Who is Joel Stave

Since Sahil I and started this blog back in July I’ve learned something about myself.  It’s not that I’m a great writer or have a particularly insightful football mind (you didn’t need me to tell you that, did you?).  It’s that I’m wrong.  A lot. 

I predicted Jeff Duckworth would have 35-40 catches this year.  He caught 7 passes against Oregon State but hasn’t touched the ball in another game.  I thought AJ Fenton, Dan Voltz, and Vince Biegel wouldmake significant contributions on the field this season.  It hasn’t happened.  Those could all be forgiven.  An injury here, a bounce of the ball there and an emerging player goes from a contributing member of the team to lost on the depth chart.  But then I said this in my season preview:

“2012 might be the strongest combination of offensive line and running back talent in the Bielema/Alvarez era”.

Whoops.  I feel pretty stupid for writing those things.  I can’t make them go away.  They exist in print for you, dear reader, and countless others - well not countless, I refresh our Google analytics numbers all day and it’s not that many sadly – to mock and ridicule. 

Thankfully I’m not alone in making mistakes.  No one predicted a redshirt freshman – who wasn’t even on scholarship in August – would be a starting quarterback as the Badgers readied for fall camp.  Joel Stave relieved Danny O’Brien (another breakout prediction of mine…ugh) halfway through the Utah State game and hasn’t looked back since. 

In four full games thus far, Stave has the look of a well prepared, upper-tier collegiate quarterback.  After basically handing the ball off for 30 minutes against Utah Sate, Stave’s role has expanded in each of his four subsequent starts as he gains a better grasp of the offense.

Stave has been Wisconsin's starting quarterback since taking over at halftime in the Utah State game.

Stave has been Wisconsin's starting quarterback since taking over at halftime in the Utah State game.

There is a lot to like about Stave’s game.  He already sells the play action pass better than Danny O’Brien and puts it to use stretching defenses stacking the box against the Badger run game.  Despite his inexperience, he’s shown the ability to work through his receiver progression when his primary target has been covered, keeping mistakes related to inexperience to a minimum 

He also protects the ball well as he’s taken some significant hits without fumbling – something that played a major part in the downfall of Danny O’Brien.  He’s unaffected by a hostile crowd.  He looked unfazed by the environs in Lincoln even as the game turned against the Badgers in the second half. 

Perhaps most importantly for a Badger quarterback, he’s 3-1 as a starter and hasn’t made a mistake to cost the Badgers a victory.  Given his level of performance this early in his college career it’s shocking his only scholarship offer came from Western Michigan. 

Who Joel Stave is as a player right now is pretty clear.  But perhaps more important in the bigger picture of the program is what kind of player he can develop into.  He is still a redshirt freshman and has a lot of potential starts still in front of him.  It’s fair to assume the player we see in front of us now could and should only get better. 

Stave’s short career does not provide a lot of data to work with but does allow for some basic comparisons.  Looking at his numbers from his first four career starts against the first 4 starts of past Badger signal callers is very telling.  But before we go any farther  two disclaimers:

  1.  I’ve left off Russell Wilson as he came to Madison as an established player with three years experience as a starter at NC State.  No doubt there were adjustments to be made with a new coaching staff, receiving corps, and playbook, but he already knew how to be a starting quarterback.  This was just a change in setting.  It’s worth noting I’ve left Allan Everidge on the list as he never played a game at Kansas State before transferring to Wisconsin.  
  2. The list is limited to players of a more recent vintage.  Given how much more balance exists in the offense now than in some of the Alvarez years  (Mike Samuel had 6 TD passes all season as the starting QB in 1998) statistical comparisons start to lose any real meaning if you look back too far.  It’s a case of apples and oranges.

If the chart is hard to read just click it to enlarge.

What immediately jumps off the page is how well Stave stacks up with his predecessors.  Excepting Tolzien and Donovan – the best quarterbacks of the Bielema era before Russell Wilson blew everyone out of the water – his numbers are clearly superior to the rest of the group. 

Stave looks even better when opponents are considered.  Stave had a tune up against UTEP – where he only threw the ball 17 times - before diving into the conference schedule.  Both Tolzien and Donovan had a 1-AA opponent mixed into a typically weak Wisconsin non-conference slate.

Also, both Donovan and Tolzien’s statistics were aided by an individual standout game.  Donovan had 284 yards and 3 TDs against an overmatched Washington State; Tolzien threw for 4 TDs in a 38-30 win over a Michigan State team that would end up with a losing record.  Stave has yet to have such a coming out party.  Perhaps his greatest strength so far has been his steady performance from week to week

The only statistic of Stave that really jumps off the page are his yards per completion.  Despite being thrust into a leadership role early in his career Stave hasn’t been afraid to look for the big play as exemplified by his 5 TD passes.  None are shorter than 20 yards; 3 of them are longer than 45 yards. 

So what does this all mean?  What kind of quarterback can Stave become?  The obvious comparison is to Tolzien.  Tolzien was an upright, accurate passer more akin to Stave than the more athletic but erratic Donovan.  Stave and Tolzien not only look similar as players but also statistically. 

Scott Tolzien's steady play was overshadowed  by the arrival of Russell Wilson

Scott Tolzien's steady play was overshadowed  by the arrival of Russell Wilson

If Stave is able to continue to put up similar numbers to what he as so far – a Tolzien 2.0 – then the Badgers have struck gold with the former walk on.  The offense has been trending upward since Stave became the starter, and a minimal mistake, solid-but-not-spectacular signal caller is a perfect fit for what the Badgers want to be.  I’ve said it before, but Scott Tolzien’s teams scored an awful lot of points.  An über-game manager wouldn’t be the worst thing to have this year.

There is one major flaw in the Stave-Tolzien comparisons.  Tolzien became the starter as a junior.  Stave is running the offense as a redshirt freshman.  He was living at home a little over a year ago.  Given that, maybe a comparison to John Stocco, who took the reigns as a sophomore, is more appropriate for projecting who Stave can become. 

Stocco showed huge growth from his first to second season as a starter.  He saw his quarterback rating jump 40 points.  He more than doubled his touchdown passes.  His completion percentage jumped from the low 50s to over 60%.  Extrapolating his numbers over a full season – admittedly a big assumption -  Stave is already the statistical equivalent of John Stocco in his peak years

While Stave doesn’t appear to have the raw talent to make a jump in similar proportions to what Stocco did, there are things readily obvious to a viewer that can only improve with experience.  Two of Stave’s 3 INTs this year were the result of poor passes he should learn to avoid with experience.  While he isn’t afraid to the throw deep his accuracy and ability to lead receivers still leaves much to be desired.   An improved deep ball and he’s a VERY complete pro-style quarterback.

Ultimately, can Stave become a quarterback who can be more than just another game manager?  Is he the guy with the ability to carry the team when the run game sputters?  He’s not that guy now but he has time.  He stood tall in that Nebraska game; he showed a little moxie and a willingness to face down everything the Cornhuskers threw at him. 

Given how much time he still has in Madison there is a good chance he develops into something pretty solid, special even.  Maybe that’s why I like him so much.  I’d like to think we’re similar.  Maybe with a little more time I can get a little better at this whole blogging thing.  Or maybe Stave can just throw the ball to Duckworth a little more and make me look smart.  Win-win either way.