Wisconsin mailbag: In defense of QB Alex Hornibrook, respect in rankings, balancing offensive weapons

Have Wisconsin football, basketball or recruiting questions? We’ve got answers. Join us every Wednesday for the  Land of 10 Wisconsin mailbag to talk all things Badgers. This week, we attempt to debunk the notion that Alex Hornibrook is a below-average quarterback, discuss the Badgers’ status in the national rankings, safety D’Cota Dixon’s leadership ability, Natrell Jamerson’s future replacement at cornerback, and the difficulty of spreading around the ball to so many playmakers.

Question 1

Answer: Based on what we’ve seen through four games, the answer appears to be both versions. Alex Hornibrook is a quarterback capable of threading the needle to his receivers, moving the chains and leading lengthy scoring drives even when he’s backed up in a third-and-long scenario. But he’s also a quarterback who can play a first half against Northwestern and complete 5 of 11 passes for 48 yards with no touchdowns and 2 interceptions. However, I think he is far more likely to give Wisconsin a chance to win in most games.

Hornibrook definitely had some timing issues, and he made a couple of poor reads against Northwestern. He also didn’t always have enough protection, and the fact his top receiving target (tight end Troy Fumagalli) missed the game with a left leg injury didn’t help matters.

One thing that is admirable about Hornibrook is his willingness to accept blame for his mistakes. I asked him Saturday what the difference was between his first half and his second half against Northwestern.

“I think it was on me, just the way I was playing,” Hornibrook said. “In the first half it was just making the reads more simple in my head, just going through stuff quicker. Once people started making plays, it started to turn out better for us.”

It’s also easy to overreact to one below-average half. Hornibrook is a redshirt sophomore and has started 13 career games — basically the equivalent of one full season. I do expect him to perform better, even as the competition increases during Big Ten play. His first six games as a starter last season included road games against Michigan State, Michigan, Iowa and Northwestern and home games against Ohio State and Nebraska. It wasn’t always pretty, but he helped the Badgers go 4-2 during that stretch to position them for a Big Ten title game appearance.

Question 2

Answer: I understand certain factions of Wisconsin’s fan base are frustrated with Alex Hornibrook’s performance against Northwestern. Hornibrook certainly has his limitations on some deep balls and continues to work on mobility. But he generally is accurate and calm in pressure-packed moments, and his statistics this season provide proof that he is not simply a “mediocre” quarterback, as you put it.

Hornibrook is averaging 224.5 yards passing per game and completing 66.7 percent of his passes with 9 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. His pass-efficiency rating of 176.8 is No. 1 among Big Ten quarterbacks.  That’s on pace to rank No. 2 in the history of Wisconsin’s program for a single season behind Russell Wilson’s 191.8 QB rating in 2011.

Hornibrook’s completion percentage is on pace to rank fourth all-time at Wisconsin behind Scott Tolzien in 2010 (.729), Wilson in 2011 (.728), and Darrell Bevell in 1993 (.678). That’s pretty darn good company. Hornibrook also has an excellent chance to finish with the second-most touchdown passes in a single season behind Wilson’s 33.

Yes, Hornibrook’s numbers are inflated some given his near-perfect performance against BYU. Without that game, he has still completed 59.1 percent of his passes with 5 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. Even that completion percentage is better than six Big Ten starting quarterbacks — Iowa’s Nate Stanley (58.8), Indiana’s Richard Lagow (56.3), Rutgers’ Kyle Bolin (55.0), Nebraska’s Tanner Lee (54.7), Michigan’s Wilton Speight (54.3) and Illinois’ Chayce Crouch (53.2).

With his 66.7 percent completion rate, Hornibrook is second in the Big Ten behind Purdue’s David Blough (70.0 percent). I think before the season began most fans would have taken the statistics Hornibrook has produced.

Question 3

Answer: Wisconsin actually is in the same spot in the Associated Press rankings as it was when the season began, and it’s up two spots in the coaches poll. But there was a stretch earlier this season in which the Badgers dropped despite victories.

