So the big news finally dropped. Russell Wilson, considered by some the most sought-after transfer in college football history, made it official today: He’s going to be a Badger. Let’s take a look at who he is and venture some guesses about what his move to the Big Ten means for his new team and the conference as a whole.
Originally from Richmond, Virginia, Russell Wilson started at quarterback for three years at North Carolina State. While there he led the Wolfpack to two bowl games (including a victory over West Virginia in last year’s Champs Sports Bowl), won the 2008 ACC Rookie of the Year Award, and made two all-conference teams (first team in ’08, second team in ’10). During the three years he started he totaled 93 touchdowns (76 passing, 17 rushing) and threw 26 interceptions.
Historically speaking, what does the quarterback position mean for the Wisconsin offense?
Everybody knows that Wisconsin runs the ball. Except in the third quarter of a Rose Bowl against an undersized team that runs a 4-2-5 and is getting blown off the ball by a mammoth offensive line to the tune of six yards per carry (Paul Chryst, I will never forgive you. Ever.). Look at the good Wisconsin teams from the last two decades and you will see that good quarterback play lies at the heart of it (Darrell Bevell in 1993, Mike Samuel in 1998, Brooks Bollinger in 1999, 2000, and 2002, John Stocco in 2005 and 2006, and Scott Tolzien in 2009-2010). The disappointing teams (2001, 2004, 2008) featured Jim Sorgi (filling in for the oft-injured Bollinger), a young John Stocco, and the Allan Evridge-Dustin Sherer combination that still causes me to shudder (an aside: I was at the 2008 Wisconsin-Michigan showdown, aka the 19-0 game. After Michigan pulled to within 19-14 in the fourth quarter a Wolverine fan turned to me and said, "This is where you guys run the ball ten straight times, kill the clock, and send us home sad." Literally fifteen seconds after he completed his sentence Alan Evridge struck: a pick-six.).
When running the ball Wisconsin needs an inside-outside game to keep defenders from eschewing outside containment and just shooting gaps. The option looks that Mike Samuel and Brooks Bollinger provided offered the perfect balance to the between-the-tackles attack headed by Ron Dayne in 1998 and 1999. When Michael Bennett (a speed guy who always tried to bounce the play outside) took over the starting job in 2000 Wisconsin’s offense was not nearly as effective as it had been beforehand. It is also worth noting that Bollinger got the starting job in 1999 after Scott Kavanaugh, a traditional pocket quarterback, failed to provide the offense that dimension. We see this play itself out again in 2003 and 2004, with pocket passers Jim Sorgi and John Stocco incapable of providing balance for Anthony Davis.
While that does keep the defense from stuffing the box full between the hashes, it’s only a small part of the equation. Bucky still needs something of a passing game to keep the safeties honest. This worked to perfection in 2005 and 2006 when a mature John Stocco utilized a bevy of skilled players to wreak havoc. One need only look at what Scott Tolzien did during Wisconsin’s two gut-check drives of 2010 (the last touchdown against Ohio State and the winning score at Iowa). At its best Wisconsin is a program that will blow out the lesser schools by simply bludgeoning them with the run and play tight games that come down to the fourth quarter against the conference’s better squads. To win those games you need a quarterback.
Can Wilson be that guy? I believe so.
What can we expect of Wilson as Wisconsin’s quarterback?
Difficult to say at this point. On paper he’s an immediate upgrade over projected starter Jon Budmayr. Right now we’re two months and a couple of days away from the opener against UNLV. Is that enough time for Wilson to learn the offense? Develop a rapport with his teammates? Granted, the Wisconsin offense is little more than handing the ball off to Montee Ball or James White and then hitting the tight end for ten yards off a play-action fake. But under Paul Chryst the team now sprinkles in a number of pass plays predicated on timing (such as the short wheel route to Toon that netted a few first downs against Ohio State or the shovel pass used against Iowa). Those plays, called at the right time, can be devastating. Tolzien practiced those throws for three years before making his first start. Wilson will have one training camp.
While we’re expressing concerns, Wilson’s interception numbers are troubling. But how much of that stemmed from him being NC State’s only real weapon offensively? How much of it was over-exposure. Consider: Wilson threw almost as many passes in 2010 (527) as Scott Tolzien did in 2009 and 2010 combined (594).
Schematically I do not expect any major departures from what we know and love. This is Wisconsin: the ground game will be established and everything else will be built off of that. But just as Chryst has incorporated a number of timing routes designed to exploit defenses looking to shoot gaps, I expect him to work in some wrinkles that will utilize Wilson’s playmaking abilities. Most probably more quarterback draws, bootlegs, and even the occasional option look. But not much else. It bears remembering Wilson chose Wisconsin over Auburn because the pro-style offense best affords him the opportunity to showcase his talents to NFL scouts, so I would not expect much along the lines of spread formations, the wild cat, or a semi-permanent shotgun formation. But Chryst has shown a tendency to become a little too enamored with the passing game…
If forced to guess, I’ll venture Wilson is asked to be Tolzien 2.0: highly accurate, limited turnovers, hit the play-action pass, and convert the occasional third-and-long. Only better and with the ability to make things happen when the pocket collapses.
What does this mean for the conference?
If Wisconsin was a division favorite pre-Wilson, what are they with a proven commodity at the team’s biggest question mark? Probably conference favorites. But the skeptic in me remains apprehensive for the reasons listed above. How will Wilson adjust to a new team? A new conference? His play might be the difference between 7-1 and 4-4 in league play.
The transfer does strengthen the conference and might cause me to revise my prediction the B1G will produce only once BCS bowl-bound team. Wisconsin goes from BCS dark horse to legitimate contender (some are going as far as to anoint them national title contenders; I’m not). Regardless, the conference should now have two teams in the pre-season Top 10 (Nebraska and Wisconsin) another in the top 20 (Michigan State), and another four with legitimate shots at the top 25 (Iowa, Ohio State, Penn State, and Illinois). Does Wisconsin’s rising stock mean the B1G is a top two or three conference?
What does this say about the Wisconsin program?
Shameless segue to Wednesday’s article? Yes. Is the Wilson transfer indicative of the Wisconsin program’s rise to elite? Consider: in recent years Wisconsin has signed out-of-state recruits offered by Florida, California, Michigan, Notre Dame, Penn State, and Ohio State. After a two-year swoon in 2007-08, the program seems to be trending upwards. If Wilson can get Bucky to a second consecutive Rose Bowl will we be talking about Wisconsin as a national power?