Badgers: OC Phil Longo talks quarterbacks, Chez Mellusi’s return, getting Jake Renfro back and more

TAMPA — For the first time since late October, Wisconsin offensive coordinator Phil Longo spoke with reporters on Thursday following the Badgers second practice in Tampa in advance of their ReliaQuest Bowl matchup with LSU. Though Longo wanted to focus mainly on the one game left this year, he also addressed their addition of Tyler Van Dyke to the quarterback room, where the offense can grow, Chez Mellusi’s return, Jake Renfro’s first game in two years and more.

note: questions have been edited for clarity and length

Q: You get one more game with Tanner Mordecai. What will you remember about his time at Wisconsin?

Longo: “It’s funny you bring that up because I tell Tanner every day that I wish I had him for three or four years. I don’t think that we would have been for four years, probably done in three. They say appreciate what you have. You got your family and those things, and obviously I do, but I am appreciating and trying to enjoy every day I got with him. Because I know that on Monday, that’ll be the last one. And I just appreciate him as a person, appreciate him for the warrior that he is. Coaches throw that word around a lot, but he is one of the toughest quarterbacks I’ve ever coached. From a mental standpoint and a physical standpoint. He’s been that way since the day he got here. It’s 100-percent, sincerely who and what he is. That’s what we were looking for in our quarterback and we got it. The only regret I have is that he was injured. As a starter he was 6-2 and we’re gonna we’re gonna go into battle one more time here on Monday.”

Q: What are you getting in Miami transfer QB Tyler Van Dyke?

Longo: “I mean, obviously, we are very pleased with what Tyler has to offer or we wouldn’t have brought him in. But he’s got a lot of experience. He’s a mentally tough kid. He’s very bright. Obviously, he’s tall and rangy and he can he can throw it all over the yard, he can make all the throws. I watched him live. Coach Fickell, I have learned working with him every day, is huge on winners, right? We all are. And he’s a guy that has proven he can do that in the past. He’s a guy that I’ve actually watched live and that carried some weight with me with regards to liking him, because I’ve seen him do it against our defense (at North Carolina) two years in a row. I’ve seen him do it against the entire league that I coached in (the ACC) for four years. I know what he was competing against and I know how high of level he was playing. So I’m obviously thrilled to have him here in our quarterback room.”

Q: Does Tyler’s history of going through adversity — whether injuries or play — give you confidence he’d be able to fight through something similar at Wisconsin?

Longo: “If you look at anybody’s history, they probably have an injury history. They probably have an adversity history, they probably have a bad game here and there. And, for me, what I really am most intrigued about with Tyler is how he’s bounced back and handled all those situations. Everybody has all that in their background. Many don’t handle it as well. He did and he does. And it’s just part of that the mental part of it. I think that is an asset that we’re getting with him. Time will tell, obviously. He’s gonna come in, he’s got to do it, go compete with the rest of the guys and see what happens.”

Q: You still have one more game but do you have a list things in your mind where you can improve as an offense next year?

Longo: “No question. I think everybody — a head coach, an offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, even a position guy — with regards to the vision in their room or the vision with your unit or the vision with the team, you have a picture of what you think it can be, what you’ve done with it before. The trick is, when you get somewhere, you really got to meld that with the talent that you have. I’ve always said this, you got to let the talent dictate the direction that you take the offense.

“We also have things that we want to improve on, right? We want to improve the roster. We want to improve every room that we have. We want to improve our technique. We’re improving every week schematically what we’re doing. So I am excited about this game coming up and then I will be excited about taking the next big step. And in year two usually it’s pretty good. So, because you have so many people returning now that understand what it is we’re doing.”

Q: Is there anything that comes to mind of areas for growth after things were more challenging than expected this year?

Longo: “Not more challenging. I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced as many injuries as we had this year. And those are just excuses, but they were very impactful injuries. Right? So I think going into the second year, I’m excited about knowing what the advantages of the second year are. That’s when we line up in spring ball, we’ve got eight guys in line that can turn around and tell the two young guys exactly why we’re doing the drill, what we’re doing, how often we’re doing it, how fast we’re doing it. That’s 35 coaches that we didn’t have last year.

