Wisconsin football mailbag: Alex Hornibrook’s pocket presence, how the O-line stacks up to past units, reliving favorite Badgers moments

Welcome back to the Wisconsin Badgers football mailbag, where we have another set of 13 great questions for you.

This time, we touch on what happens if quarterback Alex Hornibrook struggles, the strength of Wisconsin’s secondary, how the offensive line stacks up to previous units and reliving some of my favorite moments in covering the football program. Let’s get to it:

Question 1

Answer: If Hornibrook stinks, I’d think the plan is to keep on playing him until he doesn’t. He still gives Wisconsin the best chance to win games, particularly considering he’s the only quarterback on the roster with college playing experience. As for if Hornibrook sustains an injury, that’s where things get more interesting.

Even at this stage of fall camp, we really don’t have a clearer picture on who the backup quarterback is between Kare Lyles and Jack Coan. If Coan emerges as the No. 2 QB and Hornibrook can’t play for an extended period of time, then coaches would burn Coan’s redshirt and use him. But Coan also could earn the backup spot and never actually play, if Wisconsin only needs a backup to enter the game in a blowout scenario. Since Lyles already has used his redshirt season, it stands to reason that he would play late in games. Of course, if Lyles wins the backup quarterback job, then Wisconsin doesn’t have to worry about burning Coan’s redshirt since No. 3 quarterbacks are rarely needed.

In the event Wisconsin must rely on Coan or Lyles, I’d expect the game plan to be tailored toward more running plays and shorter, smarter throws to avoid mistakes. Coan is still learning the play calls, so to expect him to win a bunch of games this season is asking a lot.

Question 2

Answer: Hornibrook worked to improve in any area he could this offseason, but pocket presence definitely was a big one. I’ve written about this before, but part of his workout regimen included a stay in San Diego to learn from quarterback guru George Whitfield Jr. In those workouts, Hornibrook worked on agility drills in the pocket to gain a better awareness. Of course, it’s entirely different on game day when the speed and skill is ratcheted up a notch. But I’d expect Hornibrook to be markedly better in his redshirt sophomore season. He’ll be used to the pressure of Big Ten games and ready to get the ball out sooner to his receivers.

Question 3

Answer: I began covering Wisconsin football in 2011, and my first game was Wisconsin’s 59-7 victory against Indiana at Camp Randall Stadium on Oct. 15. That wasn’t particularly memorable, other than my first experience with “Jump Around.” But there have been plenty of unbelievable moments I’ve had the privilege of covering since then. I don’t know if I have one that stands above the rest.

Two took place in 2011: Wisconsin’s contests against Michigan State in the first Big Ten Championship Game and against Oregon in the Rose Bowl. To see Jeff Duckworth reach up and pluck Russell Wilson’s pass out of the air to preserve a late drive and help Wisconsin beat Michigan State was special. The Rose Bowl was memorable because of the venue, but also because of how good that game was. The fact Wisconsin scored 38 points and it still wasn’t good enough to win showed what a ridiculous scoring fest that game became.

But there are a couple of other moments that I’ll remember for some time. Wisconsin’s overtime victory against Auburn in the 2015 Outback Bowl was definitely among the most fun. I was on the field when Auburn kicker Daniel Carlson missed a potential game-tying field goal, and Wisconsin’s players went wild in celebration, jumping into the stands to share the moment with family members. Plus, Barry Alvarez earned the victory after emerging from retirement once again. When Alvarez was dunked with a bucket of blue Gatorade and hoisted on players’ shoulders, everybody on the team went nuts. That group of players was especially elated because the program snapped a four-game losing streak in bowl appearances.

Finally, I can’t end this list without mentioning the Melvin Gordon 408-yard rushing game. The great thing about being a sportswriter is that you can show up to the stadium and witness something you’ve never before seen — and may never see in person again. Gordon was simply astonishing against Nebraska in 2014. And his last run at the end of the third quarter, which briefly set the single-game FBS rushing record, was like the stuff you’d see in a movie, as snow pounded the turf around him. That’s what makes sports so much fun.

