MADISON, Wis. — Something is different about quarterback Alex Hornibrook at No. 9 Wisconsin.
He’s a little calmer and more confident in the huddle going into his sophomore season. There are more two-way conversations about what Hornibrook saw on defense compared to his wideouts.
All good signs for the offense in training camp. The key is whether Hornibrook can continue to develop when the Badgers open the season Friday as Utah State visits Camp Randall Stadium.
“His calmness with all of us in the huddle and controlling things, I feel like is the biggest (improvement) for him” senior receiver Jazz Peavy said about Hornibrook’s growth since his freshman campaign. That translates into better execution on the field.
“There’s no more, ‘Oh I didn’t know this, I didn’t know that,'” Peavy added. “It’s being always able to communicate things and telling us what we could have done different, or he asks us ‘What did you see?'”
It’s not like Hornibrook is starting from scratch, though. The left-hander started all nine Big Ten games last year after taking over as the starter from senior Bart Houston. Hornibrook completed 59 percent of his passes, throwing for 1,262 yards with nine touchdowns and seven interceptions.
As the season wore on, coach Paul Chryst gradually gave Houston more series during games. This year, it’s just Hornibrook at quarterback.
This is Wisconsin, though, and the Aggies rightfully expect Hornibrook to hand the ball off a lot to his running backs. Chryst hasn’t named a starter yet between sophomore Bradrick Shaw, freshman Jonathan Taylor and junior Chris James, a transfer from Pittsburgh.
“They’re going to try and ‘big boy’ you up and down the field, then around the logo they’re going to take shots,” Utah State safety Dallin Leavitt said. “It’s going to be a great opportunity for us to show what we’ve been working on and show exactly who we are.”
Some other notes and things to watch ahead of Friday’s game:
ANDERSEN CONNECTION: The teams last met in 2012, when Wisconsin came from behind for a 16-14 victory. That Aggies team was coached by Gary Andersen, who would take over the Badgers program two years later. Andersen coached two years in Madison before taking the Oregon State job, with Chryst taking over at Wisconsin in 2015. But game day is still on for Utah State and Wisconsin.
ABOUT UTAH STATE: The Aggies return 14 starters, though some of those holdovers have given way to transfer players as coach Matt Wells looks to improve a team that finished 3-9 (1-7 Mountain West) in 2016. Five conference losses came by an average of 5.8 points. Utah State was picked to finish last in the Mountain Division in a preseason conference poll.
AGGIES OFFENSE: Utah State does have an edge over Wisconsin in quarterback experience. Quarterback Kent Myers will make his 27th career start when he takes the field at Camp Randall. The senior completed 58 percent of his passes last year for 2,389 yards with 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Myers also rushed for six touchdowns.
ATTACKING THE BADGERS: Wisconsin heads into the season without its top defender after inside linebacker Jack Cichy was lost for the season a couple weeks into camp with a knee injury. The Badgers are also a little thin on experience and depth at outside linebacker after key reserve Zack Baun was lost for the year with a left foot injury. But the linebacker position still has a solid starting four led by T.J. Edwards on the inside, while the line is strong and athletic.
“You have to be stingy with the ball,” Myers said. “With me, I have to put our offense in the best situation. … For us not to have a lot of turnovers, we just need to take what the defense is giving us and put us in the best situation.”
A NEW JOB: Cornerback Nick Nelson, a transfer from Hawaii, joins a Badgers secondary that rarely got beat deep last season in Jim Leonhard’s first season as the position coach. It went so well that Leonhard was promoted to defensive coordinator to replace Justin Wilcox, who left to take the head coaching job at California. Both Nelson and Leonhard make their debuts in their new positions on Friday.