MADISON - Wisconsin quarterback Bart Houston certainly doesn't lack confidence. You can see it during practice as he guns a pass over the middle to one of his receivers or rears back for a deeper pass. His passes have a nice zip to them- one that's uncharacteristic for a player that's just starting to get real reps in practice.
Houston won three California state championships in high school, and only lost one game during his career. But he spent the last year on the bench after having surgery to remove a cyst on his non-throwing shoulder, and is just now taking his first real snaps as a Wisconsin quarterback.
"I feel like a little kid again, playing the sport I love," Houston said Monday, just minutes after stiff-arming Josh Harrison on a naked bootleg during Wisconsin's final redzone drill. He was whistled down because it was just a touch drill and the Badgers weren't in pads, but Houston seemed to enjoy the drill anyway.
"I had to apologize [to Harrison] after I gave him a stiff arm to the face," Houston said with a laugh. "I'm glad he had a helmet on."
And even though Houston hasn't spent much time on the practice field for the Badgers, he and the other quarterbacks have a clean slate to work with in the new coaching staff. Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Andy Ludwig said the position battle is an "open competition" during the offseason and the best player will start.
In terms of arm strength, Houston thinks he stacks up well with the rest of his position.
"I'd have to say I have the quickest release out here, and actually the fastest ball," Houston said. "I've actually had to tone it down a bit here for the intermediate passes so the receivers have a nice, clean, and catchable ball instead of a bullet that will bounce all over the place. I have to calm down a bit."
Ludwig agrees, but with a caveat. He said Houston and Joel Stave both have strong arms while the rest of the players have "good" arms, but Houston can't rely on arm strength alone to make him into a better quarterback. Ludwig says that arm strength is over-rated. What he looks for more often is strong throws that end up in the right spots too.
"He's got great velocity on the ball and a good inventory of throws and I'm really impressed with that," Ludwig said Monday. "What I would look more for from Bart is a little more consistency and repetitive accuracy in terms of throwing it. He's got to make better decisions.
"You have to be able to throw with velocity, but it's all about accuracy and repetitive accuracy. He does have a strong arm. Joel has a strong arm. The other guys have good arms. But it's about repetitive accuracy."
But Houston also said his time away from the game helped him ease into the college game from high school, even though he played for one of the better high school football teams in the country.
"It took a semester to get used to," Houston said. "Now I actually know how to study film, know how to play college ball as opposed to high school ball.
"I'd watch film but I'd see two or three [coverages] and that's it. Now in the Big Ten, when you're playing Ohio State they've got 80 different coverages. It's all the same thing, just a little varied. Finding the tendencies within a defense."
And with the Badgers placing more emphasis on athleticism at the quarterback position, Houston thinks he can contribute in that are of the game as well. The Badgers have usually recruited traditional pocket-passers, but Ludwig and Gary Andersen are hoping to use a bit of read-option this season. In that case the quarterback would need to be mobile enough to keep defenses honest and not key in on running backs like James White and Melvin Gordon.
Houston came out of high school as a pocket-passer, but he thinks he has enough athleticism to fit the coaching staff's mold for their offense.
"Watching a big, white quarterback running down the sidelines is intimidating," Houston laughed after thinking back to his bootleg at the end of practice.
Stave and Curt Phillips took the most reps during the first day of spring practices, and Houston was about even with Danny O'Brien at the start of camp. All three of those players started for the Badgers last season, so he'll have to overcome their in-game experience if he wants to start this fall.
But that's what Houston says he came to Wisconsin to do. He sat out a season to get his shoulder healthy again, but he'll be competing with the rest of the quarterbacks over the next few months to try and claim the starting job.
"I came here to play football, and I want to be playing this fall," Houston said.
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