Donovan, Evridge competition key for Badgers

While Wisconsin returns an abundance of experience in 2007, filling two key offensive holes creates a ticklish problem for the Badgers.

Updated: April 18, 2007, 1:55 PM ET
By Bruce Hooley | Special to ESPN.com

Bret Bielema hasn't been a head coach long enough to know whether it's better to return only a veteran quarterback and almost no one else or almost everyone except a veteran quarterback. That's about to change. When his second season at Wisconsin concludes, Bielema probably will be able to write a thesis on the subject.

After scrambling to fill multiple holes during his rookie campaign in 2006, Bielema faces a different challenge as the Badgers approach their spring game Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium.

Bret Bielema
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireBret Bielema and the Badgers are looking for a starting quarterback.
Seven starters return from a unit that led the Big Ten in scoring defense, pass defense and total defense.

Both specialists -- kicker and punter -- are back, as well.

And on offense, nine starters figure to hold down the same spots they did last season.

The two holes on that side of the scrimmage line, however, are big enough to swallow all the hopes Wisconsin has of reaching the Rose Bowl, or, even better, the BCS National Championship Game.

Quarterback John Stocco and his 29-7 career record in three seasons as a starter are gone.

So is the man who protected his blind side -- left tackle Joe Thomas, an expected top-five selection in the NFL draft.

The contrast between the abundance of experience and enormity of the departures create a ticklish problem for Bielema.

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There's enough back to inflate expectations to levels they haven't been since Ron Dayne's senior season in 1999, when Wisconsin was coming off a New Year's Day triumph in Pasadena and hoped to get back there.

Yet there's enough gone that only Bielema and his coaching staff seem to realize nothing is guaranteed for the Badgers in 2007.

"I think we can be pretty good, but we'll only be as good as our team leaders want us to be," Bielema said. "As coaches, you can say all the right things and do all the right things, but it's how your players respond on game day that determine your success. We were 12-1, but that wasn't all talent. It was how we reacted to what happened, which to me is about leadership."

Stocco wasn't the prettiest guy in the pocket, but he compiled more wins as a starter over his three seasons that much higher-profile Big Ten quarterbacks such as Troy Smith, Chad Henne, Drew Tate and Drew Stanton.

Tyler Donovan
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireTyler Donovan threw for 536 yards and four TDs in two starts last season.
Bielema doesn't mince words on the importance of picking the right guy to replace Stocco, voicing distaste for the very idea of failing to choose between senior Tyler Donovan and junior Allan Evridge.

"I know myself and I know [offensive coordinator] Paul Chryst," Bielema said. "We share a common thought that we want it to be one guy coming out of fall camp. … I just don't think we'd go that [platoon] route, because the quarterback is your field general, your commander. You want to have the utmost faith in that guy, not just the coaches, but the players, too."

Donovan already has distinguished himself by winning at Iowa last year when Stocco was injured, and against Buffalo the following week.

"I played at Iowa and they were calling me names I'd never heard before," Bielema joked. "So for Tyler to go in there and win shows something about how tough he is."

Donovan completed 33 of 50 passes for 536 yards and four touchdowns in his two starts.

Evridge, a lefty, started six games for Kansas State as a redshirt freshman in 2005, then transferred to Madison and sat out last season.

Those who cover the Badgers have compared Evridge to Stocco as a thrower and Rose Bowl winner Brooks Bollinger as a rusher.

Whoever wins the competition will have plenty of help, and not just up front from an offensive line that has only Thomas' former spot to fill. Sophomore Jake Bscherer and redshirt freshman Gabe Carimi are battling there.

Otherwise, the Badgers will go with the lineup that put up 29.2 points and 373.2 yards per game last season.

Wisconsin did that despite losing tailback Brian Calhoun early to the NFL and every receiver and tight end of note.

But the replacements were so effective, Bielema has fielded calls from some national preseason magazines wanting to pose wideouts Luke Swan (35 catches, 595 yards, 5 TDs), Paul Hubbard (38-627-5) and tight end Travis Beckum (61-903-5) as the best receiving corp in the nation.

They'll have to be to get the headlines away from sophomore tailback P.J. Hill, who had offseason shoulder surgery and only recently returned to non-contact drills.

P.J. Hill
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireP.J. Hill rushed for 1,569 yards in 2006.
Hill was just the seventh freshman in NCAA history and the second rookie in Big Ten history to surpass 1,500 yards rushing in his debut.

Hill's 1,569 yards and 15 TDs matched or exceeded Dayne's numbers in both categories from two of his four seasons that ended with Dayne as college football's career rushing leader.

The defense is veteran and yet still young, with only two seniors projected to start.

Junior cornerback Jack Ikegwuonu is the marquee name and embodies the speed Wisconsin has, but doesn't get credit for. Any questions about whether the Badgers can keep up should be directed to Arkansas' Darren McFadden, whom Ikegwuonu ran down from behind in Wisconsin's Capital One Bowl victory over the Razorbacks.

Of course, the Badgers will have to be light on their feet to contend with a schedule that takes them to Ohio State and back home to face Michigan in consecutive weeks to start November.

By then, Bielema's team could be 9-0 to go with the nine-game winning streak it carries into this season, but that's not the record he'll be preaching about in meetings.

"The thing I've learned about our conference is that anybody can get anybody on any given Saturday," Bielema said. "I'm a believer in going 1-0. That's our mentality. I'm sure our players get tired of hearing it, but every time we break after practice, that's what we say, '1-0.' The only thing that affects tomorrow is what you do today. That's where I want our minds, on what we're doing today, because that's the only thing that matters."

Bruce Hooley covered the Big Ten for 19 years and now is host of a daily talk show on WBNS-AM 1460 in Columbus, Ohio.