MADISON, Wis. — Alex Hornibrook was home on winter break during his redshirt freshman season when he began contemplating the type of quarterback he wanted to be. Given the multitude of tools at his disposal on Wisconsin’s campus, he realized he really didn’t have any excuses not to put himself on the best path toward success.
“I was kind of thinking there’s no reason that as an athlete you shouldn’t be maximizing every single aspect that you can,” Hornibrook said. “Whether it’s nutrition, film, lifting. If you’re not maximizing every single part of that, then you’re really not trying to be as good as you can be.”
That approach has served Hornibrook well at Wisconsin. He has become known among teammates for his meticulous eating, workout and study habits. Hornibrook logged a 6,000-calorie diet last offseason and dropped his body fat by nearly 6 percent. He constantly strives for improvement, even as he owns a 20-3 record as a starter. His .870 winning percentage represents the best by a quarterback in school history. But Hornibrook recognizes there is so much more to achieve.
“He prepares like a pro,” Badgers running back Chris James said. “I think I’m definitely starting to see that. We all kind of crack jokes. He has this Tom Brady mindset, and he wears his little ‘TB12’ hat. We always make fun of him, but it works.
“You see him talk about how much sleep he gets. You see him taking his diet so seriously. You see him walking around with his playbook and his notebook. And it’s like, ‘Man, he prepares like a pro.’ That’s the guy that you want to model yourself after. In a way, he’s been leading the team that way.”
What’s in store for 2018 in Hornibrook’s redshirt junior campaign? It is among the pertinent questions as Wisconsin readies for the season with one of the most potent offenses in program history. The Badgers return every starter on the offensive line, which includes three All-Americans. They also return a Doak Walker Award finalist at running back, four talented wide receivers and a deep tight end group.
Last season, with nearly the same offensive pieces, Wisconsin reached the cusp of the College Football Playoff and defeated Miami in the Orange Bowl to cap a 13-1 record. Hornibrook’s decision making will go a long way toward dictating the team’s fortunes this season and whether the Badgers can surpass their previous achievements.
Based on what teammates have seen from Hornibrook in offseason workouts and through seven spring practices, there is plenty of reason for optimism.
“He’s all about perfecting his craft,” James said. “All he wants to do is lead. I think that’s one area you’ve definitely seen him grow as far as being a leader, as far as speaking a little more. He’s still young. I think that speaks volumes, too, that he’s able to gain the attention from everybody on the team. When he yells, you’re going to listen. When he yells at me to get lined up, I’m going to listen to him because I know that he wants the best for us. And most important, he wants the best for the team.”
Hornibrook spent his spring break last week in San Diego working with renowned quarterback guru George Whitfield Jr. for a second consecutive year. This time, he had company. Badgers wide receiver A.J. Taylor joined him on the trip, and the two participated in private and group workouts.
Taylor said Hornibrook asked all of his receivers if they wanted to attend, but Taylor was the only one who could go. So he used $1,000 worth of Delta SkyMiles and made it happen.
Taylor noted what has stood out most about Hornibrook is his confidence and mental strength, which can be infectious among teammates. Hornibrook closed his sophomore season in style by earning Orange Bowl MVP honors after he threw for a career-high 258 yards and 4 touchdowns in Wisconsin’s 34-24 victory against Miami.
He completed 62.3 percent of his passes on the season and threw 25 touchdown passes, the second-highest single-season total in school history. His 2,607 passing yards ranked as the fifth-most in a single season at Wisconsin.
He often was at his best after making mistakes at critical junctures in games. Cutting down on those miscues, however, will be a major point of emphasis moving forward. Hornibrook threw 15 interceptions last season. Only four FBS quarterbacks threw more picks, and he tossed one interception for every 21.2 passes. The four signal callers to throw more interceptions also passed far more frequently. Collectively, they averaged an interception every 28.7 throws.
Among the 34 quarterbacks who were intercepted at least 10 times, only two had a worse interception rate than Hornibrook: Kent State’s George Bollas (every 15.1 passes) and Illinois’ Jeff George Jr. (18.1). Quarterbacks are under more scrutiny than any other position on the field, and Badgers fans often honed in on Hornibrook’s interceptions last season.
“I think people only care about the picks a quarterback throws,” Taylor said. “But look at our season. That’s a great season from a really good quarterback. For the people that doubt him because of that, either they don’t really know football or they don’t know who he is because he’s driven. I think that counts for it all, and we’re winning games.”
Hornibrook, for his part, understands that reducing his interception rate is important, even though he doesn’t consume himself with statistics.
“I think that comes with focusing on the offense and taking compete ownership of it,” Hornibrook said. “If I do that, then I won’t be making those mistakes. You can’t focus on the mistakes and try not to throw an interception because that’s not doing anything. But if you try to fix a read and try to do something on a certain play, you’ll have a better chance.
“I think I’m just more eager and really just focused to try to make these things perfect. I’ve been around here so long that there’s no excuses for missing a read or not knowing what every guy has to do on a play but just taking complete ownership of it. I’m excited for that.”
Hornibrook said he has spent spring practice working with quarterbacks coach Jon Budmayr on his footwork, play-action fakes and moving through the pocket. He has placed a greater emphasis on setting his feet, which also helps with his reads. He said he planned on attending the Manning Passing Academy as a college camp counselor this summer for a second straight year. Last year, he used the time as an opportunity to pick the brain of Peyton Manning about what he saw on the field in various situations as an NFL quarterback.
Few players in Wisconsin’s program work as diligently as Hornibrook, who has made great gains halfway through his playing career. Badgers fans will be watching to see how much more he develops with the sheer volume of offensive weapons around him this season.
“What I really appreciate from Alex is he’s a guy that wants to be as good as he can be and wants to work at it,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said after the team’s first spring practice last month. “That’s what’s fun. I think you try to build on things he’s done well, but you can take every phase. Something with footwork. He’s done some good stuff but can clean this up. Play action. Situational football.
“It’s not just, ‘I want you to throw fewer interceptions.’ There’s a whole lot, and that’s what’s good about this time is you can work on some of those things.”