Spring QB race breakdown: Wisconsin

Nine Big Ten programs will feature true quarterback competitions this spring, and we're taking a closer look at the candidates, the circumstances and the stakes of each race. Up next: Wisconsin.

Wisconsin offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig doesn't mince words when sizing up the team's quarterback situation.

"I look forward to a very competitive spring," Ludwig told ESPN.com, "and look for major improvement out of the position."

Such a statement appears to put Joel Stave on notice when Wisconsin opens spring practice Wednesday. Stave started every game in 2013 and six games the previous season before suffering a broken collarbone.

He's 13-6 as Wisconsin's starter, a record that could be better if he didn't leave two games (Michigan State in 2012, the Outback Bowl on Jan. 1 against South Carolina) with injuries. Although Stave struggled at times last season with his accuracy, he still completed 61.9 percent of his passes for 22 touchdowns against 13 interceptions.

Stave has 455 career pass attempts and 3,598 career pass yards. The other quarterbacks on the roster? One career pass attempt for eight yards, supplied by Bart Houston last season.

Ludwig might be candid about the competition and his expectations, but he also makes it clear where Stave stands.

"It's Joel's position, he's the returning starter," Ludwig said. "But like every position on the field, we're going to let the guys compete. Let the best man win."

Houston, junior Tanner McEvoy and early enrollee freshman D.J. Gillins will have an opportunity to push Stave this spring, especially early on, as Stave will be limited by a right (throwing) shoulder injury sustained in the bowl game. Stave, who started light passing several weeks ago but hasn't thrown deep passes yet, won't work as much with the first-team unit during the six practices before spring break.

Ludwig plans to initially divide reps equally between Houston, McEvoy and Gillins, and then distribute them based on performance. He will reduce the candidate pool from four to three by the end of the spring, setting up more competition in fall camp.

The situation is hardly new at Wisconsin, which has had quarterback races in five of the past six offseasons.

"Joel, he has the experience, he's confirmed it for two years," McEvoy said. "He's going in as the No. 1 guy. But just like any other position, there's going to be competition."

Houston boasts the strongest arm of the group, and both McEvoy and Gillins bring intriguing dual-threat skills not typically seen at Wisconsin. But Stave remains the frontrunner to lead the offense Aug. 30 against LSU.

"Joel did so many good things last year, but we've got to complete two or three more passes a game," Ludwig said. "Those are the ones that jump out at you, the ones that are the pitch-and-catch type of plays. Just looking for a higher level of repetitive accuracy."

Those passes, according to Stave, separated a good season from being a great one. He'll have to make up the difference this season without top wide receiver Jared Abbrederis, who had twice as many receptions (78) as any Badger in 2013.

But the fourth-year junior has both a massive edge experience and the benefit of playing in the same system for the second season -- a first in his career.

"It's not starting from ground zero again, "Stave said. "I really like the offense that Coach Ludwig has brought. The terminology and everything, it's something that I've run and I'm comfortable with, and I'll continue to get more comfortable."

If Stave or Houston wins the starting job, Wisconsin's offensive structure will look much like it has in previous years, heavy on tailback runs and play-action passes. But both McEvoy, who competed for the quarterback job last summer before eventually moving to safety, and Gillins add dimensions with their speed.

Some think Wisconsin's second-year coaching staff is more inclined to use an offense featuring mobility at quarterback. Ludwig said the "nuts and bolts" of Wisconsin's offense aren't changing, but he recognizes the benefits of mobility.

"The ability to throw the forward pass is absolute first and foremost in our priorities," he said. "The athleticism dimension is just a huge plus, to extend plays, to make plays with your feet. I always say if you can throw it, the better athlete you have throwing it, the better chances you have for a play to be successful."

McEvoy's athleticism could help his case, although he'll have to display better accuracy than he did last summer. To be fair, he entered the competition well behind the others and will benefit from a full year in the program.

The 6-6, 223-pound McEvoy spent most of the season at safety, recording 27 tackles, an interception and four pass breakups, but he regularly communicated with the quarterbacks.

"It's always nice to have another year under your belt," McEvoy said. "I'll know more going into this season. It will definitely be different than last [summer]."

Ludwig has seen significant changes in McEvoy since he first arrived on campus.

"He's a completely different person," Ludwig said. "He knows the inner workings of Badger football, he knows his teammates, he’s grown up significantly, so he's got a little different demeanor about him.

"He wants to be a quarterback, so we're going to give him that chance."

Houston, who has the most experience behind Stave, also has an opportunity to "demonstrate mastery of the offense," Ludwig said. Gillins, meanwhile, is a decorated recruit who has generated buzz among Wisconsin fans.

"He shouldn't have to worry about trying to become the No. 1 quarterback in the spring," Ludwig said. "He's just got to learn what to do, and it will be pedal to the metal into fall camp. He's come in with a tremendous work ethic and attitude.

"He wants to be the guy."

For now, Stave is the guy, and he enters the spring believing the starting job belongs to him. Because of his throwing restrictions, he'll focus more on footwork and getting rid of the ball quicker.

"I know there's improvement to be made, not just with me but the entire offense," Stave said. "We can be better, and a lot of that runs through the quarterback.

"I've taken a lot of pride to continue to get better."