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Wisconsin players to watch in 2017: QB Alex Hornibrook

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The southpaw’s second year as a starter could be a special one.

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81st Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic - Western Michigan v Wisconsin Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

With the 2016 college football season now in the books, B5Q looks ahead to 2017 and a Wisconsin Badgers program building off its 11-win campaign. As we started back in January, we’ll profile certain players who could be in line to play a significant role in what will be head coach Paul Chryst’s third year guiding UW.

Whether it’s a position group weakened by key departures, a player who transferred into Madison or just possibly needed an extra year of seasoning before contributing, these are our picks for Badgers that’ll “pop” in 2017.

Alex Hornibrook, QB

Chryst utilized the two-quarterback system in 2016 with redshirt senior Bart Houston and then-redshirt freshman Hornibrook. Both faced some inconsistency throughout the season and sometimes relieved the other. Houston began 2016 as the starter, with Hornibrook replacing him during the Georgia State win due to offense needing a spark on third downs and red zone opportunities.

Hornibrook then started nine consecutive games for the Badgers, but Houston found his way back into the quarterback rotation in the Iowa game. Suffering the head injury during the regular season finale against Minnesota, Houston started the final two games — with Hornibrook sitting out the Big Ten Championship game but finding valuable snaps against Western Michigan in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic. That included a key touchdown pass in the fourth quarter to redshirt junior tight end Troy Fumagalli in the 24-16 win.

The 6’4, 219-pound southpaw quarterback finished 2016 with a 58.6 percent completion percentage, throwing for 1,262 yards and nine touchdowns with seven interceptions.

As Houston ended his career a winner and playing the best ball of his collegiate career, Hornibrook should cement his status as starter and make a substantial jump heading into 2017.

“Those two, they work at it,” Chryst said after the Cotton Bowl Classic win on Jan. 2, according to CollegePressbox.com. “They care a ton about this team and want to do their part, and you really appreciate that as a coach.

“It was good to see Bart finish his career here at Wisconsin the way that he did. And I'm excited about the growth that Alex took this year and the steps he can take to go forward. He's got a lot of football ahead of him, and both were important to us all year long.”

Now with the keys to the Wisconsin offensive machine, Hornibrook, the redshirt sophomore, will enter his third year in Paul Chryst’s system and will be the only quarterback with significant game time experience.

Scott Tolzien’s significant improvement between the 2009 and 2010 seasons should give Badgers fans anticipation for greater things from Hornibrook in 2016. In his first year as the starter under Chryst, he completed over 64 percent of his passes and threw for 2,705 yards with 16 touchdowns—but also threw 11 interceptions.

During Wisconsin’s first of three consecutive Rose Bowl-clinching seasons in 2010, Tolzien increased his completion percentage to nearly 73 percent, while throwing for 16 touchdowns and reducing his interception total down to nine. That allowed the current Indianapolis Colts back-up to win the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award.

Joel Stave, even just in one year as a starter under Chryst, showed substantial improvements in 2015. Though he threw more interceptions his senior season (11 to 2014’s 10), he threw 164 more passes and averaged almost 207 yards per game through the air for an offense without its storied rushing attack. He showed the ability to throw his wide receivers open and anticipate where they’d find be.

Hornibrook has shown during practices and games an ability to put an accurate touch in his deep passes that allow his receivers to run underneath and make plays.

That was shown at least in two passes last season: his 35-yard completion to true freshman A.J. Taylor in clean-up time against Akron and his 57-yard completion to fellow true freshman Quintez Cephus against Iowa. The latter throw led to a touchdown in that 17-9 victory in Iowa City.

There are some areas of opportunity for Hornibrook to grow. It will be interesting to see how his arm strength improves, as Houston had the considerably stronger arm on film. That should continue to be refined and enhanced with another season under Chryst, offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph and offensive quality control coach Jon Budmayr, whether it’s improving footwork, placement in the pocket or other factors.

Hornibrook also admitted to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Jeff Potrykus that he needed to improve on his decision making when holding on to the football, something he conceded that contributed to the concussion suffered against the Gophers.

“Boy, there’s so many lessons to be learned,” Chryst said about Hornibrook’s first year in a contributing role back on Dec. 23. “It may be lessons are reinforced — ones that you know, but yeah, OK, easier said than done maybe. He’s got to take all of these experiences, finish out this year obviously, but in the off-season that’s him on the tape. It’s not someone else. He’s got to take that and grow.

“No different than any other guy but boy, there’s nothing like experience, and now that he’s got it, there’s a lot of areas that he can build on that are positive and a lot that he can get better at. They are controllable for him.”

Behind Hornibrook, no one has any experience under center in a game situation in their collegiate careers. Redshirt freshman Kare Lyles will be an intriguing player to watch this year and how he performs in both spring and fall camps. True freshman Jack Coan, after a storied prep career on Long Island, enrolled early like Lyles a year prior. Which one emerges as the back-up to Hornibrook, or if they could challenge him in a platoon as seen last year, will be a minor storyline heading into the 2017 season.

There’s also redshirt freshman walk-on Garrett Groshek and another in-state product, Kimberly’s Danny Vanden Boom, who will presumably fill out the position for next season.

Hornibrook is the only proven commodity at that position, however, and he has several weapons coming back. The running backs should be stacked with an emerging Bradrick Shaw and Pitt transfer Chris James despite the loss of Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale. Two of Wisconsin’s three top pass catchers return in Jazz Peavy and Fumagalli. The offensive line brings back four of its five starters, excluding left tackle Ryan Ramczyk.

Hornibrook could continue his evolution in leading an offense that could jump substantially in 2017.