Even as a high school junior, Alex Hornibrook's actions and thought process already resembled the "college atmosphere," as former Malvern (Pennsylvania) Prep coach Kevin Pellegrini describes it.
"I had been around the program for 20 years, and I can't remember seeing a junior quarterback that, not only was he studying film, but actually calling offensive meetings on his own," Pellegrini said. "I mean, you can't teach that stuff. It was pretty special. He was very serious about the game."
Pellegrini saw the first glimpse of what Hornibrook could become when his team fell way behind an eventual state-champion team in 2012. Then a second-string sophomore, Hornibrook entered the game and led a touchdown drive to help Malvern Prep avoid its first shutout in nearly a decade.
By preseason camp the next year, Hornibrook proved good enough to force Pellegrini into tweaking his Wing-T offense so Hornibrook could pass the ball more often. Aaron Brady implemented a spread attack when he took over as head coach in 2014, and Hornibrook set school records for passing yards (2,156) and touchdowns (26).
"It's really hard to make that transition in one year," Brady said. "We didn't have that much time. Our success was because of him. He took a lot of time going through the film and understanding what we were trying to accomplish. And other kids wanted to follow. Kids want to follow him and believe in him.
"You've got to throw him out of the film room. You've got to throw this guy out of the facility. He's going to put the time in. He's going to know his job. He's going to know everybody's job. He's going to understand why we're doing what we're doing, how to get into the right check, where to go with the ball."
Hornibrook took that with him to the University of Wisconsin, and it's prepared the redshirt sophomore for the responsibility he'll carry beginning Friday night against Utah State at Camp Randall Stadium – leading the Badgers through a season as their undisputed No. 1 quarterback.
Love for the game
Wisconsin released a video last month that followed Hornibrook throughout the first day of fall camp — a day in which the signal caller spent more than 12 hours at the football facilities and watched film three different times during that period.
Hornibrook mentions in the video he couldn't even say how much film he sees each day, but if it improves his play on the field, he should be watching as much as he can.
"Everybody makes it out to seem like some big, terrible thing – 'It's so many hours. It's tough,'" Hornibrook said in the video. "But we like playing football. If we can do it all day, I think that's awesome."
His arm strength, accuracy and consistency have all seemingly improved, and he's carried himself this offseason as the leader of the entire offense, not just a freshman concentrating on his own game.
"Oh man, that man's so accurate now," Wisconsin cornerback Lubern Figaro said of Hornibrook. "He's just throwing it into tight windows this year. There's a lot of plays that I should have made (in practice), but he just threw it in the perfect spot. Sometimes you'll be like, 'Damn, this kid's going to be good.' He got better from a year ago. ... It's a huge (difference). That's going to be huge for us this year."
Much of that progress came when Hornibrook went on break from Wisconsin this offseason. He spent his spring break on the beaches of San Diego, but not for pleasure. He flew to the West Coast to learn from quarterback expert George Whitfield, who mentored NFL stars Andrew Luck, Cam Newton and Jameis Winston among other high-profile names.
It was there – away from his teammates and his playbook – that he could focus solely on taking his own physical traits up a level.
"The main goal in my life right now is football, so I knew, there's an opportunity for me to get better," Hornibrook said. "When you're in an offense every day, you're focused on the reads, you're focused on the timing with receivers and all that stuff. But sometimes you get away from the actual mechanics of you throwing the football. To make some time to start doing that, it helped out a lot."
Hornibrook also participated in the Manning Passing Academy in June, a four-day camp where many of college football's top quarterbacks gather to learn from the Super Bowl-winning quarterback sibling duo of Peyton and Eli Manning.
Hornibrook described Peyton as one of his heroes growing up. He couldn't let the opportunity pass without picking as much knowledge from the five-time NFL MVP's brain as he could.
"One thing from Peyton that I wanted to learn more about was the way he watched film," Hornibrook said. "Obviously, that was one thing that's helped him out in his preparation. That's what he's known for. So I could kind of dive into his mind and see what some of the things that he did were."
Brady said he believes Hornibrook's work ethic off the field drew UW coach Paul Chryst to Hornibrook in the recruiting process, perhaps more than anything else. Their relationship began when Chryst coached at Pittsburgh, and Hornibrook made a last-minute commitment switch from Pitt to the Badgers after UW hired Chryst in December of 2014.
Hornibrook said he knew back then that he wanted to play for Chryst, citing the coach's history with developing quarterbacks and his ability to explain complex schemes in a simple way as reasons for sticking with him over his home state university.
Heading into their third season together, Hornibrook now holds a full understanding of Chryst's playbook and continues to refine his physical tools.
"Alex has improved in a lot of areas," Chryst said. "I think some of it's natural. He's got that experience. Last year at this time, he had never played in a college football game. You spend a ton of time just knowing what we're trying to do offensively. That turned into studying what defenses are doing.
"He's always been a worker. I think he is still working."
Young, but not young
One of Brady's favorite memories of Hornibrook came after he played his final game for Malvern Prep.
Brady and other coaches were working with young quarterbacks on the practice field after the Friars' season ended. Hornibrook, just weeks away from enrolling early at UW, strolled onto the turf to join them.
"Alex came out and spent an hour," Brady said. "I didn't tell him we were out there. Actually, I didn't even know he was around. He could have been doing a million other things as a teenager. He went out there and threw the ball around and was coaching them up."
He may only be a redshirt sophomore this season, but Hornibrook's the most veteran one in the quarterback room. UW's only other players at the position are redshirt freshman Kare Lyles and true freshmen Jack Coan and Danny Vanden Boom.
Hornibrook does his part to help out the younger signal callers, but the trio of freshmen aren't anywhere near his level at the moment. Chryst named him Wisconsin's No. 1 quarterback before spring practice even began, and he's carried himself that way ever since.
"He's being more vocal this season, leading guys around more with his voice," Deiter said. "It's time for him to do that. He's young, but he's not that young. He's played a lot of football here."
Hornibrook's poise, especially in adverse situations, also stands out far more than it did a year go. UW offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said when the offense struggled last season and others lost their confidence, Hornibrook wasn't always able to lift the spirits of the entire huddle. That could change this year.
"I thought last year coming into the season, he was outstanding in his confidence and his command of the huddle," Rudolph said. "The only times where (problems in that area) came up last year, I thought, were when things didn't go well.
"This year, I see a completely different guy in those respects. He keeps his confidence. He's unwavering when it comes to that. I think that's huge."
Hornibrook could have everything needed for a breakout season. He started nine games last year, completing 58.6 percent of his passes for 1,262 yards with nine touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Those numbers aren't exceptional, and the passing game didn't flow as consistently as the Badgers would have liked it to, whether they started Hornibrook or Houston under center.
With competition from Houston now gone, though, Hornibrook sure didn't rest on his laurels. He did about all he could to improve his arm and boost the intangible parts of his game this offseason, and he's now presented with a clear runway to show what he's capable of accomplishing.
"He's focused on being the best possible player he can be," Pellegrini said. "He's taken his football ability to the next level just through his love of the game. God has definitely given him some nice tools to work with, but there's a lot of people who don't take advantage of that. Alex has."
This article is written by Jason Galloway from The Wisconsin State Journal and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.