MADISON – Considering the experience – albeit limited – of redshirt sophomore Alex Hornibrook compared to the two other options at his disposal, it came as little surprise that head coach Paul Chryst named Hornibrook the starting quarterback at the onset of spring camp.
Kare Lyles understands why his head coach made the proclamation. That doesn’t mean he had to like it.
“I’m not going to let that get the best of me,” Lyles said. “You try to stay positive and know that my time, whenever it comes, that I’m going to try to be ready the best I can.”
Through 12 spring practices Lyles has viewed the starting position as open and is doing his best to maximize those reps given to him.
After hardly being used throughout the first half of Friday’s intrasquad scrimmage, Lyles finished with a flurry by going 7-for-8, unofficially, and leading three touchdown drives, including hitting receiver Adam Krumholz for a 17-yard red-zone touchdown.
He admits he’s not game ready but performances like that make him the likely backup when Wisconsin opens the season Sept.1 against Utah State.
“I have a long way to go, and that’s just from not getting the reps I could have got last year,” Lyles said. “If I truly look at every single practice, I look at the positives and work on the negatives. I know there are a lot of negatives on that film, but I know that I’m getting better every single day that the last practice was better than the previous one.”
To put himself into a position to succeed, Lyles spent a considerable amount of time changing a throwing motion that was geared toward success in a spread offense, and allowed him to get away with throws that he no longer could at the college level.
Starting this past offseason, which included watching film of former UW quarterback Russell Wilson, Lyles has become more compact with his delivery, improved his core strength and developed his footwork, all things that will help him in the long run. The difference has been noticeable, going from high school gunslinger to college quarterback.
“It’s a faster game out here,” Lyles said. “I always go out there and try to see what I need to fix. Learning what I do, that’s really what I set my mind to.”
While he wouldn’t call himself an old soul by any stretch of the imagination, Lyles has had already had some experiences that have hardened him around the edges.
This spring has been Lyles’ first real opportunity to shine. He enrolled early last season but ended up missing all of spring when he underwent hip surgery. He recovered in time for fall camp but was never in the running to compete for the starting job.
“It was tough,” Lyles said. “I was away from the game for so long that I came back a little rusty. I wasn’t prepared as I should have been.”
The narrative has changed over the last few months. Although redshirting, Lyles traveled with the team as the emergency third quarterback and was involved in game prep and signaling in plays. He did some scout team work and kept his nose in the UW playbook.
He also got a front-row seat for a quarterback battle that turned into a drama-free quarterback rotation between the now-graduated Bart Houston and Hornibrook.
“I feel that I truly understood what it meant to compete with yourself,” Lyles said. “Every single time Bart and Alex went against each other, I think it wasn’t really competing with each other but with yourself, trying to get better every single day and be the best you can possibly be.”
The tone for that environment was created by Houston, the poster child for overcoming adversity considering he had three different head coaches, was told he wasn’t a fit by one head coach and had his starting job taken away by another.
Despite all the turmoil, Houston never gave in and ended his career by going 11-for-12 for 159 yards in UW’s victory in the Cotton Bowl.
“I tried to pick his brain as much as possible because he was here for five years,” Lyles said. “The thing that I loved about Bart was his character. Everybody loved him on this field. Every single teammate here would say Bart was one of the best teammates they ever had in this game of football. He came every single day and tried to be as prepared as much as he could. He was always positive, smiling and trying to get guys going. You watch him in the Cotton Bowl and you see him win, that means a lot because he made the most of the opportunity that he got.”
A pure two-quarterback system is unlikely this season, leaving Lyles and true freshman Jack Coan needing to play catch-up in order to unseat Hornibrook. It’s the not the ideal situation for the competitor, but it’s certainly an upgrade from where he was a year ago.
“Last year I was on the sidelines watching, while now I’m trying to take advantage of every single rep that I get,” Lyles said. “I’m out here now, whereas last year I was pissed off that I couldn’t even play this game. To be on the field is a blessing.”