Recruiting is the lifeblood of any college football program, and few understand the importance of player fit to program than the Wisconsin Badgers. How else do you explain Wisconsin ranking so low on the recruiting services year-in and year-out and continuously being a conference title contender?
So, over the next few weeks we’re going to look back over the last decade some of the biggest hits on the recruiting trail for the Badgers.
Why not start it out with the position everyone looks at first on the recruiting trail — quarterback. At UW that hasn’t always meant landing the big, flashy names, but in some cases it has meant grabbing some of the best potential-laden prospects in the country and letting them shine with some quality coaching.
Having a decade of quarterbacks to look through, who stood out of the crowd on the recruiting trail and in their careers?
*all recruiting stats from 247Sports composite rankings
5. Curt Phillips (2008)
Recruiting Info: 3-star, No. 367 nationally, No. 14 Pro-Style QB, No. 6 in Tennessee
Career QB Stats: 60-107 (56.1%), 642 yards, 5 touchdowns 5 interceptions
Just how bad has Wisconsin’s recruiting been at the quarterback position in the past decade? Bad enough that a part-time starter with not much to show for time at UW lands on this list. Phillips came in to the program as the second-highest rated member of the 2008 class, but never really took control of the starting quarterback position.
Some of that was due to guys like Scott Tolzien being ahead of him for the majority of his career. However, Phillips had a golden opportunity to be the man in both 2012 and 2013 with wide open quarterback battles taking place both years.
Instead, he was a stop-gap measure thanks to Joel Stave getting injured in 2012 and played in just 15 games throughout his career. In his most extensive action in 2012, Phillips completed just 46 of 81 passes in seven games (averaging a whopping 11.6 pass attempts per game) and was more a figure head handing the ball off than anything else.
Having a career completion rate of just 56.1 percent and throwing for five touchdowns to five interceptions sums up the sorry state of quarterback recruits signed to national letters of intent this past decade.
4. Bart Houston (2012)
Recruiting Info: 4-star, No. 211 Nationally; No. 6 Pro-style QB; No. 25 Overall in CA
Career QB Stats: 125-192 (65.1%), 1,540 yards, 9 touchdowns, 5 interceptions
Few quarterbacks have come in to the University of Wisconsin with as much anticipation as Bart Houston did. He was an Elite 11 finals competitor, which means a lot in quarterback recruiting circles, and played at California powerhouse De La Salle high school.
Unfortunately, that potential didn’t lead to a whole lot of production in his days in Madison. He constantly was passed up for the starting job, with the likes of Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy edging him out over and over again in open competition.
Houston did finally earn the starting gig this past season, however part-way through the third game of the season he gave way to redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook. The two eventually would split time and Houston would start the final few games after Hornibrook suffered a concussion against Minnesota.
This past season was by far the most productive of Houston’s career, completing 68.1 percent of his passes for 1,245 yards and five touchdowns to three interceptions. The best thing Houston was able to do was make sure to take care of the ball more often than not. He wasn’t going to make the incredible throw, opting to take whatever the defense gave him.
Moves like that certainly helped that completion rate look real good. However, he would finish with a 8.0 yards per attempt average on his career. Not exactly eye-popping numbers for one of the supposed best quarterbacks in the country coming out of high school.
3. Tanner McEvoy (2013)
Recruiting Info: 3-star, No. 41 nationally, No. 1 Dual-Threat QB, No. 3 in Arizona (all JUCO rankings)
Career QB Stats: 65-112 (58%), 709 yards, 5 touchdowns, 6 interceptions
What the heck is this guy doing on the list? Well, let’s remember that McEvoy came in to help transition Wisconsin’s offense under then head coach Gary Andersen. McEvoy wasn’t much of a quarterback, but he did manage to become a dangerous part of Wisconsin’s secondary and is now plying his trade in the NFL as a wide receiver for the Seattle Seahawks.
In terms of athletic ability, no quarterback coming in to Wisconsin had it better than McEvoy. That helped him become a weapon on both sides of the ball, just not at quarterback.
