Wisconsin's Chryst wants answers at quarterback

March, 12, 2009
3/12/09
11:19
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Paul Chryst isn't trying to skirt his responsibilities as a well-paid decision maker, but he also knows that the easier his choices are, the better off Wisconsin should be this fall.

The Badgers' offensive coordinator is gearing up for another quarterback competition, which begins March 24 as the team opens spring practice. Chryst will be evaluating four players -- senior Dustin Sherer, junior Scott Tolzien, redshirt freshman Curt Phillips and true freshman Jon Budmayr -- aiming to lead a Badgers offense that ranked third in the Big Ten last fall but flat-lined at key times.

 
  David Stluka/Getty Images
  Dustin Sherer helped lead Wisconsin to wins in four of its final five regular-season games.

"When you're deciding who your starters are at quarterback or any other position, there really aren't a lot of hard calls," Chryst said. "If you've got a good team, it's pretty clear to see who your guys are. What was hard about last year was there wasn't a lot of separation and there was inconsistency. That's what makes hard decisions."

Chryst didn't make any decisions on the quarterback spot last spring and expressed disappointment about the lack of separation. Allan Evridge eventually claimed the job late in fall camp, but Chryst didn't enter the season feeling great about the position.

"That was my biggest concern, and it was because there wasn't separation, because there was inconsistent play," he said. "That's your worst-case scenario. I remember in camp, a couple times pleading for someone to take the job and also talking to them about [the fact that] this is a position that's got a big question mark on it. And I kind of challenged them, 'Who's going to take the question mark off and put an exclamation point on it?'

"If you look back and if you're truly honest with yourself, it was a question mark and at times, a negative behind that position. We, as a group, have got to take that personal and don't want that spot to be the weak link on the offense."

Quarterback play hurt Wisconsin during a disappointing 2008 campaign that began with legit BCS bowl aspirations. Evridge started the first five games, throwing as many touchdowns as interceptions (5), before giving way to Sherer, who helped Wisconsin to wins in four of its final five regular-season games but struggled in the Champs Sports Bowl against Florida State.

After a rough baptism at Iowa, Sherer threw six touchdown passes  and only two interceptions in the final six games. He brought a good presence to the huddle but was prone to taking too many sacks, which proved costly in the bowl game.

"His personality fits who we want to be," Chryst said. "He's been a great guy in our program, plays with toughness and did some really good things last year. He's got to do that on a very consistent level. He's got to play like a fifth-year guy, you know."

Chryst has similar expectations for Tolzien, who enters his fourth year and should be well versed in the scheme. But the bigger buzz this spring will be around Phillips and Budmayr, two decorated high school quarterbacks who came to Wisconsin with plenty of hype.

Phillips was named Gatorade Player of the Year in Tennessee and set a state single-season record with 4,008 yards of total offense as a senior. Budmayr, an early enrollee, is Wisconsin's top quarterback recruit in years.

If one man catches on quickly this spring, Wisconsin might have its quarterback of the future.

"Curt has done a good job with his redshirt year and is certainly ahead of Jon a little bit, only because of time," Chryst said. "But both are different. Curt's a little bit bigger, a little bit more athletic. What we liked about Jon in recruiting him was he's a pretty pure thrower. Coming in early, which can be hard, he's done a good job with that and seems to be preparing himself well."

The four quarterbacks will take equal reps to begin spring drills, but Chryst hopes to be dividing things differently when the spring game kicks off April 18. Wisconsin's offense faces other challenges in the spring, namely replacing three-time 1,000-yard rusher P.J. Hill and fullbacks Chris Pressley and Bill Rentmeester.

A group of wide receivers plagued by dropped passes throughout last season also needs to "drop that young tag," Chryst said.

But it's no secret that improving the offense starts at quarterback, and Chryst wants an answer this time around.

"Each spring, each year, you go in with the approach that one guy's got to get better," Chryst said. "It's always, 'Can they do some things well and can they repeat that with consistency?' I would love to have the picture clear itself up, and typically, it does. But I guess we'll find that out."

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