Nov. 9, 2012
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- Curt Phillips made a favorable impression on Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema during the recruiting process which included Bielema’s first trip ever to the state of Tennessee. Jogging his memory, he said, “I remember Curt was a very confident young man who was getting recruited quite heavily.’’
Phillips was a dual-threat quarterback as a runner and thrower in a spread offense at Sullivan South High School in Kingsport, Tenn. As a senior, he was named the Gatorade Player of the Year. He threw for 2,263 yards and 17 touchdowns. He also had 240 rushes for 1,885 yards and 40 TDs.
“I think some schools were recruiting him as a safety,’’ said Bielema, who received a verbal commitment from Phillips in June of 2007. “I know that he was a guy who really knew what he wanted. He was very confident in the way he carried himself, and very mature beyond his years.’’
After Maryville eliminated Sullivan South in the 2007 Class 4A state semifinals, Phillips received the ultimate compliment from an opponent, Maryville safety Tyler Clendenen, who told the Knoxville (Tenn.) News Sentinel that Phillips was a “high school version of Tim Tebow.’’
Back then, Tebow was a Florida sophomore and on the brink of winning the Heisman Trophy.
Back then, Phillips had two good knees.
Five years and three ACLs later, Phillips will be making his first college start at Indiana. Shortly after announcing his decision Thursday night, Bielema said perseverance was Phillips’ most distinguishing characteristic in battling back three times from knee surgeries.
“He has never lost his focus,’’ Bielema said.
Phillips’ competitiveness emerged after he made a token appearance at quarterback in Wisconsin’s 31-14 rout of Illinois on Oct. 6 at Camp Randall. Although it represented his first game action since 2009, he said, “It wasn’t any kind of a victory for me to finally get into a game.’’
He wanted so much more than to be viewed as a curiosity or a novelty. “I want to be running our offense and running it at full capacity,’’ he said, discounting any notion that he might be satisfied in a backup roll. “I knew that I was going to come back and play. There was never a doubt in my mind.’’
Nevertheless, he has been forced to make some physical concessions. “I’m not the same athletic quarterback that I was,’’ said Phillips, 22. “Now, I have to have a plan. I have to know where I’m going with the ball and not just rely on my legs. I have to be a more complete quarterback.’’
Phillips first tore his ACL during a scrimmage in March of 2010. He tore it again during practice in early November of the same year. The following spring, he was limited to non-contact passing drills. He then had another setback; an infection which necessitated a third surgical procedure on his right knee.
Reflecting on all of the time that he has spent in the training room, all those hours invested into rehabbing his knee after each of the surgeries, Phillips said, “Nobody is going to outwork me. Not being out there has shown me how much the game means to me and how much I want to be back out there.’’
Phillips completed his undergraduate degree last December. He has been working on his master’s with the goal of going to optometry school. His dad is a radiologist. Phillips is hoping to be granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA and he would seem to have a pretty good argument.
Last spring, he made his own argument for first-year UW offensive coordinator Matt Canada.
“This is the kind of system that I ran in high school so I’m more confident with it,’’ Phillips said. “It’s about getting the ball out quick -- quick passes -- taking what the defense gives you. In the past, we’ve tried with our play-action to really push the ball downfield.
“Right now, if they’re playing off somebody we’re going to throw them the ball and let them run. We have gifted running backs and we want to get more of them on the field. Monte Ball is the household name, but the other guys need to be incorporated into the offense as well.’’
And now maybe it’s only fitting that Phillips is starting against Indiana. Before last season’s game against the Hoosiers in Madison, he finally got clearance to rejoin his teammates on the sidelines. Up until then, he had been relegated to watching the games from the press box -- out of harm’s way.
While he was not in uniform, he stood next to backup quarterback Nate Tice, who was relaying the plays calls from offensive coordinator Paul Chryst to Russell Wilson. “Just having the headset back on and communicating (with Chryst) is definitely a step in the right direction,’’ Phillips said.
Now, he’s taking the biggest step in his college football career.
“Curt becomes so very focused every time something has been taken away from him,’’ Bielema said during the preseason training camp in August. “He spoke in front of the team and one of the messages that I loved was about getting another chance.
“At one point, he didn’t know if he was going to get that chance.
“Any time you’re given another opportunity -- a rebirth -- it’s special.’’
Senior cornerback Marcus Cromartie used last Saturday’s bye to catch up on everybody else in college football. One game that got his attention was Oregon’s 62-51 win over Southern Cal. The Ducks rolled up 730 yards of total offense, including 321 on the ground from tailback Kenjon Barner.
“They put up video game numbers,’’ Cromartie said.
The Badgers got a taste of Oregon’s high-temp offense in last season’s Rose Bowl, and there has been a carry-over effect in preparation for Saturday’s game. Indiana gets up to the line of scrimmage and runs plays nearly as quickly as the Ducks, though the Hoosiers vary their speed from snap to snap.
Before facing Oregon, there was a legitimate concern about stamina, so strength coach Ben Herbert had the defense run extra wind sprints. That was the case again this week. “I didn’t get as tired as I thought I would against Oregon,’’ Cromartie said. “They made practice a lot harder than the game.’’
