Whether you liked him or hated him, Hornibrook’s departure means Wisconsin’s most experienced quarterback will not be with the program in 2019. For those that like this stat—and there are those that do not, I promise you—the southpaw will leave Madison with a 26-6 record as a starter.
Five quarterbacks currently on the roster will now vie for the role of starter for an offense returning firepower in the backfield with Doak Walker Award winner Jonathan Taylor, key producers at wide receiver, an emerging receiving threat in tight end Jake Ferguson, and an offensive line replacing four starters but has the depth and experience to compensate.
Even if Hornibrook stayed for spring ball, how head coach Paul Chryst and offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph would distribute reps would have been extremely interesting to detail starting in late March.
I stated in January that I thought there would be more competition at the position. Because of his experience, one could have hypothesized with a high degree of validation that Hornibrook likely would have gotten the nod as QB1 to start the camp, though one could also believe rising junior Jack Coan would receive more reps with the presumed “ones” as well.
Coan now is the most experienced quarterback on the roster, and we will dive into that part more a little later. In five games last season—really 4.5 with coming in to the Rutgers game for Hornibrook—he completed 60.2 percent of his throws for 515 yards with five touchdowns to three interceptions.
Wisconsin also has rising redshirt sophomore Danny Vanden Boom and redshirt freshmen Chase Wolf and walk-on Nate Carter.
In my opinion, Vanden Boom played well in spring and fall camps in 2018. He received extremely limited playing time (see: “garbage time”) last season, but the Badger legacy led the offense to a touchdown in his first action against New Mexico.
Wolf, I think, is the most intriguing player in Jon Budmayr’s position group not named Graham Mertz, simply because we have not necessarily seen a lot of him yet. He did not enroll early like Hornibrook and Coan before him (and Mertz has for 2019), but he displayed a strong arm and showed he can sling it.
There is also Carter, the Waunakee native who walked on to the program as well.
Now we come to Mertz, whose prep pedigree—state champion, Elite 11 quarterback, All-American Bowl MVP, top 65 player in the nation—ranks as the most storied of those coming to play under center for Wisconsin in modern history.
Let’s make this absolutely clear: fans should be able to feel excited and through the roof with hope for Mertz. The incoming freshmen showed in his Kansas high school days a strong arm, the ability to make a lot of throws, leadership qualities and a certain confidence or swagger seen in his All-American Bowl arm sleeve (“Stay Dangerous”).
We highlighted not just his journey but also what the expectations should be for such a highly-touted prep quarterback in December. There will likely be some form of a learning curve in adapting to the faster speed and changing terminology/scheme of the college game—especially in adapting to Chryst’s offense compared to the high school Air Raid look he ran at Blue Valley North.
Mertz’s hype will build from outside the program with Hornibrook’s departure, but I do not necessarily subscribe to just Coan vs. Mertz in a QB battle royale for the starting position. Do not discount Vanden Boom and Wolf, as they have more experience in the offense and could show something coming up in the next several months. Honestly, I really like Vanden Boom’s upside but also feel like Wolf could be a dark horse in the competition. Call it a gut feeling.
Quick note on spring ball: Do not expect the competition to be decided early, especially now.
As a reminder that unless someone absolutely blows the roof off the McClain Center, where the majority of practices will likely be held this spring, who starts under center at South Florida in late August will be decided very likely that month during fall camp.
This is the time QBs have the ability to work on timing with receiving targets, and if there are mistakes, instruction and development will be available. As the spring practices continue, it will likely show us which quarterbacks will receive first-team or second-team reps in fall camp.
We can assume Coan’s experience in Division I action will give him a significant edge in the competition. I still want to see more out of him driving the ball downfield on throws, and maybe in his third season he becomes even more comfortable in the Wisconsin offense and allows the Badgers to open up the playbook.
I still stand by my January prediction of Mertz using those 15 spring practices to hone in and springboard to an interesting fall camp where he will see reps.
With Hornibrook out of the picture now, there is one less experienced player to beat out as starter, and that’s for every quarterback in the room.
Last thought on Hornibrook’s departure: be careful what you wish for
Hornibrook became a polarizing figure in Wisconsin football for his ups and downs. He carved up Miami’s defense in the 2017 Orange Bowl on the way to MVP honors. On the opposite end, his last performance as a Badger came against Minnesota, where he threw three interceptions and was credited with four turnovers in a lifeless loss to the Gophers.
There were also maddening interceptions (see: Iowa in 2017, the aforementioned Minnesota game last season, others).
Hornibrook deserves respect for what he accomplished as a starter, especially rising up to help the offense in 2016 and his ability to bounce back from mistakes in general. He had the ability to regain composure and lead the offense down the field. The instant memory that pops up is the 2017 Michigan contest where he threw an interception to Devin Bush that turned into a Wolverines field goal and subsequent lead, but he rebounded the very next series and hit A.J. Taylor on a strike for a go-ahead touchdown in the win.
Wisconsin’s roster now has two quarterbacks who have played in 13 career games—with Coan having all four starts. How will we see the position group step up in stressful game situations? Will they move the ball on 3rd-and-10 during a two-minute drill with the contest on the line against an aggressive defense?
We’ll see starting in less than a month.