Paul Chryst was the offensive coordinator at Wisconsin in 2011 when the Badgers signed a two-star recruit out of Greenfield, Wis., named Joel Stave.
Chryst left in 2012 to coach at the University of Pittsburgh. Upon returning to Madison three years later to replace Gary Andersen as head coach of the Badgers, Chryst reconnected with Stave, who after redshirting as a freshman had grown up, played 31 games in three years and become an NFL prospect.
“It was fun to see how he had matured, and certainly Joel went through a lot from his freshman year to his fifth year,” Chryst said this week of Stave, now a rookie quarterback for the Vikings. “There was obviously a lot of maturity and growth. He had played a lot of games, won some big games.”
He also forgot how to throw a football during his junior season.
After Stave started for the Badgers as a redshirt freshman in 2012 and tossed 22 touchdown passes in his sophomore season, Andersen declared days before the 2014 season opener against LSU that junior college transfer Tanner McEvoy would be Wisconsin’s starting quarterback to begin the season.
The following day, a hot one by Wisconsin standards, Stave was playing catch with a teammate in the team’s indoor practice facility. When he whipped the ball downfield, everything felt fine. But on easier 10-yard throws, the ball kept wobbling out of Stave’s massive mitts and out of the reach of his receiver. Ditto for the next day. It happened again during warmups the night of the LSU game.
Two days later, he explained to reporters that his throwing issues were mental.
“I’ll be throwing it good, throwing it good and then all of a sudden I feel like I hang on to it too long,” Stave said at the time, according to Sports Illustrated. “One will sail, one will slip and then you start thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve got to hang on to it longer.’ That’s what happens when you start thinking too much.”
Stave, embarrassed by his inability to do something he had done thousands of times over the years, pushed himself harder to plow through the mental block. Eventually, after a few weeks, he was able to throw his way out of it.
“It was a frustrating time. It just took some time to work through it,” Stave said last week. “But I didn’t want that to be how football ended for me.”
It wasn’t. By early October, he was back in the huddle for the Badgers. After replacing McEvoy in a loss to Northwestern, Stave helped them reel off seven straight victories, including one over the Gophers, to win the Big Ten West Division. Their season ended with a victory win over Auburn in the Outback Bowl.
After Chryst was hired as head coach last year, he met with Stave, whom he had helped recruit in 2011, to gauge where the senior quarterback was at mentally.
“I just flat out asked him about it. I think he knew me well enough and we trusted each other, so we could have a frank conversation,” Chryst said. “Really, I wasn’t concerned about what had happened as much as where he was at then.”
Stave assured his coach that he was all good and backed it up by completing 60.8 percent of his throws during his senior season for a career-high 2,687 yards and 11 touchdown passes, though he also had 11 interceptions.
The 24-year-old thinks the attention paid to his junior-year yips is a bit overblown, but Chryst believes the experience says about a lot about Stave’s character.
“To me, that’s part of his mental toughness, that he fought through that and came out the other end — and I’d like to think better for it,” Chryst said.
Even though Stave started 41 games at Wisconsin, winning a school-record 31 of them, Chryst believes “there is a still a lot of room for growth.” And Chryst, who worked under Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner for one season when he coached the San Diego Chargers, said he thinks Stave landed in a good spot.
Stave was not selected during last month’s NFL draft, but the Vikings made it a priority to sign him as a rookie free agent to compete with Taylor Heinicke for a chance to be one of the three quarterbacks on the team’s active roster.
“He was inconsistent, but when he played well he really played at a high level. We thought this is a guy with size who has shown arm strength. He’s actually a pretty good athlete for someone of his size,” quarterbacks coach Scott Turner said of the 6-5 Stave. “We thought this is someone we can work with, so he was the No. 1 guy we targeted as soon as the draft was over.”
Turner said the coaching staff has seen Stave take to their techniques and that he already has displayed improvement as a passer over the past few weeks.
On Wednesday, as he walked off the field at Winter Park following the Vikings’ voluntary OTA practice, Stave grinned when pressed to think about where he is now compared to 20 months ago, when the passer briefly forgot how to pass.
“I know at that point I probably wasn’t on any NFL radars,” Stave said. “Just having the opportunity that I have now, I’m trying to make the most of it.”