June 27, 2011
Refill your mugs and cue up House of Pain, Wisconsin: As of this afternoon, ex-N.C. State star turned free-agent quarterback Russell Wilson is officially a Badger. Coach Bret Bielema confirmed Wilson's commitment to spend his final season of eligibility in Madison and expects his new recruit to compete for the starting job straightaway, pending his acceptance to graduate school and a waiver from the NCAA affirming his eligibility for the upcoming season. Mere formalities.
For Wisconsin, the initial reaction is relief. There's a reason the Badgers wanted Wilson so badly: The competition to replace underrated senior Scott Tolzien in the spring consisted of one frontrunner, Curt Phillips, going down with the third ACL tear of his career and the others stinking up the joint in the spring game. Wilson, on the other hand, arrives with a resumé. He was one of the ACC's breakout stars in 2008 as a redshirt freshman, picking up all-conference honors and embarking on the longest interception-free streak — eventually stretching to 379 consecutive passes — in Division I history. He went over 3,000 yards with an ACC-high 31 touchdown passes in 2009, and led the league in both yards and touchdowns last year as a junior while also leading the team in rushing before sacks. They may not serve him the job on a silver platter just for walking in the door, but it shouldn't take long for Wilson to distance himself from a very undistinguished pack, either. (Uh, no pun intended, N.C. State fans.)
The second reaction is boundless optimism. Quarterback was the only position on the depth chart with a radioactive glow strong enough to keep Wisconsin from the top of the preseason polls in the Big Ten. With Wilson in the fold alongside 14 returning starters from last year's 11-2 Rose Bowl run, two 1,000-yard rushers who weren't full-time starters and veterans returning from redshirt seasons on the offensive line (Travis Frederick) and at linebacker (Chris Borland), the Badgers look like a relatively complete team — relative to the stiffest competition in the "Leaders" Division, anyway, now that Ohio State's season is threatening to unravel before it even begins. If the Buckeyes' roster is still intact when Wisconsin comes to Columbus on Oct. 29, the NCAA may ensure that their championship hopes are not.
For Wilson, though, the short-term pride of finishing a career with a legitimate contender loses a bit of its luster next to the potential consequences for his long-term prospects as a pro baseball player. At the moment, Wilson is hitting a paltry .228 with a team-high 82 strikeouts for the Asheville Tourists, a Single-A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies, and the club has already made it abundantly clear that it doesn't want a fourth-round draft pick — especially one with dim NFL prospects, at best — banging around a football field this fall.
Assuming he actually intends to play, and not stand on the sidelines soaking up the atmosphere, Wilson will have to cut his baseball season short to enroll in school, learn the offense, develop some kind of rapport with his new teammates and fulfill all of the other duties that come with being a Division I quarterback. According to the Rockies, he'll also have to cough up "a significant portion" of the $250,000 signing bonus he was paid last year for leaving the team before the end of the season.
So: By pursuing another year of football, Wilson could be risking hits to both his bank account and the goodwill of an organization that's yet to see much return on its investment to be a four-month stopgap at an unfamiliar school, if he's able to wrestle the starting job away from a more tenured member of the team after arriving on short notice. While also enrolling in graduate school to remain eligible. At least no one's ever going to question his commitment to the game again.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.