Much like Lil Wayne in the 2008 pop hit “Let it Rock” by Kevin Rudolf, I’m back like I forgot something (note: my similarities with Mr. Wayne end there). In my inaugural foray into the Sports section of the Daily Cardinal, whose Opinion section I’ve been known to frequent, I’m here to write about the position that could make or break the Badgers’ hope at an undefeated regular season, a Big 10 title shot and, dare I say it, an elusive playoff spot. That, of course, is the number two quarterback spot.
In an offseason that’s been remarkably free of position battles and controversies, save for occasional offensive line shuffling and murkiness over the running back pecking order (as expected, it looks like it’ll end up being a committee), the battle for the backup signal-caller position has been the most hotly contested battle on UW’s roster. True freshman Jack Coan, who was at times ranked as a four-star prospect during his recruitment and is one of the highest-rated quarterback commits in recent Badger history, appeared to be a step ahead of redshirt freshman Karé Lyles through much of camp. Lyles, whose brother was the highest-rated commitment in UW’s 2016 class, though, had few major offers outside of the Badgers. Head coach Paul Chryst on Thursday announced that Coan would indeed be the backup to Alex Hornibrook, who was named the starting quarterback nearly six months ago.
On the surface, this announcement simply indicates that Coan seemed more game-ready through fall camp, and that the coaching staff has more confidence in him should Hornibrook go down with an injury (which is not out of the realm of possibility, considering the redshirt sophomore was hampered with ailments down the stretch in 2016). But the move to use Coan as the backup this year also helps to create a belief that this is a season that the staff is willing to go all-in on. By using Coan this year, rather than giving him a redshirt year and using Lyles instead, the Badgers are sacrificing a year of Coan’s eligibility, meaning that he will likely have completed his college career by the end of the 2020 season, rather than 2021. As Coan is a player who is often viewed as an heir apparent to Hornibrook, this is a bold move.
Letting Coan play this year, even if it’s just in garbage time during blowouts, means that he’ll likely only have one year as the starter after Hornibrook leaves, barring injury or poor play from the southpaw. Keeping Coan active this year shows that Chryst and his assistants are willing to potentially sacrifice a year of his career if it means having a security blanket in 2017. They’ve made it clear: if Hornibrook goes down, they still want the quarterback best suited to lead the team to victory, even if it means taking a chance that burning the redshirt will be all for naught.
One can hardly blame the coaching staff’s desire to put its best players, regardless of age or eligibility status, in a position to play this season. UW’s schedule, mercifully easy after last year’s gauntlet, is nothing to lose sleep over. Despite injuries to Jack Cichy and Zack Baun, UW’s defense, under new coordinator Jim Leonhard, should be stout as always. An experienced offensive line should be reminiscent of the dominant groups that are synonymous with Wisconsin football. Deep stables of receivers and running backs, coupled with the potential of a big leap forward for Hornibrook in year two, are enough to electrify the fan base. It appears as if everything could come together in 2017, and the coaches know it.
Having made the decision to play Coan this year at the expense of losing his talents for a year down the road, the coaches should now double down: they’ve shown that they believe that Coan is ready for this pivotal season, and indirectly stated their confidence in future recruiting classes to replenish the roster with talent. In that case, they should follow suit with other players, and so far, they appear to be doing just that.
True freshman running back Jonathan Taylor and wide receiver Danny Davis, who have both shown huge potential during fall camp, both appeared on the team’s official Week 1 depth chart last Sunday, and appear poised to play in the first year of their eligibility as well.
That there are three skill players talented enough to play right away for the Badgers is a testament to the recruiting and coaching of the UW staff, and that bodes well for the future of the program. But based on their apparent willingness to burn the redshirts of all three, one can intuit that for the Badgers, there is a clear philosophy in 2017: win now.