The Significance of Starting O’Brien

Ever since the departure of Russell Wilson, Badger fans and college football pundits alike asked, “Who will be the Badgers next starting quarterback?”

There’s Curt Phillips, a strong athlete but returning after three ACL injuries. There’s Joel Stave, a promising but inexperienced walk-on RS freshman. Also Joe Brennan, the most experienced of the group, but reliably unreliable. Last there’s Jon Budmayr, consistently injured, and unavailable for 2012. With so many injuries and inexperience at the position, it was a real toss up, and a significant question mark heading into spring football.

After the spring game, fans became even more nervous. The inconsistency was unsettling, and no leader had emerged. Luckily, Danny O’Brien, former ACC Rookie of the Year from 2010, was graduating early from Maryland and looking to transfer. After a recruiting battle with Penn State, Wisconsin landed what many deemed the next starting QB for the Badgers.

However, as Fall Camp opened, it seemed the position was anything but decided. Stave and Phillips showed well during drills, battling with O’Brien. Due to the rise of those three, Joe Brennan decided to transfer, and was out of contention. Between Stave, Phillips, and O’Brien, none truly stood out or dominated, as Russell Wilson did in 2011. Fans were left wondering who would step up and take command of the race.

As the days went on, coaches and camp observers seemed to agree that O’Brien began to separate himself from the pack. While he didn’t necessarily have the strongest arm (Stave) or fastest feet (Phillips), O’Brien was consistent. He was reliable. He was what Badger football needs under center to effectively use its run-first, play-action offense. Perhaps most importantly of all, with O’Brien, there is an experienced veteran in the huddle who doesn’t take unnecessary risks with the ball. This became the deciding factor.

Via twitter on August 19th, Head Coach Bret Bielema announced that Danny O’Brien, the second ACC QB transfer in as many years, would be starting for the Badgers in the season opener against Northern Iowa.

Choosing O’Brien as starter is a significant moment. First and foremost, it shows that the coaches have enough faith in his experience and ability to lead the Badgers to potentially another Big Ten Title and possible Rose Bowl berth. This is a major responsibility, especially considering that most pundits are predicting an easy road for UW to the B1G championship game – PSU and OSU being ineligible and all. Anything less would be a significant disappointment and surprise to many.

Secondly, it most likely means (barring injury or collapse) that O’Brien will be the starting quarterback for Bucky for the next to seasons – he has two seasons of eligibility remaining. If that happens, it will be the first time UW has had a two-year starter since Scott Tolzien (2009-2010).

It also has significant implications for the other Badger quarterbacks. By the end of O’Brien’s tenure, Curt Phillips and Jon Budmayr will have graduated. Joel Stave will be a RS Junior, heralded signee Bart Houston will be a RS Sophomore, and who knows who will be behind them (perhaps 2014 verbal commit Chance Stewart?). The QB corps will look very different, and that may be a good thing. Russell Wilson and Danny O’Brien were brought in because of an acute need, whether due to injury or lack of talent. I for one hope that after his time is done at UW, the Badgers will have a robust enough group to not need a transfer.

The bottom line with O’Brien is that Badger fans should be excited to have him, not only for one but two years. He brings experience and stability to the most important position on the team, and with a robust supporting cast, he should be a highly productive player. He won’t be as awe-inspiring as Russell Wilson, but I expect him to be near on par with Scott Tolzien, who we all love for two great years of Badger football. The biggest questions: will O’Brien be able to match the 70+% completion rate of Wilson and Tolzien? Will he limit turnovers? And will the other players look to him for leadership? These have all been key components to Wisconsin’s success over the last several years.

I feel a sense of calm with O’Brien being named starter. Hopefully after several weeks into the season, particularly after a road trip to Lincoln, we’ll all agree that QB isn’t a question mark, but a position of strength for the Badgers - one we’ll have for two seasons.

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