MADISON, Wis. — Among the perks of being the starting quarterback at a place like the University of Wisconsin is, sometimes, an opportunity to meet a boyhood hero can materialize. So when Alex Hornibrook received an invitation this summer to the prestigious Manning Passing Academy, he braced himself for “one of the coolest experiences” of his young football life.
Hornibrook arrived at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La., as one of 43 college quarterbacks for a four-day event that ran June 22-25. He was there to serve as a camp counselor and to soak up as much knowledge as possible from Manning family football royalty: Archie, Eli and Peyton.
“Peyton was one of my heroes growing up,” Hornibrook said Friday. “I always watched him. He’s still my favorite quarterback to play the game. To be able to meet him and learn from him was an awesome experience.”
The camp featured Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson of Louisville, Alabama’s Jalen Hurts, Washington’s Jake Browning and USC’s Sam Darnold, as well as Big Ten signal callers David Blough (Purdue), Tanner Lee (Nebraska), Richard Lagow (Indiana) and Clayton Thorson (Northwestern).
That Hornibrook was included on the invite-only list spoke to how well regarded he is as a college quarterback. His development as a redshirt sophomore will be among the most important storylines to follow as Wisconsin pursues another Big Ten West title and a potential College Football Playoff berth. And Hornibrook has left no stone unturned in his hunt for improvement this offseason.
First, Hornibrook flew to San Diego over his spring break in March to work with quarterback guru George Whitfield, Jr. They spent time tweaking Hornibrook’s mechanics, as well as refining his pocket awareness through avoidance drills. Hornibrook also used every opportunity he could while on campus to throw with his receivers each day and hone his progression, reads and timing.
“I feel like he’s definitely taken steps to improve,” Badgers wide receiver Jazz Peavy said. “All the little details in our routes and the timing and things like that, he’s really taken it upon himself to really make sure he’s getting that down for us and wants everything to be perfect.”
Hornibrook’s days at the Manning Passing Academy came with its share of learning, as well. He said the counselors worked with younger kids during the first half of the day and then competed in drills among each other and asked questions of the Mannings. Hornibrook took a particular interest in the way Peyton Manning watched film over his career. Manning, a five-time NFL Most Valuable Player and two-time Super Bowl champion, holds league records for career passing yards and touchdowns and was renowned for his study habits with the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos.
“Obviously that was one thing that has helped him out with his preparation, that’s what he’s known for,” Hornibrook said. “So I could kind of dive into his mind and see what some of the things that he did were. …
“Kind of the timing and the frequency and how he took an ownership over that. He wasn’t always watching film of the defenses. He was kind of watching himself and made an effort for self improvement as well.”
Few would argue Hornibrook, a 6-foot-4, 215-pound lefty, hasn’t put in the time and effort to be a better quarterback. But how good can Hornibrook be in 2017? Last season, Hornibrook demonstrated he was mature beyond his years, leading Wisconsin off the bench to a come-from-behind fourth-quarter victory against Georgia State in Week 3. Hornibrook earned the Badgers’ starting quarterback job the following week and finished the season with nine starts.
He completed 58.6 percent of his passes for 1,262 yards with 9 touchdowns and 7 interceptions — numbers that may seem pedestrian if not for the level of competition Hornibook faced. He was thrown into a starting role for consecutive games against Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa and Nebraska and spent the latter portion of the season splitting time with fifth-year senior Bart Houston.
Now that Houston is gone, Hornibrook is the starter and the only quarterback on the roster with playing experience. The knowledge that he doesn’t have to look over his shoulder if he makes a mistake has created a greater level of confidence and comfort.
“I think it definitely decreases all the outside distractions,” Hornibrook said. “Whether it’s people asking if you’re going to be playing or just in practice when you’re thinking about it and worrying about it. When that’s not really a concern, you can focus more on yourself. You can focus on getting ready for this fall camp and for game weeks.”
Hornibrook hopes he’ll be ready for his opportunity following an offseason spent laboring on his craft. Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst and the rest of his teammates are counting on it.
“One thing I’ve always been impressed with Alex is his approach,” Chryst said. “He’s willing to spend a lot of time trying to improve physically and in the mental part of it. I think that it’s been a really good offseason for him. I really like where Alex is at right now, yet know that there’s a lot of room for growth. But I think he’s put himself in position to take those steps forward.”