Sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook, target of frequent fan ire before ultimately being benched last year as a freshman, was just named the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week.
Against a game but grossly overmatched BYU squad on Saturday, Hornibrook broke Darrell Bevell’s 23-year old school completion percentage record, going 18-of-19 for 256 yards and four touchdowns. He spread the ball far and wide, with six receivers gaining 20 or more yards and three different Badgers catching touchdown passes (only one of whom was a tight end).
Not since the movie Draft Day has a home-grown Wisconsin quarterback looked this good.
Hornibrook was a touted, if not slightly underrecruited, pro-style quarterback recruit coming into Wisconsin. So, too, was true freshman Jack Coan (though his offer sheet had slightly bluer blood) and 2018 commit Chase Wolf (he of Cincinnati St. Xavier, of which your author is a non-prominent alumnus—#gobombers).
All three came to Wisconsin expressly because of head coach Paul Chryst. Understandably so. Chryst carries a reputation for developing NFL quarterbacks. Professionals who have studied under Chryst include Russell Wilson, Derek Anderson (at Oregon State), and Scott Tolzien.
So Hornibrook’s success begs a question. With Chryst at the helm for the foreseeable future, why can’t Wisconsin become the next “Quarterback U?”
Quarterback play in the NFL is the worst it has been in years. The proliferation of the spread in college has led to talented but flawed quarterbacks who leave school ill-prepared for the professional game.
This is not to criticize the spread. It’s fun to watch and big-time D-I spread quarterbacks are some of the most electrifying athletes in the game. The reality is, however, that spread quarterback is a different position than pro-style quarterback.
The (ahem) spread of the spread has opened a door for the Badgers.
Since Barry Alvarez transformed the program, Wisconsin has made its hay recruiting both to its inherent advantages (large, corn-fed Midwesterns, mostly) and chasing undervalued talent that can be coached up.
There are still plenty of big-time programs that use pro-style offenses; Oklahoma and USC aren’t going anywhere. But as the number of high-quality programs using pro-style offenses dwindle, so too will the options for quarterbacks looking for pro-style homes where they can learn their craft.
In addition to Hornibrook’s record, Chryst-coached quarterbacks hold school records for season passing attempts (Tyler Donovan), completions in a season (Wilson), passing yards in a season (Wilson again), season and career completion percentage (Tolzein), season passing touchdowns, career and season pass efficiency rating (all Wilson), career games with 200 yards passing (John Stocco, though he started before Chryst came back to UW as offensive coordinator), and games with at least 200 yards passing in a season (Stocco and Wilson).
None of those players was a five-star recruit. Even Wilson, definitively the best of the bunch, was a three-star recruit whom NC State did not want back for his graduate season. (Author’s note: there’s been a bit of revisionist history on that particular exit, but regardless, there were still plenty of questions about Wilson coming into his one season in Madison.)
Weekends like the one Hornibrook just had signal to the world that Wisconsin is a place where a pro-style quarterback can come, develop, and grow into someone who is welcome in NFL camps. (Consider that Joel Stave and Bart Houston, neither of whom left college with eye-popping numbers or big-game reputations, have both gotten NFL love over the past few years).
Wisconsin is often thought of as “O-Line U.” Even “Running Back U.” (I have often wondered why any running back or offensive lineman interested in a professional career would not come directly to Madison). With Chryst leading the way, why can’t Wisconsin become the next “Quarterback U?”