- Mitch Sherman, ESPN Staff Writer
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Is this the Year of the Quarterback in the Big Ten? With NFL draft hopefuls, veteran returning starters and other intriguing prospects taking snaps around the league in 2015, it just might be. All week long, we're taking a closer look at some of this fall's most interesting Big Ten signal-callers. . .
If it’s happened to a college quarterback, it’s probably happened to Joel Stave.
In four-plus seasons at Wisconsin, Stave has been the intriguing rookie, the understudy to a star, the hyped young starter, the methodical leader, the forgotten man and, in his most recent role, the underappreciated leader.
“He’s played a lot of football,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said.
Chryst recruited Stave to Madison out of Greenfield, Wisconsin, left for three seasons and returned to find the same guy, waiting to write the final chapter of his career.
How will that chapter read? Stave, as a senior in 2015, is set for a dramatic last act. It may feature his crowning achievement -- a team he can call his own and a chance to break Brook Bollinger’s school record of 30 wins as a starting quarterback.
“Thirty-one, 32,” said Stave, 21-7 as the Badgers’ starting quarterback over three seasons, “I think we’ve got the kind of team that could get there.”
It could all go the other direction for Stave, too, of course, as pressure mounts and young quarterbacks gather behind him.
Consider that Stave arrived at Wisconsin before Russell Wilson, now a featured act in two Super Bowls and 26-year-old megastar in Seattle. Yes, Stave has seen it all in college. And if his four years have hammered home a point, it’s to expect the unexpected.
Wisconsin coaches view his collection of experiences -- positive and negative -- as a boon. Stave missed four starts at the end of his redshirt freshman season with a broken collarbone. He sat another four to open last season because of an inability to make basic throws in practice.
That he overcame such obstacles makes the task before him appear more manageable. After an ineffective finish last season in which he struggled with consistency in the Outback Bowl and watched helplessly as Ohio State flattened the Badgers in the Big Ten title game, Stave finds plenty who question his ability to engineer the Badgers to a championship.
The quarterback isn’t listening to any of it.
“Most important, I want to have the respect of my teammates and coaches,” he said last month in the midst of spring practice. “If they believe in me and respect the way I go about my work and business, that’s most important.
“Otherwise, I just want to win as many games as possible.”
Clearly, Chryst and Wisconsin offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph believe that Stave provides the best chance for the Badgers to win.
“I love his understanding,” Chryst said. “It’s been tricky for him in that there’s some inconsistency around him. But he knows why we’re working and what we’re doing.”
Stave played only on the opening drive of Wisconsin’s spring game two weeks ago. He completed 2 of 2 throws for 55 yards and a touchdown and brought a sense of calm and maturity to the huddle, according to teammates.
The Badgers love his poise. Their confidence showed in conversations with coaches in January. Any questions about Stave’s struggles at the beginning and end of last season were eliminated before the Badgers took a snap this spring, said Rudolph, who followed Chryst on the 2012 journey from Wisconsin to Pitt and back last December.
“I knew Joel, obviously, and I leaned more from my experiences with Joel than what I knew about last year,” Rudolph said. “I knew the kids respected him. When I look back and think about his struggles, I think most guys struggle when their confidence is up and down.
“And confidence can suffer from a lot of things.”
Stave has worked this offseason to keep a level head. Doubts about his security atop the depth chart last year won’t exist this summer. When adversity arises, Stave said he’ll draw on his first summer and fall around the program in the shadow of Wilson, among other times.
“One thing I took from Russell was about the importance of every day,” Stave said. “Russell was as good a practice player as I’ve ever seen, just with the way he approached it, stayed consistent throughout everything.”
Few college quarterbacks own such a wealth of experience. Stave, in this last chapter, plans to use it to his advantage.
Few college quarterbacks are as experienced as Joel Stave.