Game manager? Why Alex Hornibrook can become so much more for Wisconsin

The first time I saw Alex Hornibrook drop back in the pocket was roughly 11 months ago.

The redshirt freshman got his first public showing in Wisconsin’s spring game. Fair or unfair, his performance that day would dictate the opinions of many in the Badger quarterback battle debate. Anything less than a stellar performance and public opinion would likely favor senior Bart Houston. Just being average probably wouldn’t be enough for Hornibrook to win the job from a fifth-year veteran.

In the first quarter of the spring game, Hornibrook faced third-and-11. From the shotgun, he took a three-step drop and stepped into the pocket. The southpaw sailed it 54 yards, perfectly in stride for George Rushing, who came down with it in the end zone.

Remember?

That’s when it hit me. This Hornibrook kid is NOT just another game manager.

He can sling it deep and make plays downfield in ways that we don’t usually see from Badger quarterbacks. A guy that can make that kind of play as a redshirt freshman — even in a spring game — cannot just be a handoff machine. He needs the freedom to attack one-on-one matchups deep, just like he did in the spring game.

It’s hard to say what exactly Hornibrook was in his redshirt freshman year. He didn’t kick off the season as the starter and even after he did take over the starting job, Houston relieved him at times. Hornibrook was also banged up at the end the season.

With spring camp kicking off, Hornibrook will enter 2017 as the unquestioned starter. Now, we should really get to see what he’s capable of.

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The question many probably have about Hornibrook is his upside. As in, how much upside can a guy have if he plays in a run-first offense? There’s no definitive answer to that today with three years of eligibility left for Hornibrook.

We do know is that in the past decade, Russell Wilson was the only quarterback that starred in Madison. Scott Tolzien and Joel Stave had plenty of success, but the numbers clearly indicate that Wilson was the only quarterback that really got to let it loose for the Badgers.

You’ll notice that in Wilson’s one year in Madison (2011), even he dealt with a run-first offense. So no, you don’y need to throw the ball 60 times a game like Texas Tech to have a productive passing game.

WISCONSIN SEASONS PASS-RUN RATIO YARDS PER PASS TOUCHDOWN PASSES
2007 37-63% 7.79 17
2008 37-63% 7.34 11
2009 37-63% 8.15 16
2010 32-68% 9.4 17
2011 35-65% 10 34
2012 31-69% 7.55 15
2013 39-61% 7.22 22
2014 33-67% 6.47 15
2015 45-55% 7.08 14
2016 33-67% 7.76 14

Chryst was either the offensive coordinator or the head coach for seven of those seasons, including Wilson’s year in 2011. In other words, it doesn’t matter how good Hornibrook is. The Badgers are still going to be a run-first team. When you win 10-plus games in six of the last eight seasons, you obviously have a formula that works.

But there’s still plenty of room for Hornibrook to grow and become the rare star Badger quarterback.

No longer does he have two senior tailbacks to hand the ball off to. Bradrick Shaw and Taiwan Deal will likely get plenty of work, though neither have handled a full workload before.

Hornibrook has a chance to take command of this offense and make that all-important freshman-to-sophomore jump. We saw the likes of Clayton Thorson and David Blough do that for their respective teams last year. Even with talented backfields, they both became much bigger parts of the offense.

RELATED: Progress of Blough, Thorson is good sign for future B1G quarterbacks

Thorson averaged 5.15 yards per attempt and 22.7 passes per game as a redshirt freshman. As a sophomore, he averaged 6.66 yards per attempt and 36.8 passes per game. Once he established that connection with Austin Carr, who went on to earn All-America honors, Thorson attempted at least 35 passes in nine of Northwestern’s final 11 games.

Hornibrook has two targets that could develop into All-Americans. Troy Fumagalli could become the best pass-catching tight end in all of college football next year.

In case you need a little reminder of what he’s capable of, he was Pro Football Focus’ top-graded player in the bowl season:

And if you read Saturday Tradition regularly, you probably know my feelings on Jazz Peavy. I believe he can become the B1G’s most dangerous offensive weapon in 2017.

With just those two options, Hornibrook already has two guys that can make him look better than he is. Fumagalli can haul in a 25-yard jump ball down the seam and Peavy can take a screen pass to the house.

But the thing that could determine Hornibrook’s ceiling is whether or not Wisconsin develops a true deep threat. That’s what would allow Hornibrook to make that next step.

If you don’t think that’s the difference, go back and watch what Trace McSorley did in the B1G Championship.

RELATED: The B1G might have the two best tight ends in college football in 2017

There’s still hope that Rushing can develop into that role with Robert Wheelwright gone. Perhaps it’ll be one of Wisconsin’s talented sophomores. Quintez Cephus and A.J. Taylor both showed very limited flashes of their downfield ability as true freshmen in 2016.

The beauty of having two proven targets like Fumagalli and Peavy warranting so much attention is that there should be opportunities for Hornibrook to take some one-on-one shots deep.

Those are the kind of plays that can take this Wisconsin offense to an even higher level. It’s been awhile since that element was a staple of the Badger offense. Remember what Wisconsin fans were saying during all those years of Tolzien and Stave?

“Sure, Montee Ball and Melvin Gordon are great, but can you imagine what Wisconsin would look like without a game manager at quarterback?”

Justified or not for previous Badger quarterbacks, the “game manager” stigma shouldn’t be attached to Hornibrook for the next three years.

“Game changer” sounds more like it.

REFERENCES

Photo Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

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