It didn’t take long for me to realize Graham Mertz was the real deal. After just a few passes in the All-American Bowl on January 5, it became clear to me that, at some point in his freshman season, the four-star gunslinger was going to get his chance at Wisconsin.
Maybe Alex Hornibrook knew that, too.
On Wednesday afternoon, the University of Wisconsin released a statement announcing that Hornibrook — who had been a three-year starter for the Badgers — had departed from the program. Shortly after the release came out, Hornibrook made his own announcement.
“I have decided that after I graduate from UW School of Business in May, I will transfer to a new school to play my final season of college football,” Hornibrook wrote on Twitter. “I am beyond excited for this opportunity, and I look forward to seeing what God has planned ahead.”
Hornibrook was somewhat of a polarizing figure at Wisconsin — if that’s the appropriate description for a kid who plays quarterback. The thing people liked about him: he was 26-6 in his three seasons as the starter in Madison. And ultimately, in college football, those are the only two numbers that matter.
But erratic play, a high turnover rate and the inability to stretch the field overshadowed the scoreboard too frequently. Those inconsistencies kept the door cracked for Mertz to walk into Madison this spring and immediately challenge for the No. 1 spot.
Mertz arrived on campus with an All-American Bowl Most Valuable Player Award after throwing for 188 yards and a record-setting five touchdowns. As the third-ranked pro-style quarterback in the 2019 class, Mertz also brought some hype and swagger to Wisconsin.
Hornibrook was the leader of an offense that completed just two passes that went for 40-plus yards in 2018, tied for fewest in the B1G along with Rutgers and Michigan State. He missed four of the final six games of his junior season due to a head injury and was just getting back into a rhythm during winter workouts.
After locking up the starting job for the last three years, Hornibrook was going to be met with a challenge entering the 2019 season. It wasn’t just Mertz’s presence, either.
Wisconsin lost four starters from one of the best offensive lines in the B1G, meaning there will be plenty of newbies up front next fall. Hornibrook struggled to connect on passes downfield with good protection, how would he handle situations with such a young group on the line?
As good as Jonathan Taylor is, a good chunk of his success was due to the offensive line. With that experience gone, Wisconsin needs to prove it can be a home-run hitter through the air next fall to keep defenses from cramming the box. Though Hornibrook had his moments, he hasn’t been able to do that consistently.
Mertz, on the other hand, looks capable of stretching the field for the Badgers.
It would be irresponsible for me to state as fact that Mertz’s arrival is the reason behind Hornibrook’s decision to leave a program he’s led for the last three years, so I won’t. But, on some level, under the circumstances, Hornibrook had to know Mertz was going to get his chance, and the freshman may never relinquish the position once he got it.
Regardless, the fact of the matter is that Hornibrook is exiting Madison and so is Wisconsin’s experience at the game’s most important position. And now, there is a serious quarterback battle that Paul Chryst is dealing with entering his fifth season with the Badgers.
Jack Coan is now the senior-most player at the position, starting in four games in 2018 and making a second half appearance in another. He’s thrown 98 career passes for 551 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions. After Coan, the cupboard is pretty bare, at least from an experience standpoint. Danny Vanden Boom, Chase Wolf and Mertz have combined to throw one collegiate pass. One.
The good news for Chryst is that Hornibrook made his decision before spring practice commenced, allowing the Badgers to experiment under center over the next 15 workouts — though I’d guess Coan and Mertz see a majority of the snaps with the first unit.
Even when the season kicks off, Wisconsin has a schedule that should allow it to rotate guys under center, if necessary. The Badgers open the season on the road against USF and return to Madison to play Central Michigan in Week 2. They’ll then have a bye week before opening B1G play against Michigan on Sept. 21.
There’s even the potential that the Badgers use two quarterbacks throughout the entire year, something Chryst has done in the past. Even when Hornibrook essentially won the job in 2016, he continued to rotate in Bart Houston periodically in certain situations. Would it be all that surprising to see something similar with Coan and Mertz in 2019?
Wisconsin was entering the year with one of the best quarterback situations in the B1G. In that room was a combination of experience and young talent. While the circumstances have changed, forcing Chryst to change his approach, the Badgers aren’t necessarily in a bad situation.
Mertz was going to get his shot to win the starting job. It’s just going to come sooner now.