“Then the other thing is, we’re a lot closer from the get go from this whole process of playing much more instinctively, which is what the entire offense is predicated on. Obviously, going into year two, you do something for a year, you’re better at it than you were when you first started. So those are the natural improvements and the natural benefits that you get from the second year. And then we’ll address schematically and talent-wise, and all that stuff when we get to spring ball.”

Q: What does it mean to get Chez Mellusi back and what is he capable of in a starting role?

Longo: “Chez is obviously, as we all know, one of our most explosive players. He fits a system that creates some space, so we are elated to have him back, can’t wait to see him back out on the field, happy that he’s returning. But not only does he bring the explosive play on the field, but he was heading towards being one of the those two or three premier leaders on the offensive side before he got hurt. I don’t think that will change next year. I think he’s intending to be one of the leaders on our team, we’re going to need him to be and I think that’s kind of where things are going right now.”

Q: What does it say about Mellusi that he keeps fighting despite having three major injuries during his time at UW?

Longo: “We talk about mental toughness all the time. Here’s a guy that has been through a lot of adversity and the only thing he says every time I talked to him was how excited he is to get back to 100% and get going. When you’re a fighter like that, that’s how you handle it. Fourth time is the charm, is what I just said. Hopefully, that’s what happens.”

Q: You said during the season the offense needed some more explosiveness on the outside at WR. Have you found that or is it still a need?

Longo: “We’ve made some additions to the roster, so those are obviously improvements. We’ve done that in every room. I also think, though, in the receiver room, we’re developing it because there’s a lot of speed in the room. That’s got to be coupled with some experience and some technique, doing a better job of changing direction, those types of things, but the potential to be explosive exists in that room. I’m excited again about it but first we got to lock in and go make some plays here in the bowl game. And that’s really the only purpose. Then once that’s over we’ll delve into developing the rest of the room. So I’m not trying to skate your answer, but I’m really not focused on next year until we take care of the last chapter.”

Q: Jake Renfro is going to play in a game for the first time in two years. Center isn’t a position the average fan gets. What does he add to the position?

“It’s a more diverse position and some people think just because of the mental part of it. He’s got to make a lot of calls. That’s what we’re just discussing over there (after practice). He’s got to make a lot of calls, he’s got to ID a lot of things. He really kind of sets the offensive line right prior to every play. I think one of the things that the extended practices, the added practices that we have for this game has given him an opportunity to kind of shake off some of the rust and ID some things that maybe didn’t come so readily midseason. Now he’s repping every one group and he’s getting the endurance aspect of it, he’s getting the mental aspect of it.

“One of the things I’ll tell you that he does an outstanding job of is he is as crisp of a snapper as I’ve been around in a while. He gets it back there. And those things might seem like a little thing, but it’s an asset. It helps us with the RPOs, it helps us the timing of the run game, helps us get into our drops sooner. So that’s been a pleasant surprise also with Jake.”

Q: How have the rest of the quarterbacks reacted to the addition of Tyler Van Dyke?

Longo: I’ve been pleased with the reaction. They all slapped hands, said hello and talked. When we had (2024 recruit) Mabrey (Mettauer) up here and we had Tyler up here and they had football questions, and the guys in the room answered them. I think they just accept them as a part of our room. They know that’s what’s coming. I think if you’re made the right way, and you play quarterback, you worry about your own development and you go compete on the field and you let your performance dictate what happens. I mean, they don’t have a choice. That’s the only thing they can do.”

Q: Where have you seen QB Nick Evers grow in his game?

Longo: “All of it really. He’s obviously an athlete, and he’s been an athlete since the day he got here. He can sling the ball. We wanted him to work on accuracy, the intermediate stuff, the quick stuff, the deep stuff, and those are things that when we get to technique and rep, he’s gotten better at. We want to cleanup techniques, so we’re still working on that. And then it’s a forever improving process mentally. I would say that he is much further along right now than he was in the spring, so progress is good with him so far.”