.
And it was not like Sherer was blind to the situation.
“You can kind of tell, obviously, when you’re getting less reps, how it’s going to be,” Sherer said. “So, you know, before I got the news I was pretty aware two or three days before of what was going on. It’s something you just take with a grain of salt and you just learn from it and move on.”
“Like another coach”
It remains unclear what Sherer has learned from the experience over the last two weeks, but the benefit to the Badgers is obvious: they get a more consistent quarterback on the field and another with plenty of game experience on the sideline.
And through two weeks, Tolzien has performed up to expectations, completing more than 60 percent of his passes while guiding the Badgers to a pair of non-conference home wins. Sherer, on the other hand, has been everything his coaches expected and more.
“I can’t say enough about Dustin Sherer,” head coach Bret Bielema said after Saturday’s game against Fresno State. “I can’t pay him, the NCAA won’t let us, but he is becoming a very, very good assistant quarterback coach. He’s in the guys’ ears, and for him to be in that situation, you know, that’s special to watch.”
Sherer has adapted well to the third position on the depth chart, doing whatever he can to help Tolzien and Phillips improve. He knows it is what is best for the team, and he enjoys his new role in the Wisconsin offense.
Not only does Sherer offer advice to his fellow quarterbacks, but he also does the same for Chryst when the latter seeks his opinion.
“It’s fun because Scott and Curt come up to me and ask me questions about game experience and about what to do during the game, so I just try to be a mentor to them,” Sherer said. “I’m kind of another coach I guess; I’m obviously in charge of all the signals. I’m also just talking straight with coach Chryst, the offensive coordinator, and it’s kind of funny, he asks me for advice as a 22-year old kid still in college.”
“I want to know what guys are thinking,” Chryst explained. “He’s down there, he’s with him and I’m up in the box. I want to know what’s the pulse, what’s going on. And Dust knows what we’re trying to get done and what this offense is; so, I’ll solicit as much help as I can.”
Tolzien likely has benefited the most from Sherer’s past experience, gaining a wealth of knowledge about what to expect prior to his first collegiate start, an experience from which Sherer is less than a year removed.
So while he may have been pretty nervous about his first two starts, Tolzien had someone to go to who knew exactly what he was going through and could help him through it. As a result, he has delivered a pair of Wisconsin victories with Sherer watching proudly on the sideline.
“Dustin’s been invaluable,” Tolzien said. “He’s been on the field Saturdays, he’s been around for five years and just how calm he is on the sidelines and you know, helping me see things, just being the guy that calms everything down on the sidelines.
“It gets chaotic sometimes with all the coaches in the headsets. Dustin’s been the one guy that’s just kind of been the calm in the storm, and it’s been awesome on Saturdays having him there.”
Bielema’s mantra is a “next man in” philosophy that expects any player at any level of the depth chart to be ready when called upon.
Through just two games this season, it has been crucial with Wisconsin’s top two centers missing time due to injuries, its top cornerback being held out of Saturday’s game with an illness and several players being limited over the last week with the flu.
As a veteran, Sherer understands just how important such a philosophy is to the team. And as such, he knows he has to be prepared as if he were playing each game, even as the third quarterback on the depth chart.
“My responsibility is to be ready,” Sherer said. “If one of those guys were to get hurt and they need me in the game — just like last year when they needed me — my responsibility is to watch film every week and prepare like I’m a backup and prepare like I’m one play away.”
Chryst echoed his sentiments and is confident Sherer will be ready if called upon.
“If you have a good team, everybody will find a role,” Chryst said. “Dust knows right now what his role is and that’s helping the offense and helping the quarterbacks. And I think he knows too that it’s a long season and there could be a time when we need him to perform.”