MADISON – Bart Houston expected he will be heading into his senior season, having his first and only real opportunity to win the Wisconsin starting quarterback job, with only five games of quarterbacking cleanup duty under his belt.
That’s not to say he wasn’t confident, but he does feels a lot better knowing that he can do it after stepping in during a pinch last season.
“One game you really can’t say he has experience,” Houston said, “but I guess I have a little bit.”
It was a small sample size, but the former four-star quarterback proved he has the skill set to quarterback at the college level. Replacing an injured Joel Stave in the first quarter, Houston completed 66.7 percent of his passes (22 of 33) for 232 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions in the Badgers’ 24-13 road win at Illinois.
“One game helps,” Houston said. “I don’t know how much it helps because I still made a couple mistakes. I have had my successes and failures. Now I have got to test it to see if I’ve learned from my successes and failures.”
Houston is a gunslinger with experience, a reason why he is the favorite to win the starting quarterback job for the Badgers this season. He had a quick release and some mobility, allowing him to extend plays inside and outside the pocket.
“He’s been around, and I like the way he’s approached it,” offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said of Houston. “He’s earned a lot of respect by the way he works.”
Head coach Paul Chryst had plenty of things to worry about during his first season at the University of Wisconsin. Quarterback was not one of them.
Naming Stave the starter prior to start of spring ball paid dividends for Chryst. Stave led UW to a 10-3 season, saving a program that had significant injuries at tailback and a rotating door at offensive line. Now the Badgers appear to be much better off in the backfield and in the trenches, but it’s time for a new signal caller to take the reins.
Problem is the Badgers only have three scholarship quarterback in camp, and only Houston and redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook are healthy enough to compete.
Chryst says his only expectation is that the quarterbacks get better from the beginning to the end of spring. With only two scholarship guys getting reps (true freshman Kare Lyles is injured and sophomore Bobby Dunn was just added to the roster), it’s hard to fathom that they wouldn’t improve to some degree.
“One thing guys fight for is reps, and they’re going to get a ton of reps,” Chryst said. “What they do with those reps is really the key to it. I think it’s a good situation for them. They both can use the work. It’ll be good for them.”
The amount of reps appeared equally split between the two during Tuesday’s practice. In 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 work, Houston unofficially went 12-for-17 and Hornibrook was 7-for-20. Those numbers don’t reflect running plays or sacks.
“Last year I would get one rep in individual and now we get four going each way,” Hornibrook said. “It’s a lot more … It’s definitely different not having more quarterbacks get a lot of reps.”
Hornibrook’s delivery is still herky jerky (he threw three interceptions Tuesday in the first day of 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 workouts) but he doesn’t question how much more comfortable he feels around the team, the program and the coaches this spring.
His big focus now is to hone in on the details of the run game, the playbook and everything that comes with running an offense at Wisconsin. He also learned a good deal from Stave last year. Being able to travel with the team, Hornibrook got a grasp of how the fifth-year senior worked in pregame, in the meeting room and how he prepared.
“(Spring is) all about perfecting, working on every single part of the game,” Hornibrook said. “Whether it’s the run game, my reads, being comfortable with the guys, every single category (I want to improve).”
Both quarterback described the meeting room as loose, downplaying that there is any pressure about who will earn the starting job. That decision likely wouldn’t get made until late in fall camp anyway, leaving the 15 spring practices as an opportunity to put the best foot forward heading into the summer.
“We’re not really worried about that (the starting job),” Hornibrook said. “We’ve been in the offense the same amount of time. He played in it last year. I didn’t, so there’s a little difference there, but it’s pretty much just competing every single day we’ve been around each other.”
Added Houston: “I’m just going out here trying to make myself better each and every day. Obviously there’s a competition because Coach Chryst hasn’t named a guy, but I’m just worried about competing within myself and being a better Bart every practice, every day.”