Aug. 2, 2013
BY MIKE LUCAS
aking a seat in the reception area of the Wisconsin football offices -- also known as the “Wow Room’’ because of its trophy display and view overlooking Camp Randall Stadium -- Tanner McEvoy was sporting a T-shirt with an “El Toro Bowl’’ logo, a sign post on his journey.
In making his way to Madison from his home in New Jersey, an hour from the Rutgers campus, McEvoy has been exposed to the “Capital of Southern Hospitality’’ and one of the hottest cities in the United States -- literally -- during layovers in Columbia, S.C. and Yuma, Ariz., respectively.
During his odyssey, including classroom and practice field sessions with the Old Ball Coach -- South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier -- he hasn’t looked in his rearview mirror. Instead, he has focused on finding a program where he would have the best chance of playing and contributing, sooner rather than later.
That led him to the Badgers, who landed McEvoy, a highly-touted junior college transfer from Arizona Western. He also took recruiting trips to Florida, Oregon and West Virginia. That the Gators and the Ducks both had returning starters at quarterback factored into his decision, he pointed out.
Not that Wisconsin didn’t return its starter. In fact, the Badgers were one of just nine schools to start three different quarterbacks in 2012, two of which, Curt Phillips and Joel Stave, are returning. Danny O’Brien, who started the first three games, has transferred to Division II Catawba College.
Knowing that he’s listed behind Phillips (five starts) and Stave (six starts) going into training camp, what kind of timetable does McEvoy have for playing? What are reasonable expectations? Also knowing that he has three seasons of eligibility, how patient can he afford to be? How patient is he?
“I don’t think any athlete at this level would say that they’re patient; they’re trying to play,’’ McEvoy said. “I’m trying to get out there (on the field) as fast as I can. I understand the process and I understand what I need to do to get out there. I’m just looking forward to seeing what can happen.’’
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aised in Hillsdale, N.J., 15 miles from New York City, he started playing tackle football in the first grade. Despite the influences of the Jets and Giants, he pulled for the Green Bay Packers. “I was just a big fan of Brett Favre,’’ McEvoy said. “Once he left, I switched to the (Baltimore) Ravens.’’
A far bigger switch was in his future, the switch from wide receiver to quarterback. Up until his senior year at Bergen Catholic High School, McEvoy caught passes or broke them up as a safety. “I always played receiver and I was pretty good, so I just stuck with it,’’ he rationalized.
But when one of his earliest football mentors, Nunzio Campanile, the offensive coordinator at rival Don Bosco Prep School, replaced Fred Stengel as Bergen’s head coach, McEvoy agreed to change positions on Campanile’s urging. “He (Camanile) always wanted me to play quarterback,’’ he said.
McEvoy still hasn’t forgotten what Campanile told him to close the deal on making the switch from receiver. “He came to me with the question, ‘Would you rather touch the ball 50 times a game or 5 times a game?’’’ McEvoy recalled. “Alright quarterback it is. I didn’t fight it.’’
He didn’t disappoint, either, passing for 2,264 yards and 32 touchdowns while rushing for 1,196 yards and 14 scores. The college recruiters weren’t sure what to make of McEvoy. Quarterback? Receiver? Safety? “It was pretty confusing,’’ McEvoy said. “I had to know who wanted me for what.’’
At the end of his junior year, during which he had 35 catches and three interceptions, McEvoy estimated that he had 15 scholarship offers from schools that wanted him as a wide receiver or tight end, and a couple that projected him as a safety. “I wanted to play offense,’’ he said.
McEvoy felt like he had three options:
He could go the junior college route, play a year or two if necessary, and transfer to an FBS school. He could have gone the FCS route, or he could have gone to Rutgers and sat out a year.
That was a lock after his senior year. “South Carolina was one of the first to become really interested in me playing quarterback,’’ said McEvoy, who opted for the Gamecocks over North Carolina. “They were going in the right direction and it seemed like the best place for me at the time.’’
In addition, McEvoy’s mom went to school at South Carolina. So did his aunt and uncle. The campus is located in the state capital, Columbia, also recognized for its southern charm and Spurrier, not mutually exclusive. “Obviously, Coach Spurrier is one of the best coaches ever,’’ McEvoy said. “I learned a lot on and off the field from having him as a coach.’’
