Gillins progressing as Badgers' backup QB
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
MADISON--D.J. Gillins remembers vividly his first pass in spring practice.
“I literally forgot the play,” Gillins said after practice Tuesday. “My mind went blank….I tried to remember what receivers had which routes. And it was a basic play.”
Tight end Austin Traylor was open in the middle of the field but Gillins, his mind racing faster than his nimble feet, didn’t see him for several seconds.
“I threw it late and it was a pick-six,” Gillins explained.
Five months later, the 6-foot-3, 201-pound freshman from Jacksonville, Fla., is by no means ready to battle for the starting job.
However, his understanding of the offense has improved since the spring, and bit by bit his physical talents are beginning to surface.
Gillins’ best overall performance came Monday near the end of UW’s second scrimmage of camp, with the No. 3 offense. He threw the ball on time and with accuracy and used his feet to elude defenders for a big gain.
“He’s got a bunch of young players surrounding him,” head coach Gary Andersen said, “and he made a couple plays.”
Andersen would like to redshirt Gillins, who is third behind Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy. However, he acknowledged this week if the offense needs a spark at some point during the season that Gillins may be called upon.
“As a freshman, you want to be on the field because you want people back home to remember you as soon as possible,” Gillins said. “I am going to prepare either way.
“Whatever he says goes.”
Gillins, who enrolled at UW in January after graduating early from Jean Ribault High School in Jacksonville, possesses the mix of running and passing skills Andersen prefers in a quarterback.
However, when his junior season ended in the opener because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, Gillins wondered whether he would sign with any school.
According to Gillins, more than a dozen schools had extended a scholarship offer before the injury. That number dwindled after he went down.
“I had the jitters thinking nobody else would recruit me,” he said.
UW got heavily involved late, but Gillins committed last July before his senior season. He passed for 2,371 yards and 22 touchdowns and rushed for 602 yards and eight touchdowns as a senior.
Gillins was understandably inconsistent in the spring and was told by offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig he needed to shorten his delivery.
“I’m keeping the ball up higher and throwing it smoother,” Gillins said. “Knowing the plays, mastering the plays (helps).”
Stave understands Gillins’ early struggles. He enrolled early (January 2011) at UW and spent an inordinate amount of time poring over video in an effort to grasp the offense, then coordinated by Paul Chryst.
Stave didn’t have to play as a freshman because Russell Wilson transferred in and led UW to the Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl berth.
“I knew the offense well enough to go in and play,” Stave said.
His spring experience was similar to that of Gillins, though.
“I’m dropping back and I know that guy is running a corner, so I’m just going to throw it to him,” Stave said, describing his memories of trying to run the offense. “I don’t know what anyone else is doing.
“After that spring not only did I understand the offense better, but you start understanding the game better.”
It seems unlikely that UW will need Gillins this season if Stave can throw the ball more accurately than he did in 2013, and the staff can design packages to utilize McEvoy’s ability to run and throw and put additional stress on defenses.
Gillins should be able to watch and learn and continue distancing himself from that first pass in March.
“In the meeting room, I knew the play,” he said. “I knew where to go. But when I got in front of the players on the field, it was different. It was a learning experience.
“Now, it is natural.”