If the Wisconsin football coaching staff based its quarterback selection purely on physical tools and mechanics, Bart Houston likely would have already locked up the starting gig.
Standing at 6 feet 4 inches and weighing 230 pounds, the redshirt freshman has the strongest arm in the rotation and the quickest release — at least by Houston’s measure. But it’s the intricacies of complex defensive coverages and the ability to thread the ball into the tightest corners where much work remains to be done.
“He has tremendous arm strength, good velocity on the ball, seems to possess a full inventory of throws,” first-year offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said. “So I’m really impressed with the way he throws it, the way the ball comes out of his hands.
“What I’m looking for more out of Bart is repetitive accuracy, being able to be more consistent and throwing completions, then making better decisions.”
A product of De La Salle High School, a West Coast football powerhouse in Concord, Calif., Houston arrived in Madison a relatively polished passer compared to most his age. Despite the impressive numbers and four-star tag, any chance of starting the season-opener at Camp Randall in 2012 quickly faded when shoulder surgery sidelined Houston last year.
But he tried to embrace his time away from the practice field, dedicating the newfound time to the film room and building relationships with the offensive linemen, who he hopes will soon be responsible for protecting him.
“Last year I started that, just getting to know everybody,” Houston said. “But that was another thing — I didn’t have to worry about watching film every second and preparing for the big games. I actually got to learn everybody’s name and be a normal human being for a little bit.”
With the first days of 2013’s spring season finished, his goals have since shifted.
Now the California native stands as an outside contender for the starting spot under center come Aug. 31, the youngest player entangled in the Badgers’ cloudy quarterback battle. It was his time playing for a nationally-recognized high school program that has kept him in the running for the starting spot alongside three quarterbacks — Joel Stave, Curt Phillips and Danny O’Brien — who have previously started at least five games for a major college football program.
Ludwig made it clear Monday such starting experience would carry substantial weight as he begins to evaluate his stable of quarterbacks. But Houston said his understanding of the game has become much deeper from the more primal split back veer offense he directed in high school.
“It’s a battle every day,” Houston said. “Even in the film room, we’re chomping at the bit to get asked a question, so we can be right and show coach that, yeah, I’m better than him, I’m better than him. But right now, we’re learning the offense and it’s the little competitions, the little battles right now.”
Though Houston has some mobility — he rushed for 338 yards as a senior at De La Salle — his most obvious advantage comes in his arm strength. Even in just a handful of practices the player who described himself as the “gas from the pitching staff” has showcased the ability to heave tightly-spun long balls. He naturally throws with such zip that he is working on putting less velocity behind the ball on shorter routes to give receivers a better chance of holding on.
Whether that arm strength is complemented by improved accuracy, however, could decide where Houston lands on the depth chart this summer. And the young signal caller may be the greatest benefactor of a new head coach and quarterbacks coach in Ludwig, who previously recruited Houston when he was the offensive coordinator at California and San Diego State.
“The coaches made a point of [telling us] that … it’s going to be truly open for all of us,” Houston said. “We’re going to get a chance to show off our arms, show off our legs and see what we can do.”
Returning on the practice field with what he described as childlike excitement, Houston faces an uphill battle in attempting to hold off his more experienced contenders and junior college transfer Tanner McEvoy. But, with the physical tools of an elite passer and textbook form, it’s hard to not envision a bright future.