There was a lot to learn in terms of playing quarterback, McEvoy acknowledged. Moreover, his mechanics reflected his limited experience. “When I started playing quarterback, I just went out and winged it,’’ he said. “Some throws (pause) … they look a little funny or I look awkward (throwing).’’
Spurrier and quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus worked on McEvoy’s techniques during his redshirt season. “They didn’t try to completely change me,’’ he said. “They tried to tweak some things but they knew they wouldn’t be able to change everything and make it perfect. What I was doing was working.’’
McEvoy was in the same recruiting class as All-World defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. “He was a celebrity the first day,’’ said McEvoy. “I loved Clowney; I had some good times with him. The kid is a freak and I’m looking forward to seeing what he’s going to be able to do in the future.’’
As it turned out, McEvoy’s future wasn’t at South Carolina. Last July 30, he was involved in an off-field incident across the state line resulting in misdemeanors for speeding and underage drinking (While under 21, North Carolina bans driving after consuming any percentage of alcohol).
It was not the type of baggage that McEvoy wanted to bring into training camp. Sizing up the depth chart, he was listed as the fourth-team quarterback, he felt like he was buried. McEvoy had nothing but respect for Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson and both were playing ahead of him.
“I felt like I wasn’t going to be able to get a chance (in 2012) or the following year,’’ he said. “They have two awesome quarterbacks in Connor and Dylan. I just didn’t think that I was going to be able to get into that mix. So I thought, ‘You know what? I’m going to go somewhere I can play.’’’
Spurrier wished him well and McEvoy went home to ponder his options with his family.
His dad, Steve, has been in the advertising business in New York City for 30 years. His mom, Tina, has been working as a receptionist the past few years. His older sister Christen is also in advertising. His older brother Collin, a former Rutgers football player, is in security, a body guard.
McEvoy felt like he had three options: 1) He could go the junior college route, play a year or two if necessary, and transfer to an FBS school; 2) He could go the FCS route. He checked into Appalachian State; or 3) He could have gone to Rutgers, sat out a year and played in 2014.
There were some limitations because of the August timing of his departure from South Carolina. Once the word got out that he was leaving, he was contacted on Facebook by two JUCOS, Arizona Western and East Mississippi Community College, the finalists in the 2011 NJCAA championship game.
“I looked into both to see which one fit best,’’ he said, “and I ended up in Arizona.’’
McEvoy never visited before committing to Arizona Western, which is in Yuma, a city in the Sonoran desert in southwestern Arizona. Yuma has an average July temperature of 107. “I got off the plane and it was 114 degrees,’’ he said. “That’s the truth; 114, the first day I was there.’’
Arizona Western, coached by Tom Minnick, has a rich history of placing its better players in D-1 programs; most recently, the list was highlighted by Indiana quarterback Cameron Coffman, Oklahoma running back Damien Williams and Alabama nose guard Jesse Williams.
Training camp was over and the depth chart was all but finalized by the time McEvoy got settled in Yuma. McEvoy was the No. 3 quarterback behind Cedric McCloud and Kendall Barnes. “I had to compete (for playing time),’’ said McEvoy, who didn’t expect anything less.
But he did have plenty of time to think about his status since Arizona Western opened the season against Ellsworth Community College at the Mile High Shootout in Pueblo, Colo. “We actually traveled 18 hours in a bus, one way, to get to that game,’’ said McEvoy, sighing.
After playing sparingly in the fourth quarter -- he completed 3 of 5 passes for 17 yards and a TD -- he had two weeks to assimilate the offensive system because of byes in the schedule. “They said, ‘Every position is open for competition, whoever does the best will be the starter,’’’ he noted.
When Arizona Western returned to action against Pima Community College, McEvoy was the starting quarterback and he held on to the assignment through the El Toro Bowl in Yuma. McEvoy was an offensive MVP after leading his team to a victory over Nassau (N.Y.) Community College.
Even though there was little or no recruiting traffic through his first six games -- “It was a little scary because I thought I might have to play another year there’’ -- it definitely picked up later in the season. Texas was the first to show up. Wisconsin, Florida, Oregon and West Virginia weren’t far behind.
Bill Busch was UW’s lead recruiter. Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig also got involved, along with head coach Gary Andersen, of course. “He was awesome,’’ McEvoy said of Andersen. “He just seemed like a real caring person, a player’s coach.’’
