Confidence soars for Wisconsin QB Joel Stave after reunion with Paul Chryst

MADISON, Wis. -- Wisconsin rolled to six wins and scored more than 40 points per game from Weeks 9 to 14 the past season. Do you remember its quarterback play?

Let’s refresh. In that unbeaten stretch against Maryland, Rutgers, Purdue, Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota, Joel Stave completed 64 of 103 passes for 855 yards, seven touchdowns and one interception.

Yes, but ...

But what? He averaged 8.3 yards per attempt, 23rd in the nation and better than the likes of J.T. Barrett, Blake Sims, Dak Prescott and Jameis Winston.

In that six-week stretch, Stave’s completion rate ranked 33rd among all quarterbacks, at 62.1 percent.

In touchdowns per attempt, Stave was 26th, at 6.8 percent. He ranked 16th in converting first downs on 37.9 percent of his passing attempts.

Of course, before Stave settled into a groove midseason, he missed four games entirely and was unable to complete simple throws even in practice. After Nov. 29, he threw six interceptions in eight quarters of the Big Ten title game and the Outback Bowl.

He did, in fact, engineer the postseason comeback against Auburn, but Stave’s erratic play in 2014 contributes to a feeling of uneasiness about the Wisconsin QB situation as Paul Chryst guides the Badgers through his first spring as head coach.

Any doubt, though, does not extend to the head of the 6-foot-5, 220-pound senior out of Greenfield, Wisconsin.

“It’s my job,” Stave said last week as the Badgers readied for the second half of spring practice. “It’s my team. It’s my position. And I’m excited to continue to take that challenge of leading the team.”

Stave is 20-6, which gives him a win percentage that ranks third all-time among starting quarterbacks at Wisconsin. He sits among the top seven in school history in passing yards (4,640), completion percentage (60.4) and touchdown passes (36).

Chryst, the Badgers’ offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach from 2005 to 2011, coached Stave in the quarterback’s first spring at Wisconsin and redshirt season, before Chryst left for three years at Pitt.

“What you thought you saw then, you’re seeing now,” Chryst said. “I’d say he’s the same with his poise and intelligence and composure about the game.

“I love his understanding.”

Stave and the other Wisconsin quarterbacks have fought to find consistency this spring, but any issues have largely been a product of inexperience around them, Chryst said. Wisconsin remains thin at receiver, and it lost three key pieces on the line.

Yet the questions continue to follow Stave.

Tanner McEvoy, who started in Stave's place the past September, has shifted to a starting role at safety. Junior Bart Houston and redshirt freshman D.J. Gillins return at QB.

The biggest challenge to Stave might come from true freshman Alex Hornibrook. Hornibrook, a former Pitt pledge who followed Chryst and offensive coorindator Joe Rudolph to Wisconsin, enrolled early in January -- along with Austin Kafentzis -- and has looked smooth in throwing the football.

Stave said he’s eager to help the freshmen adjust to college, similar to his work under Russell Wilson in 2011. As for the anticipated cries for a younger QB if Stave falters, he said he won’t let it bother him.

“You know, that’s the nature of the game, that's the nature of the position,” he said. “But I focus on myself, on the team, on the coaching staff.”

When Chryst and Rudolph settled back in Madison, the coaches asked players to identify their toughest peers and best leaders.

“Joel’s name would come up and come up,” said Rudolph, a former Wisconsin lineman who coached tight ends at the school from 2008 to 2011. “So I was excited. I thought, 'OK, here’s a guy they look up to. Here’s a guy in the huddle, who commands and has earned a certain reputation.'”

Chryst waited a few weeks to discuss the quarterback’s junior season. When they sat down to talk, Stave tackled the throwing issues “head on,” according to Chryst.

“We were able to have a frank conversation because there was a relationship,” Chryst said. “It wasn’t about what happened. It was, ‘Where are you at? What did you learn? What can we do going forward?’"

Chryst said he never felt Stave simply told him what a coach would want to hear.

“It was genuine,” Chryst said. “It was real.”

Stave said he has a “tendency to overthink things” and he wanted “to do too much” before the past season.

“You’ve got to take time to step back and realize it’s just a game,” Stave said. “It’s just football. As important as it is to me and everyone else here, you’ve got to find that balance.”

Finding such balance remains difficult, Stave said. He can’t convince himself the game is no big deal.

“Because that’s not true,” Stave said. “But obviously, the more relaxed you are, the more you’re treating it as just a game, the better you play.”

Running back Corey Clement said he has noticed a difference, even since the end of the past season.

“I’ve seen a lot more comfort out of him,” said Clement, who is replacing Heisman Trophy runner-up Melvin Gordon alongside Stave in the Wisconsin backfield. “He doesn’t let one bad rep get to him. Last fall, he kind of did. But now, we’re seeing a much more improved Joel.”

The respect is mutual from Stave, who said he’ll miss Gordon -- but perhaps not the 549 carries delivered to the running backs over the past two years.

“As fun as it is watching him run down the field, it’s also fun as a quarterback getting to throw the ball a little bit,” Stave said. “I know it’s tough to balance when you’ve got a Heisman candidate to hand it to and he’s averaging seven, eight yards a carry.

“But if we can get the offense balanced the way it had been in years past, that would be a very good thing.”