WATCH: Alex Hornibrook interview, Sept. 21
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Ryan Roberts didn’t know Alex Hornibrook before arriving at Florida State, but a scan through his social circles showed a former high school teammate who played with Hornibrook at Wisconsin.
So, before making his way to Tallahassee over the summer, Roberts did a little reconnaissance work on his soon-to-be new teammate.
“He was friends with Hornibrook then, he kind of connected us together,” said Roberts, a fifth-year senior offensive lineman who transferred to FSU from Northern Illinois. “That dude, he vouched for him. So I had no doubt on Hornibrook.”
And that turned out to be good news a little while later, when Roberts found out that he and Hornibrook would be rooming together.
For the last few months, Roberts, perhaps more than anyone on the FSU football team, has had an up-close look at Hornibrook’s impact. His work ethic on and off the practice fields, his commitment to building relationships and his willingness to do anything to help his new team be successful.
Which is why, as he held court with reporters and discussed Hornibrook’s big hand in FSU’s 35-24 win over Louisville, Roberts couldn’t help but wear a broad grin.
“I’m so proud of him,” Roberts said, “Love the dude to death. He works his butt off every day, he’s prepared every day as if he was going to play every single snap.”
Despite Hornibrook’s pedigree as the winningest quarterback in Wisconsin football history, there were never any guarantees that Hornibrook would take a single snap in a Florida State uniform.
Not with the popular and experienced James Blackman ahead of him on the depth chart.
Blackman took every snap in FSU’s first three games, but head coach Willie Taggart hinted earlier this week that Hornibrook might get a look against Louisville.
And that hint became a reality late in the first quarter, when Hornibrook led the Seminoles on to the field for the first time.
“The young man was ready for his opportunity,” Taggart said.
Sure was. After Khalan Laborn picked up 17 yards on Hornibrook’s first play from scrimmage, the quarterback then introduced himself in a big way with a 44-yard touchdown pass over the middle of the field to receiver Keyshawn Helton.
Hornibrook became the first FSU quarterback to throw a touchdown on his first pass attempt since Clint Trickett did it in 2011, and the Seminoles led the Cardinals 14-0.
“I thought that was kind of funny,” Hornibrook said with a smile. “That was a great call by coach (Kendal) Briles. You all saw how he was wide open.”
It was a perfect start. And as it turns out, Hornibrook was only getting started.
Because after Blackman suffered an apparent knee injury early in the third quarter, Hornibrook evolved from change-of-pace quarterback into the man tasked with leading Florida State to a win.
And, after squandering a three-touchdown lead and trailing, 24-21, in the fourth quarter, that’s exactly what the Seminoles needed.
“The first thought I had was just making sure that (Blackman) was going to be alright,” Hornibrook said. “It was tough to see him go down. He is obviously a captain and means a lot to the team. All week, I prepare like I am going to play, so today I felt ready going into the game.”
Ready for high-pressure situations, too.
While at Wisconsin, Hornibrook won 26 games, including an Orange Bowl, and played in some of the Big Ten’s toughest venues.
It turns out that a three-point deficit to Louisville, in front of a supportive crowd, was no trouble.
Hornibrook at least made it look that way midway through the fourth quarter, when he first connected with D.J. Matthews for 22-yard gain on second-and-20, and then with Tamorrion Terry for a 60-yard score that put the Seminoles back on top.
Louisville on that play fell victim to a miscommunication that left FSU’s most dangerous receiver all alone on the right sideline. All Hornibrook had to do was notice the mistake, deliver one of the easiest throws he’s ever had to make and then, in his words, “let Terry do the rest.”
“He did a good job,” Taggart said. “And he did exactly what we thought he would do.”
Hornibrook finished 15-of-20 for 255 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
“He stepped up and did what we needed him to do,” FSU safety Cyrus Fagan said. “We love him. He came from far away and still fought hard.”
What happens next will be determined by the severity of Blackman’s injury.
Taggart didn’t have an update after the game, but said he was encouraged to see Blackman walking on the sideline after the game.
Even if Blackman can go next week against NC State, it seems likely that Hornibrook has done enough to factor into the game plan somehow. If nothing else, he’s given NC State’s defensive staff something to think about.
And if Blackman is unavailable, then Hornibrook will once again work to provide all the things that attracted Taggart to him in the first place: Experience, maturity and the ability to deliver in difficult spots.
“It’s great to have someone like that, and he was ready for his moment,” Taggart said. “You know, I don’t think for us it was a surprise or anything. The kid has played in a lot of big games. We saw today it wasn’t too big for him.”