The battle for the Wisconsin’s quarterback spot is in full swing this spring and remains one of the big question marks for an otherwise experienced offensive unit.
Fifth year senior Bart Houston and red shirt freshman Alex Hornibrook are the two most likely candidates to fill the spot of the now-departed four-year starter Joel Stave.
Despite Stave’s inconsistencies under center over the last few years, he leaves a big shadow behind as the winningest quarterback in school history with 31 wins in a whopping 41 starts. The fifth-year senior departs alongside one of the most consistent and successful wide receivers in Wisconsin history in Alex Erickson, creating a significant gap in leadership in the passing game that has yet to be filled.
“I think in the spring, you’re looking for consistency of play what guys can really do,” Offensive Coordinator Joe Rudolph said. “You’re really learning what their strengths are so you can play into those.”
The current leading candidate, Houston, definitely carries the most experience and expectations of the two quarterbacks.
The California native came to Madison as a highly touted four-star recruit and was ranked as the seventh best pro-style quarterback in his respected class. Houston was originally expected to beat out Stave for the spot after only his first year, but injuries and a lack of development kept him on the back burner for much of his career.
Houston played in 15 games before this season and virtually won an entire game a season ago at Illinois after an early Stave injury. Houston went for two touchdowns and 232 yards in the survival effort over the Illini, but hurt his case for the starting job with two red zone interceptions on the same day.
“The Illinois game was big for me in helping me realize that I can play at that competitive level,” Houston said. “Now I have confidence in my ability and can focus on preparing myself physically and mentally on the field and in the film room.”
For a while following the Badgers 23-21 winning effort over USC in the Holiday Bowl, few thought the 2016 starting nod would ever be questioned as Houston’s. After a few weeks through spring camp, however, Hornibrook is returning to form and making a strong argument for the start.
The red shirt freshman didn’t jump off the board as a recruit two years ago, but the open position is giving him an opportunity to cement his name in the conversation.
Regardless of the chosen man this season, Houston will graduate next year and open a three-year spot for whoever beats him out.
“I’ve really just been focusing on cleaning everything up,” Hornibrook said. “There’s always something that you’re building towards and there’s things that you have to correct. That list of things will get smaller and then bigger again. I need to make sure I have that plan laid out each time before I get to the ball before the snap.”
Many around the program had also anticipated true freshman Karé Lyles would be competing for the quarterback spot. The three-star 2016 recruit out of Arizona committed to Wisconsin as a promising dual-threat that might be able to bring back some movement into a typically ground-and-pound style attack.
While he is still expected to make an immediate impact upon his return, Lyles is missing spring practice due to a chronic hip injury and currently undergoing rehab. Head coach Paul Chryst told the injured Lyles he expects him to be a prominent player in their offense upon his return, despite his cemented spot as the third quarterback on the depth chart.
The quarterback decision is probably the biggest decision Chryst and Rudolph will have to make all offseason. The two have always been known for pro-style quarterback centered offenses and the guy they choose will shoulder the burden of the offensive leader each and every series in one of the tougher Badger schedules in recent memory.
This trend stems back to Chryst’s days as offensive coordinator for the Badgers and the stint Chryst and Rudolph had at Pittsburg as head coach and offensive coordinator just two seasons ago.
In Chryst’s first year as head coach, Stave improved his passer rating by more than 12 points and doubled his total passing yards, helping him rebound from a disastrous junior season.
This level of improvement is key for Houston as he and Chryst have only this one season together, and the quarterback centered scheme fits perfectly into Houston’s style of play. On the other spectrum of things, Hornibrook’s deep throwing style is very similar to Stave’s and could be a key factor in a year that will probably revolve around the dominant returning running back core.
“I think it’s great when you have competition at a position,” Rudolph said. “[Houston and Hornibrook] are both pushing each other, and that’s fun to watch.”
Despite the optimism surrounding the position and the entire offense, no quarterback has poked their head out as the favorite. Houston looks to have the slight edge as of now, but Chryst will likely hold on on making a decision until toward the end of summer.