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“Way-too-early” expectations for Wisconsin’s quarterbacks in 2019

Lots of intrigue—and potential for a shake-up—at this position.

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NCAA Football: Pinstripe Bowl-Wisconsin vs Miami Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

An offense with so many returning playmakers did not live up to expectations for the Wisconsin Badgers in 2018. Despite All-Americans in the backfield and offensive line that led one of the nation’s best rushing attacks, the unit struggled in the passing game, did not move the ball well on third down, and did not score enough points when needed.

A lot can be attributed to a few factors. To name a couple: missing both Zander Neuville (injury) and Quintez Cephus (suspension), and a lack of the widely anticipated progress from Alex Hornibrook. The southpaw starter also fought symptoms from a head injury and missed four games.

Hornibrook’s replacement, second-year signal caller Jack Coan, showed some promise in a couple of games but more development is needed.

Starting with these quarterbacks, we’ll begin looking ahead over the coming weeks to the 2019 Badgers, position by position.

2018 statistical leaders

  • Redshirt junior Alex Hornibrook: Nine games, 122-of-205 (59.1 percent) for 1,532 yards with 13 touchdowns and 11 interceptions; 132.48 rating
  • Sophomore Jack Coan: Five games, 56-of-93 (60.2 percent) for 515 yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions; 118.02 rating

Expectation No. 1: Improvement and competition at the position

Admittedly, I was one of the people who thought Hornibrook would take a Scott Tolzien-like jump between his first and second years as the starting quarterback (excluding Hornibrook’s 2016 season where he split starts with Bart Houston). Especially after his performance against the Turnover Chain-equipped Miami Hurricanes in the 2017 Orange Bowl—258 yards and four touchdowns with zero interceptions—that showed to me he could perform against one of the nation’s best defenses.

The consistency did not come to pass (pun intended), and I will eat my humble pie. I also will not bash into oblivion a college quarterback who, despite receiving a scholarship to attend Wisconsin, is still not paid and not doing this as a career. Objectively, though, this was not a great season for Hornibrook. Though another year of experience can help in development and becoming more advanced at the position, sometimes it just doesn’t pan out.

With that, I do expect improvement from Hornibrook next season, but I also know he has to improve or lose the job. If he returns—there’s a small cloud of uncertainty due to the recurring symptoms that kept him out of Wisconsin’s New Era Pinstripe Bowl win—he’ll have the most experience and the most collegiate success of all the quarterbacks on the roster. That cannot be denied from a statistics standpoint.

I do feel there will be more competition, however. We have already seen that discussion developing in our coverage after the Pinstripe Bowl (see here, here, here, and here). Heck, even junior wide receiver A.J. Taylor made a comment to reporters, as noted by WOZN’s Zach Heilprin:

“I definitely know there’s going to be some competition for the position. We’ve kind of seen it just throughout this season. This spring, it’s going to be a time for the coaches to figure out — and the team to figure out — who’s going to be that guy that takes us to the next level.”

I think last year, despite the quarterbacks always competing and jockeying for position, Hornibrook just looked and performed better than the others. For 2019, however, the competition likely starts with Coan, who emerged during 2018 fall camp in showing that he could command the offense. The Sayville, N.Y., native will be a junior next season and appeared to become more comfortable as the season wore on and he received meaningful game reps. He flashed at times, including in the fourth quarter of the Rutgers win when he replaced Hornibrook in the second half (the 13 straight running plays in the third quarter helped, for sure), the fourth quarter against Purdue where he threw two touchdown passes, and for stretches of the Pinstripe Bowl.

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Coan can be accurate and spins a nice ball. His mobility—an asset over Hornibrook—was on display in the Pinstripe Bowl, as he carried out a zone-read run and later a quarterback keeper for a seven-yard touchdown run.

As much as Coan appeared to improve, he did not necessarily set the world on fire. That is nothing against him, as again, this was his first game action not in mop-up time (as were the six contests he played in the 2017 season).

The offense struggled against Northwestern and Penn State with Coan at the helm, combining for 592 total yards and converting only eight of 27 third downs. Against the Nittany Lions, he was credited with four turnovers (two interceptions, two fumbles).

Add redshirt sophomore Danny Vanden Boom, redshirt freshman Chase Wolf, and midyear enrollee Graham Mertz into the fold, and the quarterback position may be will be the most-discussed group for the next eight months until fall camp resumes and the real position competition begins.

Vanden Boom played in two games in 2018 once both contests were already decided. He led one drive against New Mexico that resulted in his first career touchdown pass to true freshman wide receiver Taj Mustapha. Can he move into the tier Hornibrook and Coan appear to be in?

Honestly, I really want to see Wolf in spring and fall camps this year. From my memory, during last year’s fall camp, he displayed a strong arm and can spin it. However, he did not come to Wisconsin as a midyear enrollee like Hornibrook, Coan, or Mertz, so reps and experience in a crucial time like spring ball simply were not there for the Ohio native in 2018.

Graham Mertz during the 2019 All-American Bowl on Jan. 5.
Bud Elliott

Then there’s Mertz, whose hype train has churned at light speed. With his résumé to date, it’s not hard to see why Wisconsin fans are excited. He lit up Kansas prep football the last two years, became an Elite 11 quarterback, competed in the Rivals100 Five-Star Challenge, and showcased his talents at The Opening Finals.

After officially signing with Wisconsin, he ended his prep career in emphatic style—throwing for five touchdown passes on the way to MVP honors in the 2019 All-American Bowl last weekend.

We laid out the expectations for Mertz in December. How much of an open competition will we see in August?

Why August? Because ...

Expectation No. 2: Do not expect any competition to end until late in fall camp

We will not necessarily get answers until the summer—that is what I’m predicting. A lot can change with that, but I still do not foresee a situation like 2015 where Joel Stave was named the starter in spring ball.

Spring camp is a time where quarterbacks are allowed to work on timing with receivers, footwork, technique, etc. That includes making mistakes. If we report that Mertz throws four interceptions in his first spring practice reps, that should not be shocking given the transition to the college game.

Again, I think Hornibrook and Coan lead the way among those vying for the start against South Florida to kickoff the season. However, spring ball can help propel players into earning reps for fall camp. Coan used his true freshman spring campaign to usurp Karé Lyles in the fall as the No. 2 quarterback.

For Mertz, there are more players in the pecking order than Coan’s situation when the latter arrived in Madison, but my bold expectation/prediction for the four-star quarterback is to use those 15 spring practices to hone in and springboard to an interesting fall camp where he will see reps. We’ll see what happens from there.

For the others like Vanden Boom and Wolf, they will have an opportunity to compete as well. All part of an intriguing storyline already being written prior to the 2019 campaign—even prior to winter conditioning—at the most influential position in football.