Wilson puts Badgers among top teams

Published 1:48 am Wednesday, June 29, 2011

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — To fans, Russell Wilson might be Wisconsin’s ticket back to Rose Bowl — or even more.

To his new teammates, the former North Carolina State quarterback will arrive on campus as the presumptive starter this season. Coach Bret Bielema already is trying to keep expectations under control.

Imagine how crazy things will get when Wilson actually takes a snap for the Badgers.

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Bielema is thrilled to secure a commitment from Wilson, who was free to transfer and play right away after graduating early from N.C. State and trying his hand at minor league baseball. Wilson also visited Auburn before officially choosing Wisconsin on Monday.

“He wasn’t promised a starting job,” Bielema said Tuesday. “But obviously I told him, ’As a guy with one year of eligibility, I’m not bringing you in with the intention of seeing how you sit on the bench.”’

With the addition of an experienced, skilled quarterback, a team that didn’t have a clear-cut successor to steady starter Scott Tolzien suddenly looks like a Big Ten title favorite. And talk of contending for a national championship doesn’t seem far-fetched.

“I know people are going to naturally go down that path,” Bielema said. “One of the things I’ve tried to do is temper not only coaches’ expectations, but fan expectations. I think it’s a sign of respect, that was an area that everybody was kind of looking at as a position of weakness. But to me, it’s going to become a position of strength because there’s great competition.”

Bielema said he and offensive coordinator Paul Chryst were upfront with Jon Budmayr and the other QBs already on the roster when the Badgers first began recruiting Wilson.

“I loved Jon’s reaction,” Bielema said. “He goes, ’Coach, whatever happens, it’s not going to change the way I prepare.”’

Even before he takes the field, Wilson’s decision represents a major victory for the Badgers. In beating out Auburn for the quarterback, Bielema may have changed a perception about Wisconsin.

Plenty of teams would like to have Wisconsin’s identity as a team that wins by lining up talented running backs behind a mammoth offensive line. But that can hurt attempts to land an elite quarterback on the recruiting trail.

“I had to battle that, because that’s all (Wilson) kept throwing in my face,” Bielema said. “I think other schools were using that against us: We’re a run-oriented school. Well, we’re an offense-oriented school. I understand, I get it. We’ve got good running backs. But there’s not a lot of people in college football, especially over the past couple of years, that have been as balanced as we are.”

The Badgers averaged 246 yards rushing last season and 199 passing. Bielema said he sold Wilson on the idea that he wouldn’t have to do it on his own at Wisconsin.

“I believe some other people who were recruiting him were selling, ’Hey, come in here, you’re the man, you’re going to win the Heisman, we’re going to win the national championship,”’ Bielema said. “Whereas my plan was, ’Hey, this is what we are. If you want to fit into this, I think you can be tremendously successful.’ And it has been, I think, a good awakening for me to realize on a national level that we can compete with anybody.”

Even with a top quarterback on board, Bielema isn’t running from his program’s main identity.

“I don’t want to replace what the image is at Wisconsin,” Bielema said. “It is what it is. But the more we can kind of sneak up on people a little bit, that helps us.”

Given Russell’s unique situation, Bielema and his staff tried to get creative in recruiting.

Bielema said he lobbied the NCAA to let him go visit Wilson’s mother; Bielema said she has a daughter at home and was unable to go along on Wilson’s official visit to Madison. Bielema also wanted to go watch Wilson play baseball for the Colorado Rockies’ Single-A team.

The NCAA said no to both requests, but the Badgers still got their man.

Wilson is expected to arrive on campus next week and begin taking summer graduate classes soon after. NCAA rules keep coaches from working with players during the summer, so it will be up to Wilson’s new teammates to bring him up to speed on the offense.

Even Tolzien has volunteered to help — he’s working out in Madison and hoping to catch on with an NFL team after the lockout ends — although Bielema said Wisconsin is checking with the NCAA to see if that’s allowed.

It’s a lot for Wilson to take in, but Bielema believes he can handle it.

Wilson is engaged, and also dealt with the death of his father last year — signs, Bielema said, of his maturity.

“I wouldn’t have gone down this path if it wasn’t someone that I really respected as a person, that I thought could handle the situation,” Bielema said.