For the first time since the Joel Stave versus Tanner McEvoy competition began brewing in 2014, the Badgers are working through spring practice without knowing who their starting quarterback will be come fall camp.
With the graduation of both Stave, who left as Wisconsin’s all-time winningest quarterback and McEvoy, who found his niche at wide receiver and safety, redshirt senior Bart Houston and redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook have both been working with the first team in UW’s first two practices at Camp Randall Stadium.
Neither quarterback has set themselves apart, as both Houston and Hornibrook have been inconsistent in basic route tree drills, 7-on-7 drills and in noncontact, 11-on-11 scrimmages. Houston doesn’t lack arm strength by any means, but his over-the-top throwing style is a bit unconventional, and he has struggled to land deep balls and put appropriate touch on passes to receivers setting up near the sidelines. Hornibrook doesn’t have the same arm strength, but he’s been more adept at hitting deeper passes so far this spring. That being said, for nearly every nice throw the quarterbacks make there’s an equally poor pass that leaves coaches scratching their heads. Offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph stressed that there’s still time for each quarterback to develop throughout camp, however.
“I think it’s fun. I like the way those guys have kind of approached it together,” Rudolph said. “They both, I think, fed off each other in the way they work. You can tell the one sees the [other] one in and he wants to get in a little more, and then the other sees him working, and that’s the race. If you’ve got that on a team and guys feel that on each other and they motivate each other, that’s a really good thing.
“I think both of them, in different ways, have earned a lot of respect by the way they work. I’m excited for the competition and I think they are too. In the end, it’s going to make one of them better, it’s going to make both of them better.”
Houston saw limited game action last season, with the exception of his 22-of-33, 232-yard, two-touchdown and two-interception performance against Illinois Oct. 24 when Stave was knocked out of the game with a head injury late in the first quarter. Hornibrook redshirted last season, early enrollee Kareé Lyles is out for the spring with a left hip injury and redshirt sophomore walk-on Bobby Dunn, who joined the team in March, hasn’t played in a game since the 2013 WIAA Playoffs, when he was a quarterback at Edgewood High School in Madison.
While experience is at a premium at the quarterback position and will likely become more evident as the competition wears on, Wisconsin will have some familiar faces with considerable experience at offensive line. With the exception of tackle Tyler Marz, who has exhausted his eligibility, Hayden Biegel, who left the team last season after suffering a head injury and Walker Williams, who left the team this offseason after suffering a head injury at an undisclosed time, the Badgers return redshirt senior center Dan Voltz, redshirt sophomore tackle Micah Kapoi, redshirt sophomore center/guard Michael Deiter and redshirt sophomore tackle Jacob Maxwell. In addition to that experienced group, redshirt junior tackle Ryan Ramczyk, who transferred from UW-Stevens Point and sat out last season due to transfer eligibility regulations, has impressed coaches this spring.
“It’s an interesting story,” Rudolph said of Ramczyk, who has been taking snaps with the first-string offensive line. “It just goes to show you, the growth of the individual is as important as the growth of the player, and I’m excited for him. He worked his tail off last year, he got the most out of every opportunity he had. He had a chance to go down and he played on the defensive scout team, had to go against [linebacker Vince Biegel and Joe Schobert last season]. Like I said, he made the most out of it because he worked his tail off.”
In addition to Ramczyk, Rudolph has also been pleased to welcome senior running back Corey Clement back to the starting unit after Clement’s tumultuous junior campaign. After going in to the season with high expectations, Clement’s lofty goals were never met, as he was limited by sports hernia surgery in late September and was later charged with disorderly conduct Nov. 25 in an off-campus incident in Madison. Clement finished with just 48 carries for 221 yards and five touchdowns in four games.
“It’s good to have [Clement] on the field here doing stuff, I think that’s the most important thing,” Rudolph said. The more he’s around this group and he’s out there able to work, the more we feel him, the more he feels us. I’m looking forward to that continuing through the spring. I think that’s the biggest step we need to make, because we need Corey in a big way and I think Corey needs us in a big way.”
Clement admitted he came into the 2015 season thinking about his future in the NFL, and that proved to be a distraction that hung over his already tumultuous year.
“Last year was an example of [needing] to stop thinking into the future and living in the now,” Clement said. “I think God put me back on this team once again because I was thinking about the league—it was all amped up and I’m like ‘man, I get one more chance to ball out with my guys,’ but in reality, I still have another chance to play with my teammates [this season]."
Rudolph seemed genuinely impressed with Clement’s new mindset.
“I would say the first part of change is recognition and I think that’s really good that he recognizes that,” Rudolph said. “Because I think that’s growth, and I think he’ll have it, and I think he’ll show it.”
Focusing on the present isn’t the only change Clement made in the offseason, however—he’s changed his jersey number from six to 24.
“Twenty-four is kind of a new start. I’m not letting it go entirely, I’m just seeing how it goes in the spring,” Clement said. “Me and [head coach Paul Chryst] are really talking about changing my mindset and attitude toward how I approach practice every day. He kind of made a joke out of it, he was like ‘can you really handle 24, because 24 is really the workload number?’ and he even referred me to Marshawn Lynch. He was like, you ‘know Beast Mode retired, but hopefully [this is just a coincidence] because he did it.”
The number represents a positive change for Clement, who said the number is not paying homage to Kobe Bryant, who he’s not a huge fan of, but the always personable running back is still open to feedback.
“I really like the number, so I think it fits me well. If somebody disagrees, please tell me.”