Since perception always lags behind reality in college football, it wasn't a surprise that the University of Wisconsin had trouble shedding its image as a school where the quarterback does nothing but hand off.
Of course, those who watch the Badgers closely know how much the offense has changed, how it has become more balanced, how it more closely resembles an NFL offense than the spreads used at many schools. Others, however, seemed oblivious to the fact that UW had become an attractive option for quarterbacks with NFL aspirations.
Wednesday, that all changed. UW landed the highly rated quarterback that had eluded it for decades when 6-foot-4 Bart Houston of national powerhouse De La Salle High School in Concord, Calif., officially joined the two-time Big Ten Conference champions.
Rankings for prep football players are notoriously inaccurate, but Houston is easily the highest-ranked quarterback UW has landed. On the top recruiting websites, he was listed as a four-star recruit by ESPN and Scout and earned three stars from Rivals. He was ranked by Scout as the No. 7 quarterback in the nation. Rivals had him No. 12 and ESPN No. 15.
Despite those lofty rankings, Houston is not a proven commodity. Nor is he a savior. Fact is, until he gets on the practice field or starts playing in games, no one knows enough about him to form an accurate opinion about his ability or his readiness.
Still, Houston was the most talked-about player in UW's tiny, 12-man recruiting class, if only because the Badgers have such a pressing need at quarterback. With one-year wonder Russell Wilson moving on, Houston's timing couldn't be better. None of UW's four holdover quarterbacks has much experience and two — Curt Phillips (knee) and Jon Budmayr (elbow) — are coming off recurring major injuries.
For that reason, the biggest question on signing day was whether a prep quarterback can show up in June and start in September at a Big Ten school. That's an awful lot to ask of any freshman, but neither coach Bret Bielema nor offensive coordinator Matt Canada ruled it out.
Bielema based that belief in part on Canada, who replaced Paul Chryst as UW's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. As he puts his stamp on UW's system, Canada will simplify the terminology, something that could help Houston.
"I'm never going to doubt a kid," Bielema said. "I'm going to give every kid an opportunity to come in and show us what he can do.
"In the past, I would say that for a freshman quarterback coming out of high school to come in and play in our system would have been very difficult. It was very wordy, with a lot of terms that are unusual (unless you've been) here. Obviously, with Matt ... the verbiage and how we do things might be a little bit different. That might (help) a quarterback (adapt) a little bit quicker to play here than it has in the past."
Canada said all five quarterbacks will have the opportunity to show him they can be the starter. His only promise concerning Houston was that the freshman will see action in the scrimmages at fall camp.
"I think it's realistic (that he could start)," Canada said. "But there's four guys here in the spring and the other guy coming in the fall and the best guy will win. I think it's certainly feasible he could be that guy, but I don't know. That's the great part about it, and that's the great part for our guys. They know I don't know. They've got a clean slate. It's exciting and, I know this: The quarterback position will play well in the fall. I believe that."
Canada has only seen Houston throw on tape but likes the fact that he's a winner and a kid who loves the game. Those traits won't guarantee anything once fall camp starts, however.
"The speed of the game is going to be different," Canada said. "Bart's going to come in and it's going to be, ‘Wow.' For a quarterback to come in and play it's, ‘How quickly can you get the game to slow down?' That's certainly something we try to do. We try to make the game slow down as fast as we can. But it always happens at different times for guys."
National rankings aside, Houston's resume makes him a good fit for UW. He played in a winning program — De La Salle was 38-1 and won the California state Open Division championship in each of his three years as the starter — and is an accurate pocket passer who comes from a prep system (a veer) where the run sets up the pass.
"I like the way he threw the football and I like that he comes from a predominantly running school (with) an old-school coach that does things a certain way," Bielema said. "The kid is everything that we are here at Wisconsin. ... I think Bart would be the first to tell you rankings don't matter, it's the results that matter. He proved that with his play in high school and I know he's eager to come here and do it."
The sooner the better, of course.