Offensively, the Hoosiers can make it hard for linebackers and DBs to execute their techniques.
“When you face spread teams, they all try to do the same things,’’ said Cromartie. “They spread you out and force you to make tackles in space. They also force you to line up and play. We have to make sure we stay focused on our keys and not try to do too much.
“When they (the Hoosiers) feel like they’ve got things going, they’re going to keep it going, just like Oregon. When they (the Ducks) found something they enjoyed, something they were good at, they kept doing it. They were the same plays with a different window dressing.’’
Conversely, he said if you’re able to stop a certain play, spread offenses always have a Plan B, C, D, etc. “If it doesn’t work, they’re going to scratch it off,’’ he said, “and they’re going to have 70 more plays to work from. For us, it’s all about eliminating plays from the offensive coordinator’s check list.’’
The best way to do that, Cromartie implied, was controlling the YAC: Yards After Catch. Before the Badgers played Michigan State, the emphasis was on YAC: Yards After Contact. The priority then was slowing down Le’Veon Bell, whose longest run was only nine yards. He finished with 77 overall.
“Our emphasis was on tackling Bell,’’ Cromartie said. “This week’s drills set us up in space to make sure we can get in position to make tackles on their receivers. Getting yourself in position to make the tackle is the hardest thing to do. Your eyes bring your feet to where you’re going.
“If you have bad eyes,’’ he stressed, “you’re going to have bad feet.’’
And that generally leads to missed tackles, and bad results.
Cromartie had six tackles against the Spartans, whose longest pass completion was for 23 yards. He also had a forced fumble in the fourth quarter. “We work on that drill in practice all the time,’’ said he said. “The first man always wraps up, and secures the tackle and the second man strips the ball.’’
After the overtime loss to the Spartans, Cromartie was among those defensive players who tried to lift the spirits of nickel back Darius Hillary, a redshirt freshman. Hillary got beat on the game-winning touchdown. “He has got to understand that no game is won or lost on just one play,’’ Cromartie said.
A year ago, the Badgers got beat on a late touchdown pass at Ohio State. “And I told him (Hillary) my personal experience with that mis-coverage,’’ Cromartie said. “I also told him there would be ups and downs, and things are never as good or as bad as they may seem to him.’’
Most importantly, Cromartie told Hillary, “The only thing holding you back now is if you deny what happened actually happened. As long as you can see what you did wrong and correct it, and you move forward, you’re going to be a better player for it.’’
While Wisconsin left tackle Rick Wagner was rehabbing from a knee injury, which kept him out of the last two games against Minnesota and Michigan State, he was the target of some good-natured ribbing from his fraternity brothers on the O-line.
“They were picking on me -- thinking I was on vacation,’’ Wagner said. “They’d be out there sweating during practice and they’d look at me (on the sidelines) and shake their heads.’’
Ryan Groy, who shifted from guard to tackle and replaced Wagner, pleaded guilty as charged.
“He wasn’t a big fan of sitting out in the cold,’’ Groy said. “You could tell that.’’
Being good teammates, Groy noted, “We all gave him a lot of heat -- a lot of heat.’’
Take that figuratively.
So what did the Badgers miss the most when Wagner was injured?
“I missed him not talking,’’ Groy deadpanned.
You get the idea: They weren’t going to back off the reticent Wagner until he got back.
And now that he is back -- as a starter against Indiana -- they couldn’t be happier.
“You get used to playing next to guys,’’ Groy said. “You get used to the (pre-snap) calls. You try to say as little as possible on the line so the other team doesn’t understand your calls, that kind of thing. We’ve had a lot of experience together doing it, and you really missed that.’’
UW offensive line coach Bart Miller amplified on that theme.
“With our guys, I think there’s a calming presence knowing they’re all back where they feel a little bit more comfortable,’’ Miller said. “Ryan has Rick and Travis (Frederick) next to him, and that’s a good feeling. Rick having Ryan next to him is also a good feeling. That has showed in practice.’’
Wagner acknowledged that it was challenging to stay patient during his rehab.
“I was hoping to get back for the Michigan State game, but that would have been pushing it, and I don’t think I would have helped out the team there (against the Spartans),’’ he said. “I’ve never been seriously hurt and it’s something that I don’t want to experience again. I don’t like watching.’’
Wagner, a fifth-year senior, feels like “I’m a little bit hungrier’’ since being injured the last time the Badgers traveled to Indiana (Oct. 13 at Purdue). The timing of his return couldn’t have been better, either, since they can clinch a berth in the Big Ten championship game by beating the Hoosiers.
Although the Badgers have dominated this series lately, Wagner has a healthy respect for Indiana’s defensive tackles, Adam Replogle, Larry Black and Nicholas Sliger. They’re aggressive, tough and play with a high motor. “Their middle guys are really strong and a challenge for us,’’ he said.
Like it did at Purdue, it may come down who can win the line of scrimmage.
“Any time you get your starters back together as a group, there’s a cohesiveness and consistency that builds; a stability,’’ Miller said. “Those things are all good, especially when you’re starting a new quarterback (Curt Phillips) and trying to win a Big Ten championship.’’