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April 6, 2012

A risk they had to take



Desperate times call for desperate measures.

And while "desperate" might not be the best way to describe Wisconsin, its quarterback situation was looking remarkably dire as it began spring camp in late March.

With Curt Phillips recovering from multiple knee injuries and Jon Budmayr still sidelined with a vague nerve injury in his throwing arm, the Badgers were left with just Joe Brennan and Joel Stave at quarterback. Of those two, only Brennan has attempted a pass during an NCAA game.

So to put it lightly, UW was thin at quarterback for the second year in a row.

So Bret Bielema and the Badgers rolled the dice for the second year in a row.

After a few weeks of speculation and a mini-controversy about what wearing a blue-and-white windbreaker means, former Maryland quarterback Danny O'Brien announced that he would transfer to the University of Wisconsin. A 2-year starter at Maryland, O'Brien is scheduled to graduate this May and will become the Badgers' most experienced signal caller the minute he steps on campus, and is expected to come in and win the starting job in fall camp.

If this sounds familiar to you, you're not alone. O'Brien's arrival is not unlike last season, when the staff brought in Russell Wilson for one season after he earned a bachelor's degree and decided to transfer from North Carolina State. Wilson's addition went off without a hitch, as he led the Badgers to a second-straight Rose Bowl game and set the NCAA record for passing efficiency along the way.

That was always going to be a tough act to follow, but the obvious parallels between Wilson's story and O'Brien's will likely put a lot of extra pressure on O'Brien and his future team. The comparisons will come, but it sounded like O'Brien doesn't want them to get in the way once he gets on campus in June.

So let's set things straight right away: Danny O'Brien is not Russell Wilson. They're two completely different quarterbacks, with O'Brien preferring to stay in the pocket and Wilson being more comfortable on the run if he didn't see anything he liked. As with any two players, both have strengths and weaknesses.

But O'Brien doesn't need to as good as or better than Wilson to make the Badgers' risk-taking worthwhile. While I'm sure they would be more than happy to catch lightning in a bottle for a second time, he doesn't need to lead the Badgers back to Pasadena to prove his worth. He just needs to be better than their other options under center; and looking at the depleted state of the Badgers' signal callers, that doesn't seem like a stretch.

Bringing in O'Brien is risky, sure, but it was a risk the Badgers almost needed to take.

Their window of opportunity in the Big Ten is slowly shrinking. Michigan is on the rebound, but Ohio State is barred from post-season play and Penn State looks like a rebuilding team, though all three are recruiting exceptionally well in the 2013 class. Wisconsin has had a very successful three-year run, and needs stable quarterback play if it wants to keep building on the momentum and establish themselves as perennial contenders in the Big Ten.

Like most decisions in life, though O'Brien's transfer is not free from pitfalls. He could come in and struggle to adjust to another new offense, or isn't able to gel with his new teammates as easily as Wilson did. Bielema said after the announcement that they wouldn't have brought O'Brien in if he wasn't a good fit, but its hard to predict what could happen if the team were to struggle.

In addition, the Badgers need to prove that they can still develop their own quarterbacks. Extreme situations have motivated them to look outside their program for answers, but opposing teams will be happy to say that the Badgers can't or won't develop their own quarterbacks. There's still something to be said for grooming a starting quarterback over a few years, but O'Brien's transfer actually helps in this area.

O'Brien's two years of eligibility should give the younger quarterbacks plenty of time to develop and become more familiar with the offense, something that Wilson's status as a one-year player couldn't provide. O'Brien could start for two years, and someone like Bart Houston could eventually take over as a redshirt sophomore. Having a natural succession after the end of the O'Brien era will go a long way toward dispelling any negative recruiting that the Badgers' rivals will use against them.

Bringing in transfer players is always a risky endeavor. But with the state of the Badgers' quarterbacks and a slowly shrinking window of opportunity to make their mark on the Big Ten, it's a risk Bielema and the Badgers had to take. And if it works out, O'Brien's transfer could pay off in ways that Russell Wilson's arrival could not.

For more Wisconsin Badgers news, notes and discussion, follow John on Twitter.


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