The Wisconsin football team is known for its running backs and offensive linemen.
The Badgers are not known for their quarterbacks, perhaps because of what they are known for instead. (Nor are they known for their wide receivers, even though their pass-catchers include such NFL players as Al Toon, Nick Toon, Tony Simmons, Lee Evans, Chris Chambers and Brandon Williams, plus tight end Owen Daniels.)
The other thing the Badgers are known for is players that come out of nowhere to become star players, such as walk-on J.J. Watt. In fact, the Badgers have produced far more players on Watt’s level than they have succeeded with recruits highly rated by self-proclaimed recruiting experts.
24/7 Sports decided to spend time …
Looking back at how the top 10 highest-rated quarterbacks in program history fared during their careers at the University of Wisconsin.
Stocco checked in as the 22nd highest-rated quarterback in UW history. A low three-star prospect, Stocco was the No. 26 ranked pro-style quarterback in the class of 2002, per the 247sports composite. Stocco was a three-year starter for the Badgers and went 29-7 during his career, which saw him throw for 7,227 yards and 44 touchdowns.
Tolzien spent seven seasons in the NFL. A two-year starter, Tolzien went 21-5 and led Wisconsin to a Big Ten Championship and a Rose Bowl berth in 2010. That year, Tolzien had the most efficient season in school history, completing 72.9 percent of his passes for 2,459 yards and 16 touchdowns to just six interceptions.
Tolzien barely made the cut as a three-star prospect and was the No. 49 ranked pro-style quarterback in the 2006 class.
Hornibrook was a mid-three-star prospect and the No. 34 ranked pro-style quarterback in the 2015 class. His career didn’t finish at the way it started, but he could have been rated higher.
As a redshirt freshman, Hornibrook won the starting job by the start of Big Ten play in 2016. During his three seasons as a starter for the Badgers, Hornibrook went 26-6, including a 2-0 mark in bowl games, which includes the Orange Bowl win over Miami (FL). He threw for 5,438 yards and 47 touchdowns, but did have 33 interceptions.
Here’s how the top 10 quarterback recruits for Wisconsin in the 247sports composite era performed during their careers…
10. TYLER DONOVAN
Tyler Donovan is the only Wisconsin native to land a full scholarship from the Badgers as a quarterback in 247sports composite history.
The Arrowhead grad earned the starting job in 2007 and threw for 2,607 yards and 17 touchdowns. A dual-threat, Donovan also ran for 277 yards and five scores on the ground. That season, Donovan led UW to a 9-4 record and a berth in the Outback Bowl.
Donovan was the ninth-ranked dual-threat quarterback in the class of 2003.
9. DEACON HILL
Deacon Hill won’t arrive at Wisconsin until 2021. The Badgers got a very early commitment from the three-star quarterback last June. Hill had offers from Kansas State and Nevada before giving his pledge to Paul Chryst.
Like Graham Mertz before him, UW offered Hill before he was ever a full-time starter at the varsity level. Hill got the nod at Santa Barbara High School in 2019 and all he did was throw for 3,102 yards and 33 touchdowns to just seven interceptions.
8. JACK COAN
The story is still being written on Jack Coan, but his first season as a full-time starter was a successful one.
Coan completed 69.6 percent of his passes as a junior for 2,727 yards and 18 touchdowns to just five interceptions. Statistically, you could argue Coan had the third-best season in school history behind Russell Wilson in 2011 and Scott Tolzien in 2010. Coan led the Badgers to a 10-4 record, a Big Ten West title, and a Rose Bowl berth.
Coming out of Sayville High School in New York, Coan was the nation’s No. 16 ranked pro-style quarterback per 247sports. He had other offers from Michigan, Miami (FL), Nebraska, and West Virginia among others.
7. TANNER MCEVOY
When former head coach Gary Andersen landed this junior college product, it appeared the future of Wisconsin’s offense was changing fast.
Tanner McEvoy originally committed to South Carolina after high school. After just one season, he took his talents to Arizona Western College, where he blossomed into the nation’s top ranked junior college quarterback recruit in 2013.
The Badgers beat out Florida, Oregon, and West Virginia for his services, however, McEvoy could never truly beat out Joel Stave for the starting job. Andersen rolled with McEvoy at the start of the 2014 campaign, but things went from bad to worse after a season opening loss to LSU. Down double-digits at Northwestern in the Big Ten opener, Andersen handed the keys back over to Stave. While UW lost to the Wildcats, they won out in the regular season, claiming another Big Ten West title.
McEvoy tried out wide receiver and showed a lot of promise, but filled a big void for UW at safety. He started 12 games on defense during the 2015 season and led the team with six interceptions.
While he did go undrafted, McEvoy did spend three seasons in the NFL with various teams.