Question 4

Answer: From my perspective, it will be tough for Arrington Farrar to earn significant playing time as an inside linebacker this season given the immense talent in the two-deep. And if that’s the case, it makes sense to redshirt Farrar this season. Farrar transitioned from safety to inside linebacker in the spring and bulked up significantly. He went from fighting to remain under 200 pounds to weighing 237 pounds on the official fall camp roster.

There’s no question Farrar has talent. While he didn’t necessarily make the impact Badgers fans would have hoped in his first two seasons, he did play in 26 games. Farrar still has his redshirt season available, and this would be the time to use it. Senior Jack Cichy will be gone after this season. So could junior T.J. Edwards if he has a big season and decides to leave for the NFL. That would leave Ryan Connelly and Chris Orr as the remaining stalwarts at inside linebacker and provide Farrar with a real opportunity to earn backup time in 2018.

Nothing is set in stone at this juncture, and injuries could change what coaches want to do. Farrar worked in with the second-team defense during practice Monday, when Connelly sat out with a left leg injury. But it never makes sense to me to use a player on only a handful of plays during fourth-quarter blowouts if that player can instead retain a full year of eligibility.

Question 5

Answer: No silly mistakes. During the course of a long season, there are bound to be close games decided by just a handful of plays. Look at least season, when Wisconsin’s three losses all came by a single touchdown. It shows the thin line between competing for a spot in the College Football Playoff and participating in the Cotton Bowl, which is still an excellent bowl game.

In my mind, silly mistakes are turnovers and allowing big plays on defense. Hornibrook is a cerebral player who only threw 7 interceptions last season, so I don’t expect turnovers to significantly plague him. Still, he must be smart so other teams aren’t given a short field. Wisconsin’s defense is good enough to prevent the types of big plays that hindered the Badgers in 2011 on their quest for a national title. But the defense must play its best in the biggest moments. That wasn’t the case in the Big Ten Championship Game against Penn State last season, when Nittany Lions quarterback Trace McSorley threw for 384 yards.

Question 6

Answer: Wisconsin’s starting secondary should be excellent. Cornerback Derrick Tindal has played in 38 games with 21 starts and was third among returning Big Ten cornerbacks in pass breakups last season. Cornerback Nick Nelson sat out last season after transferring from Hawaii. But he played in 23 games with 21 starts at Hawaii and should fill the void left behind by Sojourn Shelton quite well.

At safety, D’Cota Dixon will provide a veteran presence. He started all 14 games last season and has played in 30 career games. The biggest move is Natrell Jamerson switching from cornerback to safety. But teammates have raved about Jamerson’s speed, strength and versatility. If you haven’t seen the video of Jamerson bench pressing 405 pounds in mid-July, it’s included in this story. Not bad for a 198-pound man. Jamerson showed his speed and strength during practice Monday, bursting into the backfield during an 11-on-11 rep and would have destroyed tailback Bradrick Shaw if tackling was allowed.

Even the backup spots in the secondary have talent. Dontye Carriere-Williams and Lubern Figaro have battled for the nickelback spot. And Joe Ferguson has produced a couple of impressive interceptions in fall camp.

But if you’re asking which position is the strongest overall, the answer has to be inside linebacker. Jack Cichy and T.J. Edwards are your starters, but Chris Orr and Ryan Connelly fill out the two-deep. That’s a combined 87 games played at Wisconsin with 51 starts right there. Wisconsin’s coaching staff has a good problem on its hands trying to figure out how often to play each guy.

Question 7

Answer: Paul Chryst said at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago that Mason Stokke, a redshirt freshman linebacker, would not be healthy enough to start fall camp. Stokke is not listed on Wisconsin’s 105-man fall camp roster, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be back when healthy. He previously sustained a knee injury (the team did not announce which knee) and did not participate in spring practice either.

