Running back Montee Ball received a text message from quarterback Curt Phillips about three weeks ago that delivered a simple, yet emphatic, statement.
"Just a random text," Ball recalled. "He said, 'I'm back.' ''
Phillips is a University of Wisconsin senior who has endured three ACL surgeries to his right knee and hasn't played in a football game in more than two years. He was limited to 7-on-7 passing drills in the spring and won't be able to practice more than once a day when preseason camp opens on Monday.
But Ball and the other two UW players — left tackle Ricky Wagner and linebacker Mike Taylor — who attended the Big Ten Conference Media Days in Chicago last week said Phillips looked healthy in summer drills.
"He talked to the doctors and they said his knee is back and ready," Ball said. "He's throwing the ball well. His decision-making is very good, too. I'm really excited to see the competition at that position, because it's only going to bring the best out of them."
UW coaches would like nothing better than a true quarterback competition, rather than handing the job to transfer Danny O'Brien from Maryland. For that to happen, Phillips will have to prove his damaged knee can hold up through camp and redshirt freshman Joel Stave must continue his dramatic development from the spring.
"I think there's no question it's going to be a legitimate competition," first-year offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Matt Canada said in the spring. "The best football player will play."
UW coach Bret Bielema said similar things a year ago, when transfer Russell Wilson arrived from North Carolina State. That competition never developed, in part because Jon Budmayr suffered an elbow injury early in camp and has been sidelined ever since.
Wilson seized the job from the first snap and no one who saw him practice doubted who the starting quarterback would be. He went on to have the best season ever by a UW quarterback, establishing an NCAA record for passing efficiency (191.78) while throwing for 3,175 yards with 33 touchdowns and four interceptions.
While O'Brien will endure inevitable comparisons to Wilson given the similarity of their situations — both transferred from Atlantic Coast Conference schools and were eligible to play right away because they had graduated — reasonable fans will understand Wilson was a rare talent.
"It's really hard to do what Russell did,'' Ball said. "I'm not saying (O'Brien) can't do it. We don't need for him to do it. We don't need for Danny to be like that. We need Danny to be like Danny."
O'Brien started 17 games in two seasons at Maryland and has two years of eligibility remaining. The more appropriate comparison for him might be Scott Tolzien, the UW starter in 2009 and 2010.
"I'd say (O'Brien is) a lot more like Scott," Ball said. "Accurate, probably won't gamble as much, like Russell did. Not as fast as Russell, but is capable of making plays on his feet."
Before suffering his first ACL injury in the spring of 2010, Phillips looked like a future starter. Known more for his running than throwing early on, he has had ample time to refine his passing and work on the mental part of the position. Phillips is in graduate school, like O'Brien.
"There was never any doubt, I think, in Curt's mind," Bielema said of being able to play again. "I think a lot of people doubted that maybe a guy can come back after a third ACL. He's just so strong-willed, he's a guy that graduated in three years. ... The way his mind works is kind of at a higher level than most people, that's why he's been able to have success."
Stave, a walk-on, showed potential in the spring, separating himself from sophomore Joe Brennan, the backup last season. But Stave will likely need more seasoning.
Bielema mentioned O'Brien, Phillips and Stave as potential starters, with Brennan noticeably absent from the list. In truth, it will be hard to split reps among three quarterbacks for too long in camp.
The coaches told O'Brien from the start he would have to compete for the starting job.
"I was very clear with Danny. ... (The returning quarterbacks) are going to be ahead of him coming in because they've been here and put in the time," Canada said.
"Then when (O'Brien) comes in, he will compete for the job. He had a great answer for that, 'That's the only way you want it to be.' ''
Badgers quarterbacks overview
Starting quarterback Russell Wilson completed 225 of 309 passes (72.8 percent) for 3,175 yards, with 33 touchdowns and four interceptions. He also rushed for 338 net yards and caught three passes.
Burning question: Will someone step forward to challenge O'Brien?
The coaches are promoting the idea of a quarterback competition, which means Phillips and/or Stave will have to emerge to challenge O'Brien, who is the presumptive starter. Indications are O'Brien has fit in well with his new teammates, just like Wilson did a year ago. "Right from day one," senior running back Montee Ball said. "Coach (Bret Bielema) did a great job again of picking someone who is very similar to all of the rest of the players."
Player to watch: Curt Phillips
It's easy to root for Phillips, who has had three ACL surgeries on his right knee, yet maintains an upbeat attitude that amazes his teammates. Phillips graduated in three years, according to Bielema, and is in graduate school. Phillips is expected to petition the NCAA after this season for a sixth year, so if all goes well, he could have two years remaining.