6. SEAN LEWIS
Sean Lewis was graded as a quarterback coming out of high school, but wound up at tight end at Wisconsin. The nation’s No. 14 ranked pro-style quarterback in the 2006 class, Lewis chose the Badgers over Iowa, Northwestern, and Purdue.
The 6-foot-7 Lewis caught just one pass for seven yards during his career, but quickly transitioned to coaching after UW playing days in 2007. Lewis returned his alma mater, Richards High School in Oak Lawn, Ill., and became their head coach. After just three seasons, Lewis wound up on the staff at Nebraska-Omaha as the tight ends coach.
Lewis landed his first Division 1 head coaching job in 2018, taking over at Kent State. In two seasons, he owns a 9-16 record, including a 7-6 mark in 2019.
5. JON BUDMAYR
Jon Budmayr was a three-star recruit and the No. 18 ranked pro-style quarterback in the class of 2009. Injuries derailed the career of Budmayr, who hung up the cleats after the 2010 season.
Fortunately for the Badgers, they got an assistant coach out of the deal. Budmayr became a student assistant in 2012 and 2013. He then worked under Paul Chryst at Pittsburgh as a graduate assistant before returning to Madison in the same role.
Once the NCAA approved schools to hire a ninth assistant in 2018, Budmayr made a seamless transition as UW’s quarterbacks coach.
4. CURT PHILLIPS
Injuries took their toll on the career of Curt Phillips, who was the first 247sports composite four-star quarterback in program history.
Phillips was granted a sixth-year in Madison in 2013 after suffering three separate ACL tears throughout his career. While he only played in three games in 2013, it was the 2012 season where Phillips made his mark.
The Badgers went into the season with Maryland transfer Danny O’Brien at quarterback. After that didn’t work out, former head coach Bret Bielema turned to redshirt freshman walk-on Joel Stave. However, Stave was injured late in the season, leaving Phillips to take the reigns against Ohio State and Penn State to close out the 2012 season.
After close losses to the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions, Phillips took UW into Indianapolis as a heavy underdog to Nebraska in the conference title game. While it was Melvin Gordon, James White, and Montee Ball who ran wild, Phillips was 6-of-8 passing for 71 yards and also caught a pass from Ball that set up a first half touchdown.
Phillips finished his career with 642 yards passing and five touchdowns.
3. D.J. GILLINS
Unfortunately, we never got to see the best of D.J. Gillins during his UW career or beyond.
The former four-star quarterback was a big pull by former head coach Gary Andersen out of Jacksonville. Gillins was the fourth-ranked dual-threat quarterback in the class of 2014 with offers from the likes of Texas Tech, West Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Georgia Tech, and Arizona.
Gillins was thought of as the future of UW’s offense until Andersen left for Oregon State. Once Paul Chryst arrived on the scene, it became clear that Gillins wasn’t a fit for the pro-style offense. The Badgers tried Gillins out at wide receiver, but he ultimately left for Pearl River Community College.
Gillins wound up at SMU and then transferred to UTSA, but suffered a torn ACL at each stop and only played in 10 career games at the Division 1 level.
2. BART HOUSTON
Bart Houston didn’t have the career most expected from him, but credit the California native for sticking around, paying his dues, and helping lead Wisconsin to a Big Ten West title and Cotton Bowl win during his senior season.
At the time, Houston was the first Top247 quarterback the program had ever signed. The nation’s sixth-ranked pro-style signal caller in the 2012 class, Houston chose Wisconsin over UCLA, California, Iowa, Arizona, and Colorado. He was also an Elite 11 finalist — a competition between the best high school quarterbacks in the country.
Houston was a backup for four seasons prior to winning the job in 2016. After leading the Badgers to a huge upset win over LSU, he and the offense began to sputter in the non-conference finale against Georgia State. That allowed Hornibrook to emerge and win the job.
However, Houston still played a vital role in the offense and often provided a spark off the bench. He finished 2016 by completing 65.9 percent of his passes for 1,086 yards and five touchdowns while sharing snaps with Hornibrook.
In his final game as a Badger, Houston was 11-of-12 passing for 159 yards in the Cotton Bowl.
1. GRAHAM MERTZ
Time will well if Graham Mertz lives up to the hype as the top rated quarterback recruit in program history. The former All-American Bowl MVP, Mertz backed up Coan in year one and presumably will do the same in 2020 as well.
The only Top 100 quarterback that the Badgers have ever signed, Mertz was the nation’s third-ranked pro-style quarterback in the 2019 class per 247sports and the 247sports composite. He chose UW over Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Oregon, and Michigan to name a few.
In his few games of duty last season, Mertz did look sharp. He completed nine of his 10 pass attempts for 73 yards.
