MADISON, Wis. — Bart Houston spent a year in the film room watching the inner workings of how to run a Big Ten football team behind the scenes last season. In essence, he served an apprenticeship under Curt Phillips, Danny O’Brien and Joel Stave, each of whom spent time as Wisconsin’s starting quarterback.
But Houston believes the time for sitting in the background has passed. Now that he is medically cleared to throw, he wants their job.
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“It’s cool to actually get to compete against them now,” Houston said. “I’m coming after them like every other kid would.”
Houston, a standout quarterback from De La Salle High School in California, is the wild card in the Badgers’ quarterback race this spring, and he does not lack conviction. He says what he thinks with refreshing candor, sometimes straddling the line between confident and cocky. Then again, what successful quarterback doesn’t possess those qualities?
“I’ve got the biggest arm here,” Houston said Monday following Wisconsin’s second spring practice. I’ve got the biggest, strongest arm. Throw it the farthest. Throw it the hardest and everything. Today I was actually working on not throwing it as hard and giving the receivers a good, clean ball to catch.”
It remains to be seen whether Houston can catch and surpass any of the three Badgers quarterbacks ahead of him on the depth chart. But this spring represents his first opportunity to showcase his full skills in a Wisconsin uniform.
Houston underwent surgery on his right throwing shoulder last March to remove a cyst that developed after he suffered a torn labrum. The surgery forced Houston to take a redshirt season, which was especially difficult for a player used to being in control.
“It killed me,” Houston said. “I was going insane, pulling my hair out in my dorm room. I was just sitting there watching. In high school, I played since my sophomore year. I played every game, took every rep in practice and in games. It was a difference. A huge difference just sitting there watching people, thinking if there’s a bad play, ‘Oh, I could have done better here or I could have done this.’
“I probably wouldn’t because I’m a freshman. It’s not as fun watching. Now coming back out here for the second day of spring ball, I feel like a little kid again playing the sport I love.”
Houston wasn’t medically cleared to throw at all until November. He began tossing the ball from five yards out and later 10 yards, putting the kind of juice on his passes typically reserved for a 50-yard bomb — much to the chagrin of trainers and Badgers wide receiver Jared Abbrederis, among others.
“The trainers hated me because they needed gloves and all that stuff,” Houston said. “I was trying to prove something from 10 yards away. I actually pissed Abby off. He threw it harder back. I’m like. ‘OK, I’ll tone it down.’ “
Houston, in many ways, was meant to be a football player, and his 6-foot-4, 217-pound build makes him the prototypical quarterback. His father, Guy, played football and baseball at St. Mary’s College in California. His grandfather, Fred, played football at Fresno State. And for anyone still questioning his football pedigree, consider that Houston was named after Green Bay Packers quarterback legend Bart Starr.
“He’s strong-armed,” Phillips said. “I think one thing if you got a chance to look at Bart when he first came in, he’s really worked hard, kind of transformed his body over the redshirt year that he had. He’s much more of a physical presence then he was. That’s a credit to the hard work he’s done, and I’m excited to see him play.”
As a three-year starter for a high school football powerhouse, Houston won three state championships and finished his career with a 38-1 record. He completed 272 of 437 passes (62.2 percent) for 5,178 yards and 46 touchdowns. And one particularly intriguing wrinkle to the Badgers’ quarterback battle is that Houston does have experience running an option-style offense at De La Salle, which could come in handy at Wisconsin.
Badgers coach Gary Andersen wants a mobile quarterback with the ability to run or pass in his offense. It is part of the reason Andersen is bringing in junior college quarterback transfer Tanner McEvoy — another player who will complicate the quarterback race when he arrives on campus for fall practices.
Houston said he will benefit from a new coaching staff in place that didn’t have as many preconceived notions on each quarterback’s abilities. He mentioned former Badgers offensive coordinator Matt Canada as an example.
“If Canada was still here, he obviously has a bias towards last year’s starters, which we had three of them,” Houston said. “So I’d be sitting under the wayside. Since we have new eyes and new minds, I’m actually getting a chance to compete out there.”
Houston already has impressed Wisconsin’s other quarterbacks with his physical gifts.
“He’s a gunslinger, man,” O’Brien said. “He’s a hard worker. He’s got a bright future for sure. The good thing with (offensive coordinator Andy) Ludwig is he doesn’t let anyone take a rep off. We’re constantly learning, and he’s only going to get better.”
Houston’s time to shine might still be a year or two away, but his first goal is to establish himself as a leader on the team, someone players look to in critical moments in the huddle. It is a skill he has no doubt absorbed from watching Phillips, Stave and O’Brien.
“I’m friends with everybody on the team, but it’s about actually leading people and rallying people to do better in the game of football,” Houston said. “Getting to know the playbook. Not just knowing it but understanding the playbook and what we’re trying to attack.”