Question 8

Answer: Wisconsin’s defensive line has more than held its own and once again will be an underrated — though incredibly important — facet to the team’s Big Ten title hopes. Alec James and Chikwe Obasih will continue to fight for time at defensive end, while nose guard Olive Sagapolu and Conor Sheehy return as well. But the Badgers have tremendous depth with backup nose guard Garrett Rand and backup defensive end Isaiahh Loudermillk, both of whom have performed well in fall camp.

Question 9

Answer: I’d expect the line to be physically dominant in most games. Outside of redshirt freshman Tyler Biadasz, who has yet to play in an FBS game, this isn’t a group that has any chance of being overwhelmed. And Biadasz doesn’t strike me as the type to falter, either, given how high coaches and teammates are on him. Michael Deiter, Jon Dietzen, Beau Benzschawel and David Edwards all played a ton last season, and backups Micah Kapoi and Brett Connors have playing experience as well. The holes should be plentiful for Wisconsin’s tailbacks.

Question 10

Answer: Wisconsin is pretty stacked depth-wise at almost every position, and the coaching staff deserves lots of credit. If I had to pick one position group outside of quarterback, I would say safety. But I hesitate even to do that. In the event something happens to D’Cota Dixon, Wisconsin still would have the services of Joe Ferguson. He has played in 44 career games and even started once at safety in 2014 against South Florida. Ferguson has been impressive with his playmaking skills in fall camp.

Patrick Johnson and Eric Burrell are relatively untested backups, but they have loads of talent. Burrell redshirted last season, while Johnson played in 13 games and made 3 tackles. Wisconsin has a habit of preparing its backups to shine in the big moments when necessary, and the same likely will hold true for the team’s safeties.

Question 11

Answer: What you’ll see this fall will look much like what Badgers fans have seen in the past. I can’t say there will be many four-receiver sets, although Paul Chryst will use every opportunity to exploit weaknesses in opponents. Wisconsin won’t be afraid to line up with three receivers and tight ends running routes. I imagine we’ll see quite a bit of Troy Fumagalli, Jazz Peavy and Quintez Cephus in the same set. Wisconsin also has some slot receiver options with A.J. Taylor or George Rushing.

But the Badgers’ bread and butter has been and will continue to be the running game. With Bradrick Shaw and Chris James at tailback, coupled with Alec Ingold and Austin Ramesh at fullback and a quality offensive line, running the ball is the smart — and winning — play.

Question 12

Answer: Maxwell is not listed on Wisconsin’s 105-man fall camp roster because he wasn’t healthy enough to participate. At this time, he remains a member of the overall 120-man roster. But it would not be a surprise if he eventually is no longer officially with the team in any capacity because of injuries.

Question 13

Answer: Wisconsin’s 2017 offensive line definitely will be better than 2015, when so many young guys were forced to play because of injuries and a lack of depth. I think the line this year could be better than the 2016 version, but the jury is still out. It will take a lot to make up for the production of left tackle Ryan Ramczyk, who was a first-round NFL draft choice. Michael Deiter has the versatility and talent to excel now that he’s moved from center to left tackle. Redshirt freshman Tyler Biadasz is becoming more of a leader on the line at center, and David Edwards will be more experienced as a full-time starter at right tackle. If nothing else, Wisconsin has built excellent depth with Micah Kapoi, Brett Connors and Patrick Kasl as backups.

As for your question about Quintez Cephus, let’s use Rob Wheelwright’s stats as a baseline. Wheelwright caught 34 passes for 448 yards with 1 touchdown last season. Cephus caught 4 passes for 94 yards with no touchdowns. It’s asking quite a bit for Cephus to make that big of a leap, but I think he’s capable of it. Cephus has been excellent during fall camp and has solidified himself as the team’s No. 2 wide receiver. Tight end Troy Fumagalli and receiver Jazz Peavy presumably will increase their catch totals, which won’t leave as many for Cephus. But Cephus should, at worst, rank third on the team in receptions if he is healthy.

The post Wisconsin football mailbag: Alex Hornibrook’s pocket presence, how the O-line stacks up to past units, reliving favorite Badgers moments appeared first on Land of 10.

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