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Monday, September 26, 2011
Wilson's passing, personality fit Badgers

By Adam Rittenberg

It was a move Wisconsin had to make, but one that didn't come without risk.

Any addition to a successful operation, especially at a position of unique importance, has the potential to create friction and factions. Wisconsin attributes its success in the past two decades to the Wisconsin Way, a blue-collar approach rooted in player development, fundamental play and hard work. The majority of Wisconsin recruits fit the philosophy. Some, like in all programs, do not.

Wilson
Wilson threw 33 TDs last season en route to being Big Ten Quarterback of the Year for the Badgers.
Wisconsin couldn't afford having Russell Wilson fall into the latter category.

The Badgers knew they were getting a great talent in Wilson at a position -- quarterback -- of great need. But the other things, the intangibles that can take a team to another level or tear it apart, left some reasonable doubt.

No more.

"I don't think it could have possibly gone smoother," Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland said. "He's the exact guy we try to recruit, character-wise. He's the type of player you can afford to bring in as a transfer. ...

"He fits in here so well."

Granted, it's easy to say all this after watching Wilson in his first four games as a Badger.

He has completed 75.8 percent of his passes for 1,136 yards with 11 touchdowns and one interception. He ranks second nationally in quarterback rating (218.4) and 17th in total offense (311 ypg). He's on pace to throw 32 touchdown passes, 11 more than the team record. He has added a new layer to an offense -- Wilson averages 12 yards per pass attempt, tops among FBS quarterbacks with at least 50 attempts -- that shattered almost every team record in 2010. He has fans and media types brainstorming the last time Wisconsin had a quarterback like this.

But it's Wilson's personality, not his passing, that has his teammates and coaches buzzing.

"You knew of him as a player, but when you're around him every day, you understand the work he puts into it and the way he approaches things," offensive coordinator Paul Chryst said. "He comes every day looking to get better. He's competitive, he's hard on himself, works great with the players. All the things you can’t necessarily see on film are areas he excels in."

Wilson has been a national story for months, as many chronicled his route from NC State to minor league baseball and eventually to Wisconsin. His hot start has thrust him -- fairly or unfairly -- into the Heisman Trophy discussion a year after another quarterback transfer (Auburn's Cam Newton) won the award.

"One area that's surprised me is how well he handles all that's going on around him," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "People are starting to talk Heisman, people are trying to anoint him king, and all he does is keep giving credit to his players, his coaches, his offensive line, his daily preparation. And it’s not a false bravado, either. ...

"Russell Wilson believes in what makes you good every day, and that’s what he sticks to."

Wilson didn't have to change himself to adapt to his new team. By all accounts, he approached football the same way at NC State.

If anything, his visit to Madison in May brought some relief. The Wisconsin players weren't foreign to him.

"I noticed the high character here," he said, "the work ethic here."

The big questions after Wilson arrived on campus in July surrounded how he'd fit in with the Wisconsin offense and how fast he could make the adjustment. Although Chryst adapts to his players, he runs a proven scheme that piled up points and yards in 2010.

The if-it-ain't-broke adage applied, no matter who was playing quarterback.

"No doubts at all about how good he was," running back Montee Ball said of Wilson, "but I had a little doubt about how fast he was going to pick up the playbook."

By the end of camp, "he was teaching us," Ball said.

"It's what I expected," Wilson said, "maybe a little bit more in terms of how well everything's gone so far. But at the same time, I had full confidence in learning the offense, confidence in the guys I was playing with. That's why I came here."

Many folks outside America's Dairyland are already tired of the Wilson hype and point to the competition he has faced thus far. Wilson has yet to face an FBS defense ranked higher than 70th nationally, although, to be fair, he's partly responsible for those low ratings.

But Wisconsin didn't bring in Wilson to beat UNLV, Oregon State, Northern Illinois and South Dakota. Wilson didn't come to Madison to beat those teams.

He came to play elite opponents in national showcase games on grand stages.

Nebraska? Check. Saturday night on ABC? Check. Camp Randall Stadium? Check.

We'll find out a lot about Wilson this week against the eighth-ranked Huskers, who boast a star-studded defense that will finally be at full strength.

"The main thing is playing relaxed and playing with confidence," he said. "The preparation has really prepared me for a big game. Playing quarterback, you have to make sure the other 10 guys are on the same page, playing with confidence. There’s going to be storms, but you have to weather the storms."

Nebraska's speed on defense jumped out to Wilson when he watched tape of the Blackshirts. The feeling is mutual.

"He can do it with his arm, he can do it with his feet," Nebraska safety Austin Cassidy said. "Any time you can go up against arguably the best quarterback in college football, that's obviously going to be a very good test."

After acing the first four weeks, Wilson's biggest tests await.