MADISON, Wis. — Quarterback Jack Coan can admit the amount of information he had to process at this time last year was occasionally overwhelming. Coan had enrolled a semester early from high school to take part in Wisconsin’s spring football practice, and the complexities and speed with which the game was played felt almost foreign.
Every little detail was more advanced and more nuanced. He had to learn a new playbook, understand his reads and improve his timing on throws. Even taking the ball from behind center in Wisconsin’s pro-style offense represented a significant change. In high school, Coan had played in a shotgun-spread formation.
So to ask Coan now about his progression in one year is to see a smile form. One can almost hear the sigh of relief.
“I definitely know a lot more, and I’m so much more comfortable than I was last spring,” Coan said. “I kind of actually know what I’m doing this spring.”
Coan’s continued improvement will be important in a quarterback room devoid of experience after starter Alex Hornibrook. Coan, who won the backup job as a freshman last season, is the only other quarterback on the roster to have seen the field. He appeared in 6 games and completed all 5 of his pass attempts for 36 yards late in blowouts.
Hornibrook enters spring camp as the unquestioned starter for a second consecutive season. But in the event an injury befalls Hornibrook, Wisconsin’s sky-high expectations of competing for a national championship likely will hinge on how well Coan adjusts to earning significant reps.
That might sound like a lot of pressure, but Coan said he isn’t spending any time worrying about what might happen in the future. All he can do is focus on improving himself each day in practice and see what happens down the road.
Wisconsin’s coaches certainly have liked what they’ve seen from Coan early in his career.
“Even when you play a little and you have to go in each week knowing that you’re a snap away, I think you look at the next year with different eyes,” Badgers offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said. “You look at film different, you look at your opportunities different. You look at the learning different.
“Your eyes change because you know the importance of grasping that information. And you can see it with him. He’s got a lot of confidence and he’s having fun. He’s coming from a place of deeper understanding, which is pretty cool.”
Coan was a decorated high school quarterback in Sayville, N.Y., who set Long Island career passing records for yards (9,787) and touchdowns (128). He also rushed for 2,551 yards — at a 6.54 yards-per-carry clip — with 33 touchdowns. His arm strength and ability to move outside the pocket have been two areas that have helped him to stand out at Wisconsin.
He outperformed quarterback Kare Lyles during the spring game last year when he completed 10 of 17 passes for 121 yards with 1 touchdown and 1 interception to position himself for the backup job. But it was clear then that he had much more to learn.
Coan threw an interception after he held onto the ball too long, which allowed a defender to grab him from behind. He also convened with Hornibrook before he entered the huddle on each play to ask what the hand signals coming from the sidelines meant.
“The best thing that Jack does is he works tirelessly at the position and he wants to be great,” Badgers quarterbacks coach Jon Budmayr said. “I think he really started hitting his stride in fall camp when he had a period of time to consume all of the information, have some reps at it and now be going into that second phase of reps on the field. There were a lot of things that he grew at during the fall, and I think he progressed at a good pace. He did everything we asked of him in the fall.”
Coan enters the 2018 season in an interesting position. Hornibrook, a redshirt junior, has two years of eligibility remaining. It would make sense for Coan to use a redshirt season in one of those years to provide him with an additional season of eligibility. But if he is the clear-cut backup, it could also be difficult to sit him during that stretch.
Coan said the opportunity to earn in-game reps last season, even if few and far between, provided him with more confidence and a greater understanding of what to expect. He grew more comfortable playing in front of large crowds in big stadiums. He improved his passing accuracy. He also watched how Hornibrook studied film and worked through his reads.
Those experiences have paved the way for a strong spring season. During practice last Tuesday, Coan dropped in a perfectly thrown strike to receiver Jack Dunn for a 45-yard touchdown pass in team drills. He later threaded the needle between two defenders for a touchdown pass to tight end Jake Ferguson in red-zone drills.
If Coan can continue to make similar gains in Year 2, Wisconsin’s quarterback room will be better for it.
“He’s ready to take that next step as a quarterback,” Budmayr said. “For all the guys, Jack included, this is a great time where that competition is with yourself. Like I told Jack, ‘That race has started.’
“But it’s, ‘How can I get to be the best quarterback that I can be at Wisconsin?’ And that’s Jack Coan. The rest will take care of itself. I think he’s done a great job of staying in the moment while knowing what his goals are and what his visions are, not losing track of getting better every day.”