Jan. 21, 2015: Paul Chryst’s first National Signing Day. Badger fans, myself included, were ecstatic to know that Chryst would be bringing in a solid quarterback to eventually take the reins from Joel Stave, who Jake continually reminds me is the winningest quarterback in Wisconsin history.
Who couldn’t be more excited about this quarterback? Chryst was known as an offensive guru, and I was pumped to see him bring in someone who had significant success in high school with skills that seemed to translate well to college.
Well, I was excited about Austin Kafentzis, and based on my recollection of Twitter and certain radio talk shows, everyone else was too. I remembered how great Russell Wilson was for Chryst, and perhaps Kafentzis could fit the bill with similar athleticism. I remember, however, being intrigued by the fellow Chryst brought with him from Pitt, the lefty Alex Hornibrook. At the time, Hornibrook was a known unknown that I didn’t want to know. I wanted the dynamic Kafentzis to make it happen for Wisconsin.
In my mind, Hornibrook stood behind Kafentzis.
Well, it turns out that Hornibrook was a much stronger quarterback that Kafentzis, especially under Chryst’s system. In a severe understatement, Kafentzis and Wisconsin turned out to not be a great match, and they quickly parted ways.
So, Hornibrook, sans Kafentzis, stood behind Stave and redshirted the 2015 season. Meanwhile, Stave both was the best (most wins) and rather frustrating (fumble against Iowa). He was an interesting quarterback at Wisconsin, as his first year as a starter was exciting but cut short by a broken collarbone. He never really was the same after that point.
As 2016 rolled around, it was Bart Houston time. A fifth-year senior and former four-star recruit, Houston was another player who garnered a lot of early fan love and was generally forgotten as the transition to college ball took quite a long time.
To open the 2016 season, Hornibrook stood behind Houston. However, as Houston struggled during non-conference play (which did include an upset win over top-10 LSU), Hornibrook played well enough when given opportunities that he earned a start against Michigan State in the Big Ten opener.
Wisconsin pounced all over top-10 Michigan State 30-6, and Hornibrook was named Big Ten Freshman of the Week after going 16-of-26 for 195 yards, one touchdown, and one interception. There was a glimmer of hope that Wisconsin’s quarterback situation might be solved for the next four years.
Hornibrook and Houston would share the workload the rest of the season, but Hornibrook’s workload consistently decreased after Week 6 and he only threw two passes in the Cotton Bowl win against a formerly boat-rowing Western Michigan.
Hornibrook again stood behind Houston.
With Kafentzis, Stave, and Houston all gone, there was no one standing but Hornibrook going into the 2017 season, and it is hard to argue with the results. The Badgers went 12-0 in the regular season, lost a tight match in the Big Ten Championship Game, and Hornibrook had a career game against Miami in the Orange Bowl. Throughout the season, Hornibrook drew valid criticism for baffling decisions and perhaps some less-than-helpful criticism for being less good than Russell Wilson.
Fast forward to 2018, a season of dreams that stayed dreams. My confirmation bias had me believing that Wisconsin was indeed going to build off of 2017 and earn a spot in the College Football Playoff. Instead of surpassing his 2017 performance, Hornibrook stood behind the expectations he worked so hard to set.
Hornibrook struggled with symptoms related to a head injury throughout the season, and some mix of his declining performance and his health issues gave Jack Coan the bulk of the work in the later portions of the season. While Hornibrook fought his way back to play in the season finale against Minnesota, his last game as a Badger handed over the Axe to the currently boat-rowing Gophers.
To end the 2018 season, Hornibrook was standing behind Coan and head injury.
With the possibility of standing behind Coan, complications from a concussion and reported back injury, and newcomer Graham Mertz, it makes sense that Hornibrook will choose to step out of the shadow and find a fresh start in 2019. For that, I wish him all the best success with his health, football career, and education.
Hornibrook’s career at Wisconsin was, for me, much more than Hornibrook himself. He was a decent quarterback who could sometimes throw the ball well and other times not. He wasn’t particularly athletic, but as an unathletic dude myself, I can roll with that. From the perspective of the football program, it probably is in roughly the same position right now compared to where it would have been if Hornibrook enrolled at Pitt.
Instead, Hornibrook’s career always seemed to be clouded by what was around him—the disappearing dream of Kafentzis being Wilson 2.0, sharing time with Houston, and losing his job in 2018 to head injury and Coan. Perhaps the biggest cloud was the expectations he set for himself during the Orange Bowl. These clouds unfortunately cover up some great memories of the joys of following the Badgers in 2017 and Hornibrook’s positive contribution to those memories.
Maybe I’ll get called out for bringing Kafentzis into this too much, and I promise I haven’t thought about that name in years. But I do know after reflection that my expectations of what quarterbacking at Wisconsin would be from 2015-19 were framed by my dreams of Wilson 2.0. Fairly or unfairly, I held Hornibrook to those standards.
And now the page is turning again. I’m excited about Mertz, but I’ve also learned that I have no idea what I’m talking about. If history decides to repeat itself again and Mertz is more of a Kafentzis than a Drew Brees, we may find ourselves looking at Coan exactly the same way we looked at Hornibrook a few years from now.
If Hornibrook has taught me one lesson about being a sports fan, it’s to both enjoy what was and dream about what could have been. From this fan’s perspective, that is his biggest impact.