By Jake McCormick
Who the hell is Scott Tolzien?
I’m sure more than a few Badger fans are asking that right now, considering the junior has just been named the starter for the season opener against Northern Illinois. Someone had to win the battle for the starting quarterback position, and Tolzien has apparently stood out to the Wisconsin coaching staff. Bret Bielema released his starting lineup Thursday, and there were some interesting choices at other positions as well.
Tolzien is closer to John Stocco and Jim Sorgi in make-up than Brooks Bollinger and Mike Samuel. He is a pocket quarterback, possesses the most knowledge about the Badger playbook (run-run-pass is so hard, isn’t it?), has the best arm, and won’t make the mistakes of a freshman.
I don’t see the decision to start Tolzien as a bad move for the Badgers, as it allows freshman Curt Phillips time to develop into a better passer and Tolzien has another year of eligibility left. A more overlooked positive to this choice is the potential for a platoon ala Chris Leak and Tim Tebow. OK, they obviously won’t make that sort of impact, but a combination of the strong-armed Tolzien and fleet footed Phillips could throw a much-needed wrinkle into a normally boring offense.
Bielema also has named junior Zack Brown as the starting running back over highly-touted sophomore John Clay. This is the most interesting choice by far. Clay is the only Badger that is recognized nationally as a soon-to-be stud, but there are a few reasons Brown might be a better choice at this juncture. He probably understands the offense much more than Clay, and it’s possible Clay’s ankle problem has returned from the grave. Clay will see his fair share of carries in an offense that led the Big Ten in rushing yards a year ago. Personally I think Clay should be starting, but it’s not like the starters are set in stone for the entire season.
At the wide receiver position, sophomore Nick Toon and junior Isaac Anderson give Tolzien big targets with good hands. Putting Gilreath in the slot position will keep teams guessing when he goes in motion, and that’s a necessity with an inexperienced quarterback.
The defensive tackle positions have been a big question mark, and there’s only so many Rudy’s that can play at a given time. But senior Jeff Stehle has made enough of an impact in training camp to convincingly win one of the starting spots. If he can be a leader with O’Brien Schofield on the line, the defense might surprise some people.
If you read the Badger defensive preview I wrote about two weeks ago, I mentioned that the Badger linebackers were very deep and there might be some surprises. Sure enough, Blake Sorenson has been pushed out of the strong side and into a competition for the middle spot with Culmer St. Jean. The guy that beat him out? Freshman Mike Taylor, who missed a lot of camp with a neck injury suffered in high school, still managed to lock down the strong side.
Niles Brinkley led the 2008 Badgers in interceptions, but pulled an Al Harris and got beat deep a lot. He has lost his starting job to sophomore Devin Smith, who has played at a consistent level throughout training camp. I’ll sacrifice interceptions for fewer points against any day.
The Badgers aren’t expected to make a run at the Big Ten title, but this year will be interesting enough, not including the possibility of a 2010 coaching search if they fall flat. My guess would be Barry Alvarez would pull a Dick Cheney by conducting a “search,” deciding no one is good enough, and re-appointing himself to the position.
Besides that, this team is extremely young and will basically be learning on the fly. There are only seven seniors in the first and second team offense and defense combined, with two on offense and five on defense. Likewise, there are 12 first or second year players on offense and 14 on defense. So if Wisconsin starts losing, we can use the excuse that the team is for the most part still learning the college game. Yay!
Season prediction: 8-4 (4-4 in the Big Ten)
The Badgers have to go 3-0 against NIU, Fresno State, and Wofford if they are expecting to even be competitive when Michigan State comes to Madison. That’s just the start of a tough stretch of travel to Minnesota, where they will play in a real football stadium for the first time since Tainted Love was a hit (I’ll save you’re wikipedia search and tell you it was 1981), and against No. 6-ranked Ohio State. No. 22-ranked Iowa comes to town the next week to continue the tough run. After that, the rest of the schedule looks like a cakewalk, although Wisconsin always finds a way to make tough games really close and “easy” games really bad. To quote Philip Seymour Hoffman quoting a Zen master in Charlie Wilson’s War: “We’ll see.”
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