On paper, it looked like a mismatch made in football heaven.
Interception-plagued University of Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook versus the takeaway-hungry Miami (Fla.) defense.
But if people thought the Hurricanes would be breaking out their infamous turnover chain early and often in the Orange Bowl, they were mistaken. Instead, Hornibrook went interception-free, threw four touchdown passes and dominated the final three quarters in UW’s 34-24 victory, closing out his sophomore season with his most impressive performance in a Badgers uniform.
“It was a huge step up,” offensive lineman Michael Deiter said recently. “I don’t know if it was huge in his ability, but I think it was just huge in his feel. It felt like he was just having a little more fun and just making the perfect throws and just feeling it. I just hope he can harness that and take it into next year. He’s always had it in him.”
With the start of fall camp Wednesday, next year is now here for UW, which means it’s time to see if Hornibrook has that in him every week.
The tall left-hander had some excellent games during his first two seasons at UW, but couldn’t seem to avoid the maddening interceptions that spoiled otherwise solid performances and made him a lightning rod for fan criticism. Still, he led UW to a 13-1 record in 2017 and his 25 touchdown passes were the second-highest single-season total in school history, trailing only the 33 Russell Wilson threw in 2011. However, all some people remember are the 15 interceptions Hornibrook threw, a fair share of them coming on ill-advised throws when he was moving around and couldn’t put a lot of juice on the ball.
These days, people expect immediate perfection from quarterbacks when the reality is most of them continue to learn and develop throughout their careers. That’s why the bowl was so important. Hornibrook showed tangible improvement in the game, especially in areas that had been holding him back such as command of the game, pocket awareness and throwing on the move.
Couple that with Hornibrook’s near-obsessive desire to improve in every aspect of the game and there is every reason to think the step forward his development took in the Orange Bowl is real and lasting, so much so that he could become one of college football’s top quarterbacks as early as this season.
“I think the biggest thing Alex did in that game was he trusted a skill set that he possessed but hadn’t yet used fully,” quarterbacks coach Jon Budmayr said. “That would be location with certain throws, movements within the pocket, decision-making, all those things. He possessed the ability to do all those things before that but really had the confidence to not waver on it at all. I think it showed in the game that, ‘OK, I can do this, I have the ability to do that and now I can do it consistently.’ “
The most obvious change in Hornibrook’s game came on plays where he moved around the pocket. When avoiding the rush in the past, he would often spot an open receiver and unload the ball immediately, which occasionally led to soft tosses that were invitations to interceptions.
That changed in the bowl game. His in-pocket movements seemed more decisive and he waited until he got his feet reset before throwing. That allowed him to throw his fastball, which led to some critical completions in the game.
“I think he started before that,” coach Paul Chryst said. “Even in the Big Ten Championship Game he started to move a little bit and then he extended plays in the bowl game. When you think about it, so much of quarterbacking is getting your feet underneath you when you can. I thought he did a good job of that. ... Alex has good arm strength and he can darn near make every throw. When it looks like there’s not enough velocity behind it, it’s more waist-down than it is arm.”
Whether the change came because Hornibrook had three weeks of bowl preparation to refocus on his mechanics or was the result of an accumulation of his experiences throughout the season, his movements within the pocket were stronger, quicker, more decisive. He had thrown accurately from the pocket all season, but he made some of his best post-movement throws of the season in the bowl.
“He worked his tail off trying to get better at creating balance when there was movement within the pocket,” Budmayr said. “He’s a tremendously accurate passer. So it becomes, ‘When I move, what is causing my location to not be what is normal?’ I think it was seeing that on tape and then saying, ‘OK, this is what is happening and now we’ve got to drill the heck out of it.’ It took a period of time throughout the year to get to that point. You started to see it a little bit in (the) Michigan (game), you saw some glimpses of it against Ohio State, some of the movements. I think it came all together in that bowl game, which was special for him because he felt it.”
What Hornibrook felt going into that game was the experience of 22 college starts helping him to be more aware of things like where the rush is coming from and where the scramble lanes might be.
“I think it helps being in the live situations more and having defensive linemen rushing at you and understanding what you need to do to get around them,” Hornibrook said. “I remember that game specificially, our O-line did a great job of getting a great pocket for me to step up into. I think everything plays into it. I think just playing more games and seeing more looks in front of you helps out as well.”
In addition to his usual exhaustive film study, Hornibrook spent the offseason monitoring his diet and nutrition. He said he’s gained almost 10 pounds and dropped some body fat at the same time, which should make him even more effective when moving around this season.
“I think he’s really talented,” Budmayr said. “The thing that’s nice about Alex is he can make all the throws. That’s a starting point and his knowledge of the game is very high. He understands protections, he understands coverages and fronts and what’s good and what’s bad about them. And situtional football, he’s grown a lot. I think he’s a great college quarterback and it would be really, really wrong of me to put any sort of cap on him because he’s only getting better. We see that every single day.”
It was especially evident in the Orange Bowl.