Here is where Wisconsin has been ranked each week in the AP poll: 9, 9, 10, 9, 10, 9.

Here is where the Badgers have been ranked in the coaches poll: 10, 11, 12, 10, 10, 8.

The fact Wisconsin hasn’t played a marquee game and didn’t dominate every game from start to finish probably played a role in the rankings. But every team currently ranked ahead of Wisconsin in both polls is undefeated as well.

I don’t have any major qualms about where Wisconsin is ranked at this stage of the season. Two teams ranked ahead of Wisconsin are in the Big Ten East, and if the Badgers win the rest of their games and the league championship, they’ll be in the College Football Playoff. These things generally have a way of sorting themselves out.

Question 4

Answer: I’m obviously not on the field with players, but I continue to be impressed with the way D’Cota Dixon carries himself off the field. There’s no question he is one of the players his teammates look to for leadership. And he does strike me as the vocal and emotional leader of the secondary. Linebacker Jack Cichy probably had the title of the “heart and soul of D,” but he’s out for the season with a torn ACL. Cichy still provided an impassioned halftime speech when Wisconsin trailed Northwestern at halftime Saturday.

As for Dixon, here’s something he said after the game that was telling of his approach to football. He had just notched a career-high 12 tackles, which including a huge sack of Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson in the end zone for a safety. Yet when asked about all his big plays, he deflected credit to everyone else.

“I think it really just says more about the guys I have around me,” Dixon said. “It’s nothing special you have to do to be able to make a play or be considered a playmaker. It’s just simply doing your 1/11th and trusting in the other 10 guys around you. I was fortunate enough to get great pressure and I was able to see ball, get ball.”

Now that’s true leadership.

Question 5

Answer: Sophomore Patrick Johnson probably is the player most likely to fill Natrell Jamerson’s spot at free safety next season. Johnson is listed as Jamerson’s backup on the two-deep, although we haven’t seen much of him this season. Johnson suffered a left arm injury against Florida Atlantic and did not play against BYU.

Assuming that strong safety D’Cota Dixon and cornerback Nick Nelson return in 2018 — and that may depend on how well each plays the rest of the season — Wisconsin will have a stellar starting secondary. Dontye Carriere-Williams, who has been excellent as the third cornerback, likely will take over for Derrick Tindal. The future of Wisconsin’s secondary certainly appears to be bright.

Question 6

Answer: There’s no question Wisconsin has more weapons in the passing game than it has in years past. Tight end Troy Fumagalli is playing at the level we all expected before the season. But the real surprise is how well receivers Quintez Cephus, A.J. Taylor and Danny Davis have played. Cephus clearly is playing like Wisconsin’s No. 1 receiver, Taylor is a solid threat and Davis has become a big-play guy. He’s averaging 25.3 yards per reception. Nobody else on the team is averaging more than 16.6 yards per catch.

The real victim of all this success has been senior receiver Jazz Peavy. Last season, Peavy caught 43 passes for 635 yards with 5 touchdowns. This season, he has 5 catches for 55 yards and no touchdowns through four games.

I asked Paul Chryst whether Peavy’s production was limited simply because there were more players around him. Here’s what Chryst said:

“I think that’s a little bit of it. We still really think Jazz is a good player, and we need him to be good. There are three other receivers that have been doing well along with Jazz, and tight ends have been part of it.

“There’s been some games where we’ve been able to run the football. There’s not anything that Jazz has done to say he’s not getting that. It’ll come for him. He’s got to be ready when those opportunities come and continue to keep working to get better.”

Wisconsin obviously has a good problem on its hands with the number of pass-catching playmakers. I still believe Peavy will have some huge games, and the statistics could come in bunches. But with five capable targets, someone has to suffer for the betterment of the team.

Have a question about Wisconsin football or basketball? Tweet us @Landof10Badgers and we’ll try to answer your question in a future mailbag. Check to see if your question already was answered by reading previous Wisconsin mailbags  here .

The post Wisconsin mailbag: In defense of QB Alex Hornibrook, respect in rankings, balancing offensive weapons appeared first on Land of 10.

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