One wouldn’t say that Scott Tolzien was lost in the shuffle, but Wisconsin’s bruising, physical ground game garnered the majority of the attention and acclaim paid to the Badgers’ Rose Bowl run in 2010. After all, while Tolzien excelled — and excel he did — Wisconsin made its bones in the running game: 12th nationally in rushing yards per game, seventh in yards per carry and second in rushing touchdowns, the Badgers did things few other teams could do, like run on Ohio State, Iowa and T.C.U., most notably.
The running game returns relatively intact, as does the offensive line, to a slightly lesser degree. Hence the lack of hand-wringing, justified or not, over Tolzien’s departure. Not that Wisconsin isn’t worried: Tolzien played like an all-American in 2010, but the general consensus is that his consistency came as a direct result of playing behind the nation’s best offensive line and perhaps its deepest backfield.
We’ll see just how vital Tolzien was for Wisconsin once this September rolls around — and we’ll begin to see life after Tolzien on Saturday, when Wisconsin holds its spring game in Madison. One face we won’t see on Saturday is junior Curt Phillips, who suffered a setback in his recovery from an A.C.L. tear and will need additional surgery.
Phillips had the misfortune to suffer that same injury twice in less than a calendar year: first last March, then again in early November, shortly after he had returned to the practice field. This latest setback is not quite on the same level as an A.C.L. tear, but it does raise the specter that Phillips will be unable to make a full, completely healthy recovery from a pair of debilitating knee injuries.
His loss clears the way for Jon Budmayr, though all signs pointed towards the sophomore earning the starting nod regardless of the competition. What do we know about Budmayr? That he backed up Tolzien a year ago, completing 8 of his 10 attempts in limited duty — seven of those attempts came against Austin Peay, the other three against Indiana.
That he was a highly-regarded high school prospect: ranked as one of the better quarterback recruits in the Midwest, Budmayr chose Wisconsin over offers from Notre Dame, Nebraska, Arizona and others.
That he’s Wisconsin’s best option, based on his potential, ability and Phillips’ injury. Phillips leads when it comes to experience, even if he spent most of last season in the training room, not on the field. But this injury might rob him of his ability to make plays with his legs, which one would cite as an attribute he holds over Budmayr, a more prototypical pocket-passer — like Tolzien.
One more thing about Budmayr: if all goes according to plan — if he stays healthy — he’ll be the first sophomore quarterback to start for Wisconsin since John Stocco did so in 2004; that team went 9-3 despite scoring only 249 points, a program-low in a decade. Such an offensive showing in 2011 would be shocking, but would it be so surprising to see Wisconsin lose 100 points off its 539-point outburst of 2010, such as it did from the 2003 to 2004 seasons?
It really hinges on Budmayr, as well as Wisconsin’s depth at the position. Losing Phillips puts the position further under the microscope, as losing Budmayr — should Phillips not be healthy by September — would thrust redshirt freshman Joe Brennan into the starting role. And so on down the line: Brennan’s backup would then become one of a series of walk-ons, and so on, and on.
If depth was a minor issue in 2010, especially after Phillips went down, it becomes a major talking point as we head into 2011. For some teams, spring ball is a time for development; for Wisconsin — particularly at quarterback — the spring game may just be a time to stay healthy, avoiding injuries at key position that could derail a promising season.