It’s only been two games against far inferior opponents, but Jack Coan has fared quite well so far in his first season as Wisconsin’s starting quarterback. The Sayville native has yet to throw an interception and is coming off his best career game: a 363-yard, four-touchdown effort against Central Michigan on Saturday.
But to take that next step forward as a passer — and to help the Badgers get back atop the Big Ten come December — ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit thinks Coan should look to the past.
Specifically, eight years in the past, to when an eventual Super Bowl winner was under center in Madison.
“I think if I were Jack, I would pull video out of those years that Russell Wilson ran the Wisconsin offense and say, ‘This is who I want to be, and this is who this offense can be,’” Herbstreit told Newsday on Monday morning.
Coan’s situation this year is quite similar to what Wilson had in his lone season with the Badgers, starting with star running backs. Wilson had Montee Ball, who led the nation in both rushing yards (1,923) and rushing touchdowns (33) in 2011. Coan has fellow junior Jonathan Taylor, a powerful back who has rushed for at least 1,900 yards in each of his two seasons and already has 237 rushing yards, five rushing touchdowns and three receiving scores this year.
“What happens when you have a great running game is it helps the offensive line in pass protection, it helps the quarterback because the safeties are constantly worried about, ‘Are they running the ball off of play action?’” said Herbstreit, speaking on a call to promote his weekly Allstate Mayhem Moment picks.
Wilson’s top two receivers in 2011 — Jared Abbrederis and Nick Toon — also were NFL-caliber. And Herbstreit likes what he’s seen so far from this year’s receiving corps, led by Quintez Cephus (nine catches, 169 yards, two touchdowns), A.J. Taylor (eight catches, 87 yards) and Kendric Pryor (six catches, 72 yards).
That deep receiver group allows the Badgers to occasionally switch things up from their usual run-heavy personnel and go with more of a spread attack — a system that Coan flourished in at Sayville High School, where he totaled four Long Island high school passing records, a unanimous Hansen Award win and three All-Long Island first-team selections.
“Even though there’s a perception that Wisconsin is more ‘three tight ends, run the football’ — and there’s some validity to that — because of the playcaller, the creativity of [head coach] Paul Chryst and because of the depth at wide receiver, you’ll see certain aspects of the spread still in Wisconsin’s offense,” Herbstreit said. “They’ll go with three receivers and one running back and one tight end quite a bit. And that’ll get Jack to his comfort level as he grows in this offense. That’ll give him a chance to still go back to his roots.”
Chryst was the offensive coordinator under Bret Bielema on that 2011 squad and was able to get the most out of Wilson, who led the Big Ten with 33 touchdown passes, was second with 3,175 yards and earned MVP honors in the inaugural Big Ten title game.
More importantly, though, Wilson brought much-needed balance to the Badgers’ offense. That’s something that Coan will need to do in order for Wisconsin to have any chance at winning a conference title.
“I think the greatest thing you can say about any college offense is, we’re not a run-first offense, we’re not a pass-first offense, we will be able to go to whatever the defense is giving us,” Herbstreit said. “So if they load up on Jonathan Taylor, we’re going to give the ball to Jack and throw it around until they start to respect that, and then we’re going to run the ball. So I think having the ability to do both, when Wisconsin is really taking off and playing to their capabilities, that’s who they are.”
Coan started five games last year, including the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium, as an injury replacement for Alex Hornibrook. He held off highly touted freshman Graham Mertz for the starting job and his numbers so far have been very good — 564 yards, five touchdowns, no interceptions and a 76.3 completion percentage (45-for-59).
“There are a lot of people excited about the potential of what Jack can do,” Herbstreit said.
But Herbstreit cautioned against getting too excited just yet. That’s because after a bye this week, Coan will face his first real test of the season on Sept. 21 when the Badgers host a Michigan team that’ll also be coming off of a bye and may still be stewing over their double-overtime near-upset at the hands of Army on Saturday.
Said Herbstreit: “I still feel that they’re kind of in the early stages of really learning where his strengths are . . . If you and I were speaking on Sept. 23, a couple of weeks from now, we would have a lot more of an idea of where Coan is and if he’s ready for really what he’s going to face as they get into the season, because it’s going to get much, much tougher for him that what we’ve seen at this point.”