Upon landing in Madison for his recruiting visit, McEvoy got a real taste of a Midwestern winter. “I think it snowed about 13 inches the day before,’’ he said, laughing. “I’m fine with snow, I love snow. The cold for seven months? I don’t know about that, but we’ll figure it out.’’
McEvoy had no expectations for what awaited him when he got off the plane. “I didn’t know what Wisconsin was like at all,’’ he said. “I grew up in New Jersey and it’s nothing like Wisconsin. I just kind of figure it was all about farming, that kind of deal.’’
|“I’m more of an athlete,’’ McEvoy said. “I make plays with my feet and I can make plays after the first couple of seconds (in the pocket) … I can still throw the ball downfield.’’
But he was pleasantly surprised by the lakes surrounding the isthmus, the beauty of the state capital, the size of the city and the sincerity of the people that he met: coaches and future teammates alike. “They were all just great people,’’ he said. “I took my visit and everything worked out.’’
After committing, McEvoy returned to New Jersey where he spent the spring taking on-line courses and training. Some of his work-out partners were NFL players living in the area; some were old high school teammates. “It was a group of guys who knew how to compete and how to work,’’ he said.
When McEvoy got back to Madison, he was paired with a “big brother’’ -- an Andersen innovation to mentor the first-year players on the roster. McEvoy drew Phillips, a sixth-year senior and obviously one of the quarterbacks vying for the starting job for the Aug. 31 opener against UMass.
“Curt is a great guy,’’ said McEvoy, who has been living in an apartment with offensive tackle Ryan Groy and defensive tackle Ethan Hemer, among others. “They (the QBs) were all welcoming to me. They know every position is up for competition. They have no problem with that.’’
Since the coaches can’t be involved with players in the summer, the team leaders have been responsible for organizing and conducting voluntary seven-on-seven throwing sessions. “And I feel like I’ve learned a lot of the offense through them,’’ McEvoy said. “It’s going to be helpful once camp starts.’’
It’s noteworthy that McEvoy later said that he will be “fully healthy’’ for the opening of Wisconsin’s training camp. In the early morning hours of July 21, he was the victim of an assault and robbery, according to Madison police. McEvoy had his wallet, watch and IPhone stolen.
“It was an unfortunate situation and luckily I got out unharmed; there was no concussion,’’ said McEvoy who was struck in the head according to the police report. “I’m new around here and being out by myself was my first mistake. I won’t make that mistake again. I plan on taking it as a lesson.’’
McEvoy has been growing in many different ways.
In high school, he took reps under center because “my coach knew that I was going to play quarterback at the next level and he wanted to prepare me for college.’’ At South Carolina, he was in the shotgun. At Arizona Western, he was under center; so he has experienced multiple formations.
“I’ve had a new set of receivers for the past three years, so I’m getting used to throwing to new guys,’’ said McEvoy, who added that he has begun processing and thinking more and more like a quarterback. “There is a difference and I definitely think I’ve moved on from my receiver days.’’
McEvoy, who will wear jersey No. 5 (once worn by Brooks Bollinger), is listed at 6-6, 215. He says his current weight is between 220 and 225. Is he really 6-6? “I’d say 6-5 and 9/10ths,’’ he said. “When I say 6-6, they say I’m lying. When I say 6-5, they say I look kind of tall for 6-5. So it’s in-between.’’
For someone who has never seen him play quarterback, how would he describe himself?
“I’ve been asked that question before and I really don’t know how to answer it,’’ he admitted. “I’m more of an athlete. I make plays with my feet and I can make plays after the first couple of seconds (in the pocket) … I can still throw the ball downfield.’’
Was he aware of the UW’s time-honored run-oriented offensive reputation and tradition for turning out quality tailbacks before signing with the Badgers? “I’ve heard that,’’ he said with a mischievous grin. “So, yes, I can hand the ball off. I’ve done that before.’’
McEvoy is the third quarterback transfer in as many seasons, following Russell Wilson and O’Brien. McEvoy remembered watching Wilson at NC State. “And then he came here and tore it up that year (2011),’’ he said. “I knew the Maryland quarterback transferred but I didn’t know him by name.’’
O’Brien was already gone by the time McEvoy got here. After transferring, Wilson had one year of eligibility left, O’Brien had two. “
It’s still nice to have three years left coming out of a JUCO,’’ said McEvoy, eyeing the next leg of his journey. “I’m looking forward to seeing what I can do with them.’’