MADISON – Ask to break down how’s he performed through the first week of spring practice, Bart Houston had to chuckle.
“It is only two practices,” said Houston.
Welcome to the Wisconsin quarterback competition – spring 2016 edition. The Badgers didn’t have to worry about a quarterback competition last year with fifth-year senior Joel Stave entrenched as the firm starter, leaving Houston and redshirt freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook to improve on their game behind the scenes.
They are certainly front and center now.
Wisconsin spent the second day of spring practice going heavy on position drills, individual work Houston, Hornibrook and sophomore walk-on Bobby Dunn relished to start building chemistry with a receiving corps that has a lot of unanswered questions outside of senior Rob Wheelwright.
“We’ve got a long ways to go,” said Houston.
There hasn’t been much to report on, which is why every little thing gets dissected, like Hornibrook throwing an awful pass during 11-on-11 drills that Leo Musso took the other way for a pick six.
Houston is viewed as the early favorite in the quarterback race based on his performance in Wisconsin’s 24-13 win at Illinois last season.
In his first extensive game action under center, Houston finished with 232 passing yards on 22-for-33 passing, finishing with two touchdowns and two interceptions. After Illinois took a 13-10 lead midway through the third quarter, Houston led the Badgers – who were down five starters in the game – executed an 8-play, 86-yard drive to take the lead for good.
When UW needed insurance, Houston chewed 7 minutes, 39 seconds off the clock on a 13-play drive by going 3-for-3 on third down, including a touchdown pass on third-and-goal from the nine.
“One game helps, I’m not sure not much it helps because I still made some mistakes,” said Houston. “I had some successes and failure. Now I can test it to see if I’ve learn from the successes and failures. One game can’t really say, oh, he’s got experience. I guess I have a little bit.”
Compared to last spring, Hornibrook feels he’s made tangible strides, especially since he didn’t know what school he was going to be playing for as last as January.
“It feels good, just as far as, first, the guys being around them for an entire year,” said Hornibrook. “Knowing the team, knowing the coaches, knowing the school and the playbook, being able to watch more film and see a whole season of our offense. It feels a lot better.”
Both Hornibrook and Houston downplay the inevitable quarterback competition, saying the main goal is to “compete with themselves” and “get better every day.” Through two days of spring practice, both have worked with the first-team offense in team drills, although the drills have been very limited with almost no throwing.
Despite having only two scholarship quarterbacks in camp, offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph sees it as a good positive moving forward.
“I think it’s fun,” said Rudolph. “I like the way those guys have approached it together. They’ve both, I think, fed off each other in the way they work. You can tell when one sees the one in he wants to get in a little more. That’s the race. If you’ve got that on the team and guys feel that from each other and motivate each other, that’s a really good thing.”
Having lost starting safeties Michael Caputo and Tanner McEvoy and starting cornerback Darius Hillary off the No.1 scoring defense in the country, the improvement of the secondary will be paramount for new defensive backs coach Jim Leonhard.
Through two days of heavy individual work, Wisconsin’s starting corners in the secondary is the group that was expected to be there: senior Sojourn Shelton and junior Derrick Tindal.
Tindal has the most experience out of the depleted group of corners, as he’s played in 12 games of each of the last two season and finished with 34 tackles a season ago. Tindal was the team’s primary nickel corner a year ago. Bumping him up to the starting spot would likely give junior Natrell Jamerson the edge at the starting nickel.
Beyond Shelton, Tindal and Jamerson, senior Serge Trezy and redshirt freshman Titus Booker are the only two listed corners on the roster.
UW has 10 safeties on the roster but none of them have much experience in the rotation. Musso played in 13 games last season as Caputo’s backup and junior D’Cota Dixon had 13 games as McEvoy’s backup. Both were the first-team starters Saturday but Dixon was replaced by sophomore Arrington Farrar in practice two.
Junior Lubern Figaro started six games at a true freshman but lost his starting spot last season, so this spring will be a bounce-back campaign for him.
Extra Points: Henry Houden (right hip) was the only injury casualty from Saturday’s practice and did not participate Tuesday … With Arthur Goldberg retiring due to health injuries, it appears Conor Sheehy is an option to rotate with Olive Sagapolu. Listed at 272 pounds last year, Sheehy us up to 290 pounds … The second-string offensive line was left tackle David Moorman, left guard Micah Kapoi, center Brett Connors, right guard Logan Schmidt and right tackle Ian Dretzka … Reggie Love and George Rushing worked as the No.3 receivers … UW will practice Thursday morning before taking next week off to coincide with the school’s spring break.