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Wisconsin football preview 2016: Bart Houston, Alex Hornibrook to battle for starting job

A redshirt freshman possibly took the lead for the race after the spring game. Can a formerly touted senior take it back?

NCAA Football: Miami (Ohio) at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Truth be told, quarterback is a situation where most Wisconsin Badgers fans have been hoping there would be an answer by now. Senior Bart Houston, coming off last year’s impressive 22-of 33 performance with 232 yards and two touchdowns in the face of a patchwork offensive line against Illinois, looked to have a lead coming into the spring practices. Redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook had moments of brilliance in spring and fall camps last season, but in-game experience is highly valuable and never to be discounted.

But when both quarterbacks spent the early parts of spring throwing a dispiriting-to-the-casual-fan amount of interceptions in an attempt to see what they can and can’t do, Houston wasn’t able to turn his lead into a starting position. By the end of spring, though, you could see the game was slowing down for the Malvern Prep lefty. He punctuated the spring game with two beautiful, long touchdown throws to George Rushing in a performance that, while not job-winning, at least showed that Paul Chryst’s eye for evaluation at quarterback has no jaundice.

So this summer and fall, the most important positional race begins again. Will Houston, the former Elite 11 quarterback from Dublin, Calif., finally get his day in the sun as something other than Wisconsin’s most experienced punter? Does Hornibrook, the West Chester, Pa., lefty, get a chance to run at Joel Stave and his longevity records? And will Kare’ Lyles, the big-armed true freshman from Chandler, Ariz., get any kind of traction to make this a three-way race after a hip injury forced him to miss spring ball?

Leaders at position (2015 stats)

Bart Houston: 57.4 completion percentage, 281 yards, three touchdowns, two interceptions; -17 rushing yards, -4.25 yards per carry

Returning players

Bart Houston (RS SR)
Alex Hornibrook (RS FR)

Departing players

Joel Stave
D.J. Gillins (transferred to Pearl River C.C.)

Additions to position

Kare' Lyles
Garrett Groshek (Amherst, Wis.)

Likely starter: Bart Houston

With the injury to Lyles and the fact that there were no spring arms to take pressure off Houston and Hornibrook, Chryst surely knows what he has with both quarterbacks. Is that scary, potentially? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

There are a few reasons that a tie would likely still lead to Houston being Wisconsin’s starter. For one, he may have just 51 career passes, and the first half of UW’s 2016 schedule will have a handful of clear step-up games for whomever wins, but that is a quantifiable advantage. Houston will step up and trust his arm in tight windows. There might be a little bit too much trust in the old Dublin Missile from time to time, but with a multitude of potentially exciting options to throw to, this is the time for a quarterback willing to put a defense back on its heels.

With that said, Hornibrook was clearly the more impressive quarterback in the spring. As practices seemed to slow down for him, he was able to show an unexpected amount of arm strength and quite possibly be the leading quarterback going into the fall camps.

Truth be told, if the question is who starts for the Badgers when they look to go after the Axe, I would probably wager that they make the position switch at some point in that daunting schedule. But if Hornibrook has another gear in his play during fall camp, he might get that unique opportunity to slay a few giants.

[Update 10:52 p.m. CT — removed Andres Castillo from list, as he is not on UW’s official 2016 fall roster]