Russell Wilson, the former NC State quarterback, has announced (according to ESPN) that he will transfer to Wisconsin this upcoming season. He will be eligible immediately in 2011 and should give Wisconsin a dynamic talent at quarterback that they haven’t had at the position in years. Normally the Badgers have an average quarterback who avoids mistakes and usually hands the ball off to a talented stable of running backs and executes play-action fakes once the running game is working. However, Wilson has the ability to take over the game with his arm, plus he has enough mobility to extend plays and gain yards with his legs. When he suits up in Badger colors in week one of the college football season he will be the most talented quarterback to start a game for the Badgers since I started watching college football when Brooks Bollinger was Wisconsin’s starter, and Wilson puts Bollinger to shame.
Wilson might be a smaller quarterback at only 5’11″, 206 pounds (I would actually be surprised if he wasn’t 5’10″) he definitely has an arm. He doesn’t have elite arm strength, but he has good arm strength and accuracy and when his talented arm is combined with his athletic ability it forms a potent combination that should benefit Wisconsin’s offense immediately as soon as he is comfortable. Take a look at some of the numbers Wilson has put up at NC State, a program that is far from a national power and is not nearly as well stocked with talent as Wisconsin regularly is. As a freshman Wilson was 150/275 (54.5% completion) for 1,955 yards and an incredible 17 touchdowns and only ONE interception. As a freshman starter. As a sophomore he was 224/378 (59.3% completion), 3027 yards, 31 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Then last season as a junior he passed for 3,563 yards while completing 308 out of an incredible 527 pass attempts (58.4% completion). He finished the season with 28 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, a very good year by any standard but remarkably it was his least efficient season of his career.
Now, some might criticize his height, or say that his stats won’t translate to the Big-10, or say that he won’t be comfortable enough at Wisconsin to give them a realistic chance at a second consecutive trip to the Rose Bowl. I say that is all BS. Wilson’s freshman season at a wayward NC State program when he threw 17 touchdowns and only 1 interception proves what he can do even without a lot of talent around him. The year before he arrived at NC State the team was 5-7. His freshman year they were 6-7, losing a seventh time to Rutgers in their bowl game at the end of the season (before which they won four consecutive games in order to be bowl eligible). Then last year the turnaround had been completed as the team finished 9-4 and defeated #22 ranked West Virginia 23-7 in their bowl game.
Wilson has proven that he can step in and make an immediate impact, and I expect him to do just that at Wisconsin in 2011. He has a lot of talent and should give Wisconsin’s passing game a significant boost, one that they haven’t seen in probably a decade and may not see for another decade after this season. One thing you have to consider is the dramatic disparity between NC State’s supporting cast and Wisconsin’s supporting cast. NC State might have better receivers which helped Wilson produce a lot of yardage through the air, but comparing the Wolfpack’s running game to Wisconsin is quite alarming:
NC State- 2008: 442 attempts, 1,601 yards rushing (3.6 yard per carry average), 14 touchdowns
Wisconsin- 2008: 567 attempts, 2,745 yards rushing (4.8 yard per carry average), 31 touchdowns
NC State- 2009: 419 attempts, 1,451 yards rushing (3.5 yard per carry average), 15 touchdowns
Wisconsin- 2009: 581 attempts, 2,650 yards rushing (4.6 yard per carry average), 33 touchdowns
NC State- 2010: 461 attempts, 1,603 yards rushing (3.5 yard per carry average), 17 touchdowns
Wisconsin- 2010: 584 attempts, 3,194 yards rushing (5.5 yard per carry average), 48 touchdowns
Here are the averages for the two teams over the last three years:
NC State: 440.66 attempts, 1551.66 yards rushing (3.52 yard per carry average), 15.33 touchdowns
Wisconsin: 577.33 attempts, 2863 yards rushing (4.96 yard per carry average), 37.3 touchdowns
Just take in those numbers for a bit. Wisconsin, on average, rushes 137 more times a season, produces 1,312 more rushing yards (at a rate of 1.44 yards per carry better than NC State) and averages a whopping 22 more touchdowns per season on the ground. Yet, despite the pressure that was on Wilson to throw the ball even 250 times as a freshman, he still produced incredible numbers through the air. In two seasons as a starter for Wisconsin Scott Tolzien only threw the ball 594 times (328 as a junior, 266 as a senior), while Wilson threw 527 passes last season alone!
My point is, the burden of the offense is going to be on Wisconsin’s running game as it always is. However, instead of a game manager at quarterback (no offense to the last decade of Wisconsin quarterbacks) they will have a dynamic player at the position who can carve up defenses through the air at an alarming rate even without a running game that EVER averaged more than 3.6 yards per carry for an entire season. Not only that, but Wilson is a scrambling quarterback and he himself produced 1,089 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns in three seasons at NC State. That is an average of 363 yards per season. I won’t even bother subtracting 363 yards from all of the season averages for NC State, but on average without Wilson they would be averaging about 1,200 yards per season and 11 or so touchdowns, a pathetic total. Now, imagine Wisconsin’s rushing numbers with a quarterback who can stretch the field vertically with his arm and his legs.
The point of all of this statistical analysis is to show the impact Wilson was able to have without a running game. With a running game as dominant as Wisconsin’s he isn’t going to face a lot of intricate coverages meant to stop the passing game. If defenses try to take away the pass against Wisconsin (I’m not sure anyone has ever considered such a thing) then Wisconsin’s running game is going to demolish you for 60 straight minutes and control the clock with ease. But now if you try to stack the box against the Badgers you will be facing a quarterback with 8,545 career passing yards, 76 career touchdowns (with only 26 interceptions) and 1,089 career rushing yards and 17 more touchdowns. So, fair warning to all the team’s on Wisconsin’s schedule this season: Their offense just got even more dangerous.
Now, while the upside for Wilson’s addition to Wisconsin’s offense is very high, we can’t expect him to step in and throw 40 touchdowns and 4 interceptions this year like this is a NCAA video game on the easiest setting. There are going to be growing pains the first few weeks as Wilson continues to adjust to Wisconsin’s largely ball-control offense versus the wide open passing attack he played in at NC State. However, with four weeks to work out the kinks before they play Nebraska at home I think Wilson and the Badgers will be able to get on the same page. Therefore, even if he has a rough couple of games at the beginning of the season, I expect Wilson to hit his stride and show the world what he could have done at NC State if he had a running game.
Sorry about the length of this post. I started doing some research and it just led to more and more things I wanted to look into and compare and contrast. Wilson has a lot of ability and I can’t wait to watch him carve teams up on play action for the Badgers this year. I look forward to seeing at least two of these games in person this season and as usual, thanks for reading.