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Wisconsin QB Bart Houston calls starting role 'very special' in final season

MADISON, Wis. -- College quarterbacks with far less talent and high school acclaim than Bart Houston have sought transfers at the first sign of hardship. In fact, few people would have blamed Houston if he decided early in his tenure that Wisconsin's football program wasn't the place for him.

Three head coaches have cycled through the Camp Randall Stadium offices since Houston arrived as a four-star prep standout from California's De La Salle High School in the spring of 2012. Three offensive coordinators, too. During that time, four Wisconsin quarterbacks have transferred after being unhappy with their standing on the depth chart. Not Houston.

In his first four years, Houston primarily spent game days calling in signals from the sideline, occasionally earning snaps in mop-up duty of blowout games. Two seasons ago, he was buried so deep in the quarterback pecking order that he briefly became an emergency rugby-style punter.

Through it all, however, Houston never wavered in his love for the football team, the university and the town in which he now resides. He was going to stay for what he called his "last kick of the can." Whatever happened would happen, he said. But he would leave every ounce of fight on the field.

So when Badgers coach Paul Chryst called Houston in for an impromptu meeting Thursday to inform the fifth-year senior he officially was Wisconsin's starting quarterback, Houston felt a range of emotions: nostalgia, joy, relief.

"You always think you can do it earlier," Houston said Friday after practice. "It just wasn't in the stars. I'm glad it happened."

Houston will start the first game of his college career against No. 5 LSU on Sept. 3 at Lambeau Field in Green Bay. He beat out redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook for the starting job in a competition that had been closely contested since spring practice.

Houston's experience wasn't the deciding factor, but Chryst certainly could appreciate his quarterback's persistence and dedication to the program over the years.

"I think that this place means something to Bart," said Chryst, who served as offensive coordinator at Wisconsin through 2011 and returned as head coach before the 2015 season. "I was involved with recruiting Bart and thought he picked Wisconsin for a number of reasons. Football certainly being part of it, but school, and I think when you go through it -- I think that senior class now, it's a close group.

"There's a lot of factors that go into if a kid decides to stay or transfer. I'm glad he's stuck with it and appreciate what he's done this past year. I think he's earned the right to play."

It certainly was no guarantee that Houston, who has appeared in 15 college games, would be handed the job. Hornibrook appeared to grab a slight lead in the race when he outplayed Houston during an Aug. 15 open scrimmage.

But Houston showed the poise that ultimately won him the job by turning a corner in the final two weeks of fall camp. He said he stopped pressing and trying to make all the plays at once. He returned to being the quarterback whose big arm gave him an advantage. His consistency and accuracy spiked, and he outperformed Hornibrook during the team's second open scrimmage.

"That was good for him to have to go through and deal with it, and that could be a microcosm of a game," Chryst said. "You press on a play, how do I come back and rally? I think he does have more knowledge of what we're trying to do, and I think he's gotten more knowledge of himself."

Hornibrook, while not pleased with the decision, took his coach's words in stride when they spoke Thursday. He still is positioned to potentially be a three-year starter at Wisconsin. On Friday, he expressed his admiration for Houston's journey.

"For the fans and everybody, to see a kid that went through everything he did and stuck with it through different coaching changes, it's good for a kid like that to get his chance," Hornibrook said.

In his career, Houston has completed 29 of 51 passes for 295 yards and four touchdowns. But most of those numbers came in one game last season, when he replaced injured starter Joel Stave early against Illinois and led Wisconsin to a 24-13 victory. That day, Houston connected on 22 of 33 passes for 232 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.

"Illinois, I just kind of closed my eyes and winged it," Houston joked. "Illinois, Coach Chryst got me in the flow of the game. Now I'm the guy. I'm going to have more of the reps, so I will be able to have the practice reps and the walk-through reps and have those translate into the game."

Chryst said he believed Houston had a better grasp of the team's philosophy and would continue to show improvement. He noted Houston wouldn't have to look over his shoulder to see if Hornibrook might replace him. But Chryst made it clear that both quarterbacks enter the season prepared to play.

Perhaps there was a certain cosmic justice in the way this process unfolded. Houston's first start will come at the venue where Hall of Famer Bart Starr -- the very quarterback for whom he was named -- helped lead the Packers to two Super Bowls.

"I never thought it would ever happen like that, but it's cool," Houston said.

Even cooler: In his last kick of the can, this is finally Houston's team.

"It makes it very special," Houston said. "It's a great opportunity to play in front of our fans and for this team. I'm excited to show what I can do, to show what I've got."