Not on this list are two transfers — Russell Wilson, the best UW quarterback based on his single season after transferring from North Carolina State (his UW quarterback rating: 191.8), and Randy Wright, whose transfer from Notre Dame prompted coach Dave McClain to change his offense from the option to a pro-style offense. The result in Wright’s case was four winning seasons (which had never before happened in Badger history), three bowl games and the program’s first bowl win. The Badgers spent the next decade trying to replace Wright. Also not on this list is Darrell Bevell, who transferred from Northern Arizona to UW, quarterbacking the Badgers to their first Rose Bowl win and their third bowl win in team history.
What is interesting is that three quarterbacks on this list will be on this team by the 2021 season. (Which might be “next season’ depending on what further havoc the coronavirus does to this country.) The Badgers usually (including most of the quarterbacks on this list) have had what is derisively called a “game manager” on this list — someone told to hand off the ball without fumbling and complete safe, short passes.
Matt Zemek of USA Today thinks the Badgers should modify their approach:
If you have followed the past few months of Badgers Wire analysis of Wisconsin football, you know that Super Bowl LIV conveyed a very important message to Paul Chryst and the program at large.
We have discussed all the merits of UW football — the consistency, the dependability, the steadiness, the toughness, the time-tested approach cultivated and sustained by Barry Alvarez for decades. The coaches change, but Wisconsin keeps winning. The Badgers continue to be the best of the Big Ten West. They continue to play in important January bowl games. The program is in a good place. It has remained in a good place for quite some time. The program is doing well.
Yet, if Wisconsin ever does want to make the jump from very good to great — from the upper reaches of college football’s second tier to the very top tier in the sport — we know what has to happen: The Badgers have to be able to throw, and hit, the deep ball with regularity. It is the one true gap (or absence, or deficiency, whichever word you prefer) in the larger identity and profile of Wisconsin football in this golden era for the program, which is now almost 30 years old, dating back to the 1994 Rose Bowl win over UCLA, which got the party started.
This is why the use of Jack Coan and Graham Mertz in 2020 is such an interesting and important point of focus. We wrote about this point when explaining how Steve Spurrier used to juggle quarterbacks at Florida. We also wrote on a broader level about Wisconsin needing to have a Plan B when Plan A wasn’t entirely sufficient, chiefly against opponents such as Ohio State. Wisconsin could not hit the deep ball in second halves against the Buckeyes. The UW offense bogged down and wasn’t able to rescue itself with quick strikes against Ohio State.
How fitting it was, then, that in Super Bowl LIV, the Kansas City Chiefs — stymied by Ohio State’s Nick Bosa and the rest of the San Francisco 49ers — broke free from Bosa’s physical prowess by hitting the long pass. The Chiefs’ ability to finally hit deep balls ignited their fourth-quarter surge and led them to victory.
The 49ers had the most physically imposing team in the NFL this season. Green Bay Packer fans don’t need an explanation of that point. Much like the Nick Saban Alabama teams of the early 2010s, the 49ers were the team opponents simply couldn’t beat with smashmouth ball. The 49ers were the best embodiment of it, so opponents would not win by playing the same style. This is why Gus Malzahn of Auburn has had so much success against Saban: He hasn’t tried to beat Saban at his own game. One could say the same for Hugh Freeze when he coached at Ole Miss and beat Saban multiple times. They didn’t try to beat an opponent at that opponent’s foremost point of strength. They knew they had to use speed to counter Alabama’s brute strength. They knew they had to throw downfield to change the equation.
Yes, the Badgers do not have a Patrick Mahomes on their team. They once had Russell Wilson, but Russell Wilsons don’t grow on trees. To be sure, UW doesn’t have the superstar QB who makes it a lot easier to throw down the field. Nevertheless, against Nick Bosa of Ohio State and the rest of a fire-breathing defense, the Kansas City Chiefs changed the equation by hitting long passes.
Super Bowl LIV reminded Paul Chryst that if he really wants to beat Ohio State and take the next step as a program, completing deep passes has to be part of the picture.
The Badgers need to dig the long ball.
One wonders if, contrary to his claim, Zemek has ever watched UW football. At what point have the Badgers ever been a throwing team, let alone a team that dials long distance on a regular basis?
Why? Because the current approach has worked for sustained success. Since the 1993 season, the Badgers have had two losing seasons. The last time UW didn’t play in a bowl game was the 2001 season. They also have played in more Big Ten championship games than any other team, including even Ohio State. (UW’s six championship games are six more than Michigan, which must be making Bo Schembechler roll over in his grave.)
Being able to run the ball keeps the ball away from the other team’s offense. This more often than not works unless you’re facing a team that can score from anywhere (say, Ohio State), or stops the Badgers from running as they want (i.e. the four Big Ten championship losses), or if UW puts the ball on the ground or in the wrong hands too often (which is a formula for nearly team to lose).
Until the Badgers get a head coach from outside the current program, they will be a run-first and run-second program.