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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Co-starters the right move for Badgers

Coach Bret Bielema and the UW coaching staff were faced with several tough decisions before announcing the depth chart for Saturday's opener against the Northern Illinois Huskies. It's likely that the public was slightly thrown off by a depth chart that includes shared duties at both quarterback and running back.

When the Badgers take the field to match up with the Huskies, junior Scott Tolzien and freshman Curt Phillips will both likely receive opportunities at quarterback, while junior Zach Brown and sophomore John Clay will face a similar scenario at running back.

Some may argue that these vague roles fail to give the Badgers a good starting point for their identity. But this philosophy can also open the door for something positive. These position battles not only elevate the competitors' play, but also allow Wisconsin to use its depth in a creative way in its search for success.

In the past two seasons, the Badgers selected senior quarterbacks Tyler Donovan and Allan Evridge as starters with little hesitation. Perhaps it was Evridge's meltdown in the middle of last season that changed the staff's mentality for this year and forced the Badgers to become more critical in naming their starting quarterback following this summer's camp.

The Badgers selected Tolzien and Phillips over senior Dustin Sherer despite his seven starts last season. By taking this route, Wisconsin rewarded the starters for their hard work and also showed that the team wants something more than just a one-year experiment to run the squad's offense.

This decision makes logical sense for a young team looking to build a good foundation for the future. Younger guys like Tolzien and Phillips can certainly gain a lot of experience from practice snaps and scout team. But when it comes down to it, nothing compares to real-game experience to show us if either of them have what it takes to run the offense with poise.

Wisconsin is also fortunate that their QB competition showcases two players with differing styles. Tolzien is said to be more accurate and a better decision maker in the pocket with his experience, but Phillips' athleticism and speed could serve as huge assets in many situations. Most importantly, both players know that even if one becomes the regular starter, their differing styles give them both a great chance to contribute down the line.

Wisconsin's split decision at running back was maybe even more intriguing. Clay received a great deal of offseason attention when he was named as one of 45 candidates for the Doak Walker Award, given to the nation's top running back. Last season Clay showed tremendous potential and could be in store for a huge season. But I liked the decision to include Brown, a runner who has been consistent and hardworking, as the No. 1 guy, 

Last year Brown faced tough competition with both P.J. Hill and Clay ahead of him, but let's not forget what Brown can accomplish when given a legitimate opportunity. His freshman year he started the last four games for Wisconsin, including a 250-yard effort on just 29 carries at Minnesota.

Maybe Clay didn't pull far enough ahead to gain sole possession of the No. 1 spot, but that's no reason to believe that his skills are in any way diminished. Instead, this should be attributed to Brown's solid camp and comfortable depth at running back.

It's no secret to anyone that this season is a particularly critical one for the direction and future of the Wisconsin football program. Last year's high preseason expectations followed by subpar results created disappointment and, unfortunately for the Badgers, more urgency and pressure to succeed this year.

The young squad opens with four home games at Camp Randall Stadium, giving everyone an opportunity to shake up the opening day depth chart. Clearly the Badgers have already benefited from a competitive summer camp; we'll see if they can carry this over to jump-start their season.

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What do you think about the Wisconsin depth chart? E-mail Matt at mfox2@wisc.edu.

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