With the 2018 season behind us, it’s time to look ahead to 2019 for Wisconsin. Over the next few weeks we’ll be going position-by-position to see what the future holds for the Badgers.
For the purposes of this article, we’ll refer to each player’s class in terms of what they’ll be in 2019. If someone was a sophomore in 2018, they will be called a junior here.
Returning: Alex Hornibrook (SR), Jack Coan (JR), Danny Vanden Boom (RS SO), Chase Wolf (RS FR)
New arrivals: Graham Mertz
Biggest question: Who starts?
There is no bigger question facing Wisconsin this offseason than who will be under center a little less than nine months from now. It’s the most important position on the field and one that was nowhere near good enough in a disappointing 2018 season. That’s something even coach Paul Chryst admitted.
“There’s not one thing we did at that position that you say, ‘All right, this is how we want it to be,’” Chryst said after the Pinstripe Bowl. “There’s moments, but clearly we’ve got to get better at that position.”
The first task is figuring out the status of Alex Hornibrook. The senior struggled with a back injury early in the season and then sustained a concussion at some point in October. The latter caused him to miss four full games and half of another. Will the symptoms that resurfaced during bowl prep subside and allow him to resume his career? Chryst said prior to the bowl game it was too early to talk about such things.
But even if Hornibrook does return, there’s little reason to think the job should be his without a fight. The Pennsylvania native did not take the expected step up in his third year as the starer. Instead, he regressed almost across the board statistically, posting a lower completion rate, yards per attempt and passer rating than 2017, while also seeing his interception rate jump to a career-worst 5.4-percent. Only Rutgers’ freshman Artur Sitkowski threw interceptions at a higher rate among Big Ten quarterbacks with at least 200 attempts.
His struggles led many to call for backup Jack Coan. When Hornibrook got hurt, those folks got their wish. And the results, to be kind, were mixed. He struggled to protect the ball, fumbling four times (losing three) and throwing three interceptions in less than five games of work. The junior showed flashes of his talent, namely on a couple touchdown passes to wide receiver Danny Davis in a comeback win over Purdue. But he wasn’t clearly better than Hornibrook.
The play of those two is what makes the names behind them relevant, specifically Graham Mertz. While it’s probably unfair to ignore sophomore Danny Vanden Boom and redshirt freshman Chase Wolf, the excitement around Mertz is unlike anything in recent memory. A four-star recruit, he’s the highest-rated quarterback to ever sign with Wisconsin, which fought off the likes of Ohio State, Notre Dame, Clemson, Alabama, Michigan and others for his services.
When it appeared he was wavering on his decision to stay committed to Wisconsin last summer, he was bombarded on social media with pleas from Badgers fans to not change his mind, while fans from other schools tried to pull him away.
“It’s definitely fun, but it’s definitely stressful at the same time when you’ve got 10,000 people trying to get you to go somewhere,” Mertz said on “The Camp” podcast in December. “It’s definitely a crazy and surreal experience.”
The Kansas product is hoping to hit the ground running when he arrives on campus next week as an early enrollee. He cobbled together large portions of Wisconsin’s playbook during quarterback coach Jon Budmayr’s visits in recent months. Like most good quarterbacks, Mertz is a film junkie, saying the thing he’s looking forward to the most upon his arrival is having access to 10 years of Wisconsin film. At 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, Mertz believes he’s physically ready to compete right away at the college level. He’s also confident that he’ll transition smoothly to playing under center (something he did earlier in high school days) in a pro-style offense despite having spent most of the last two seasons lining up in the shotgun and leading a spread style attack.
“I don’t think it will be a big change,” Mertz said. “I know a lot of our schemes, protection-wise and run game-wise, are kind of all the same. It’s just different verbiage in a lot of cases. It hasn’t really been a crazy shift in the whole playbook aspect.”
A true freshman hasn’t started a game at quarterback for the Badgers since 1991, but the uncertainty surrounding the position at this point makes it seem like Mertz has a realistic chance.
Projected depth chart:
1) Alex Hornibrook (SR)
2) Jack Coan (JR)
This is impossible to project because there is still so much information missing, most notably whether Hornibrook will even be available. We’re operating under the idea that he will be, so he gets the starting nod simply because Chryst has shown in the past that he believes Hornibrook gives them the best chance to win. But it also seems clear, at least in talking to other members of the team, that they are prepping for a competition at the spot whether the senior is there or not.
“I definitely know there’s going to be some competition for the position,” wide receiver A.J. Taylor said after the Pinstripe Bowl. “We’ve kind of seen it just throughout this season. This spring, it’s going to be a time for the coaches to figure out — and the team to figure out — who’s going to be that guy that takes us to the next level.”