Setting the Stage: Bart Houston has graduated meaning redshirt sophomore Alex Hornibrook is the lone quarterback on the roster with experience. Knowing that, and the fact two freshmen are his main competition, it’s not a surprise that head coach Paul Chryst named Hornibrook the starter entering fall camp.
Player to Watch: Hornibrook
How will the sophomore improve from a season ago? Falling short in the battle for the starting job in fall camp, Hornibrook didn’t play in the season-opening win over No.5 LSU but showed enough promise in the second half against Akron and Georgia State (the latter a come-from-behind victory) to warrant the coaching staff to make a switch prior to the conference opener.
The road game at Michigan State was his finest performance in a win, going 16-for-26 for 195 yards with a touchdown and an interception in a 30-6 throttling. After a down performance at Michigan the following week (he said he suffered a chest injury early in the game that limited his throwing range), Hornibrook delivered back-to-back solid outings with 214 yards (16-for-28) and a touchdown in an overtime loss to Ohio State and 197 yards (11-for-19) in a win at Iowa.
His numbers shrunk as the season wore on due to UW employing a two-quarterback system, and a concussion suffered in the season finale knocked him out of the Big Ten championship game, but Hornibrook returned to throw a touchdown pass in the Badgers’ Cotton Bowl win.
“This is really big for me to get all the experience that I did,” Hornibrook said, finishing last season with 1,262 yards (58.6 completion percentage), nine touchdowns and seven interceptions. “Whether it was good or bad it helped me a lot, and I learned from a lot of mistakes I made, a lot of things I did. It’s going to help me out a lot in the future.”
When asked what Hornibrook leaned during his first season prior to the bowl game, Chryst said there was plenty.
“In the off-season that’s him on the tape,” Chryst said. “It’s not someone else. He’s got to take that and grow. No different than any other guy but boy, there’s nothing like experience, and now that he’s got it, there’s a lot of areas that he can build on that are positive and a lot that he can get better at. They are controllable for him.”
Through two spring practices without pads, Hornibrook has thrown with more zip on his passes, a point of contention with a lot of outsiders last year. During the offseason, the sophomore spent time working on his pocket presence, delivering passes quicker and improving his ability to make throws rolling out to his left (a strength for a lefty) and his right (a weakness).
Story Line to Watch: Can someone challenge Hornibrook?
UW only has two scholarship quarterbacks on its spring roster and they are both freshmen. Kare Lyles – who redshirted last year after enrolling early – will be the No.2 quarterback and get a ton of reps. Lyles missed all of last spring after undergoing hip surgery and was a distant third in the quarterback race last year, but he was highly involved with the offensive game planning a year ago and was a proven winner in high school. He’s worked on improving his arm motion and throws with good velocity.
Jack Coan enrolled early and will spend the spring adjusting to taking snaps under center, something he rarely did in high school. Through two spring practices Coan showed an ability to connect on the deep ball and rebound from a bad throw. It’s likely he’ll follow the same path as Lyles, meaning a redshirt and still being on the travel roster.
End-of-Spring Goal: Hornibrook having high confidence
There were times last season where Hornibrook looked like the quarterback of the future and other times looked like a struggling freshman. The latter instances started to come more frequently at the end of the year when Houston was getting more reps in the two quarterback tandem.
Hornibrook wouldn’t admit to having a low point last year, saying he was ready to go throughout the whole season, there’s an acknowledgement from the sophomore that the game-time experience he received is tenfold different than the reps he received in practices.
While being named a starter might alleviate some stress for some, Hornibrook feels that distinction has made him be pushed harder by the staff, although his approach hasn’t changed.
“I never worried about someone behind (me),” he said. “It’s just football. That’s all we have to worry about.”
Transitioning from last spring where his focus was understanding the concepts, the reads and where everybody fits in the offseason, Hornibrook is now being looked at in a position of leadership. A strong spring consistently making plays would help answer a big offseason question for this offense.