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Wisconsin QB Alex Hornibrook uses spring break to study football

MADISON, Wis. -- Alex Hornibrook could have chosen to use his spring break like so many college kids temporarily freed from the pressures of classes: catching some sun on a beach and recharging by doing absolutely nothing.

And while Hornibook did manage to soak up a few rays, the sandy shores also served as the backdrop for a crash course in football refinement for Wisconsin's starting quarterback. That's because, over the course of last week, Hornibrook worked with renowned quarterback guru George Whitfield Jr. in San Diego, taking advantage of any opportunity he could to improve as a player.

"It was a lot of stuff that it isn't like changing your whole mechanics," Hornibrook said Tuesday following Wisconsin's third spring practice. "You've been throwing one way your whole life. It's a lot of just doing one thing to kind of make something better. Obviously he's known for using brooms and a lot of the avoidance drills that he does is a little bit different for pocket awareness. Just some of that stuff -- small tweaks in the mechanics to get better."

That type of dedication during potential downtime exemplifies why Hornibrook is in position to make one of the biggest year-to-year jumps among any Big Ten quarterback in 2017. Last season as a redshirt freshman, Hornibrook started nine games for the Badgers and completed 58.6 percent of his passes for 1,262 yards with nine touchdowns and seven interceptions.

But it was a year full of swings for Hornibrook, who lost out on the starting job in fall camp to fifth-year senior Bart Houston. Hornibrook made an impressive college debut in Week 2 against Akron and completed all five of his passes. One week later, he led the game-winning fourth-quarter touchdown drive, tossing a 1-yard score to tight end Kyle Penniston to help Wisconsin avoid an embarrassing home loss against Georgia State. The following game against Michigan State, Hornibrook earned his first start. But Hornibrook's play against a brutal Big Ten schedule was inconsistent at times, and he spent much of the second half of the year splitting playing time with Houston.

This year, Hornibrook began spring practice as the unquestioned starter for Wisconsin, the only quarterback on the roster who has played in a college game. His backups this season will be redshirt freshman Kare Lyles and true freshman Jack Coan. Hornibrook, a 6-foot-4, 213-pound lefty from West Chester, Pennsylvania, already has impressed coaches and teammates through three spring practices with his knowledge and confidence.

"You just see more command of the offense, just the confidence of the words coming out of his mouth in the huddle," Badgers offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said. "And there's a calmness to him that I like. He's confident in what he needs to do to grow, and I think he's confident in areas that he really has control over. He doesn't get flustered if a play isn't just right. He's got a good approach for this offense right now."

Added Badgers wide receiver Jazz Peavy: "He has to be the one that picks up this offense and is the leader in our huddle. He's definitely taken control of that, and he's grown a lot."

A season ago, Hornibrook's battle with Houston was viewed as a competition between a more accurate quarterback (Hornibrook) and someone who possessed better arm strength (Houston). But Hornibrook insists arm strength won't be a factor moving forward, as he continues his improvement in several areas. Already, Hornibrook has noticed he possesses a better understanding of how an entire play develops, which he said would help him find his check down receiver and avoid sacks he took last season.

"I haven't seen a throw that I can't make yet," Hornibrook said. "Any time you can't put enough juice on the ball, if you throw it early enough, it'll get there at the same time. So it's all about anticipation, timing and being able to read things."

Hornibrook met this offseason with head coach Paul Chryst and quality control assistant Jon Budmayr, a former Badgers quarterback, to discuss ways in which he could improve. No detail was too small.

"We talked about every single area," Hornibrook said. "Obviously you can improve in every single area, but there's a lot of things that every quarterback works on, and that's just timing, rhythm, reading coverages and pocket awareness. Those things, just refine them and get them better."

Hornibrook was so dedicated to refining his skill set that he connected with Whitfield, who runs a specialized quarterback training academy in San Diego. Whitfield's clientele has included Andrew Luck, Cam Newton and Jameis Winston. Johnny Manziel is currently working with Whitfield in an attempt at a pro football comeback and was there last week while Hornibrook learned from Whitfield.

Hornibrook, who was in San Diego from March 17-24, said his family flew out from Pennsylvania for the first few days, making the trip part vacation and part training. Much of Hornibrook's time was spent on the football field, although he did spend one day on the beach focusing on stability through the waves and footwork in the sand.

He said he first met Whitfield in high school and reached out to him last year about the opportunity to train. Hornibrook spent time over winter break with Whitfield following Wisconsin's Cotton Bowl victory against Western Michigan and returned for more training last week. He believes the fruits of his labor will materialize in the fall.

"Hopefully I'll just be playing quicker," Hornibrook said. "I already feel a little bit better out on the field, and I'm seeing things differently than I did last year."