He was sort of forced down the throat of a team not ready for the full transition to the spread-option look. That’s not totally his fault. But, he didn’t help himself as a pure quarterback with accuracy issues and an inability to avoid turnovers.
Eventually, Andersen was forced to admit the Badgers weren’t ready for the full switch in 2014 and in came Joel Stave.
Still, his senior season wasn’t a waste in 2015 as new head coach Paul Chryst and Co. made him in to a dangerous free safety. He put up 74 career tackles to go along with seven interceptions and 10 passes defended. Offensively, he was a rushing and receiving weapon that had 82 carries for 706 yards and eight touchdowns rushing. McEvoy also put up eight receptions for 10 yards in this three years at UW.
While he may not have panned out at quarterback, he was far from a bust for the Badgers as a pure football player.
2. Joel Stave (2011)
Recruiting Info: Walk-On
Career QB Stats: 613-1,031 (59.5%), 7,635 yards, 48 touchdowns, 37 interceptions
Few players in Wisconsin history have the crazy story that Joel Stave had for his career. After all, he went from walk-on forgotten early-enrollee in the spring of 2011 to a potential-laden “star” of the spring game to a player that started parts or all of his next four years in a Bader uniform.
Stave was beaten out in 2012 originally by Maryland transfer Danny O’Brien, but that lasted all of two-and-a-half games. With the Badgers trailing against Utah State (which would only become more ironic after the season), Stave entered and engineered a comeback victory over the Aggies at Camp Randall Stadium.
He would then enter the 2013 season as part of a completely open competition thanks to Bret Bielema taking off for Arkansas and Utah State’s Gary Andersen coming on board. Stave won competition No. 2 for his job and finished that season completing 61.9 percent of his passes for 2,494 yards and 22 touchdowns to 13 interceptions. It was an up and down season to say the least, and with Andersen not wanting a pure drop-back passer at QB, it set up the perfect opportunity to open a third competition at the QB spot.
Stave would initially drop his second of three open competition to Tanner McEvoy to start the 2014 season. However, Stave would be called upon again as McEvoy struggled in the passing game and UW needed a spark. Stave nearly completed a crazy comeback win over the Wildcats in Evanston, but the hole was just a bit too deep. He would stay as the starter for the rest of the season and guid UW to an appearance in the Outback Bowl against Auburn.
After three years of open competitions, another head coaching change (the third since Stave arrived on campus in 2011) saw the end of that cycle. He would be named the starter from the moment Paul Chyrst arrived on campus and never looked back.
In the end, Stave had one of the strangest but also longest careers in Wisconsin history. He ended his career in the Cardinal and White second in passing yards, attempts, completions and touchdowns. While he may never have set the world on fire nationally, he goes down as one of the best quarterbacks in UW history according to the record books.
Longevity as a starter certainly helped, but Stave also had himself moments of pure brilliance. He is now in the NFL as a backup quarterback with the Minnesota Vikings.
1. Russell Wilson (2011)
Recruiting Info: Graduate Transfer
Stats at Wisconsin: 206-234 (72%), 2,879 yards, 31 touchdowns, 3 interceptions; 73 carries, 320 yards, 5 touchdowns rushing
This may be a little bit of a cheat, but the reality is that graduate transfers are every bit as much a recruit as a junior in high school is. Schools all over the country were looking at the talent that Wilson had and after visiting late in the spring, Wilson chose the Badgers over all other suitors.
As the saying goes, the rest, my friends, is history.
Wilson went on to make what was a mess of a quarterback situation (it was so bad that a little-known walk-on named Joel Stave was the best of the bunch during the annual spring game) in to one of the most magical seasons in Badger history at the position.
He took what Scott Tolzien had just done and went to another level, leading UW back to the Rose Bowl after winning the first-ever Big Ten championship game over Michigan State. Although the Badgers lost that game, Wilson balled out like usual and propelled him to a third-round draft pick of the Seattle Seahawks because of it.
Without Wilson coming to Wisconsin in 2011 who knows where his professional career would’ve taken him or where the Badgers football program would be right now. Simply put, Wilson was a one-of-a-kind talent in a one-of-a-kind season.
Just watch and enjoy: