Wisconsin hasn’t named Graham Mertz its starting quarterback for the season opener against Illinois just yet but it’s clearly trending that way.
“That’s kind of the path we’re on right now,” quarterbacks coach Jon Budmayr said Thursday. “Jack (Coan) was obviously taking all the snaps with the ones. When he went down (with a foot injury), now Graham is taking those snaps. For Graham, he’s got to keep improving each day and maximize this opportunity that he has, but I would see (him starting) being the case.”
No one is quite sure how long Coan will be out. He underwent foot surgery Tuesday for an injury he suffered in weekend practice. The senior went down while dropping back to pass and it wasn’t touched. He managed to take part in one more play before heading to the locker room. Those around him knew it was bad.
“We talked to (Coan) after (practice),” backup Chase Wolf said of him and Mertz. “We got a bit emotional about it, because he’s our leader and he’s our guy and we hate to see him go down like that.”
As soon as the severity was known, all eyes turned to Mertz. He arrived at Wisconsin in 2019 as the most-hyped recruit in school history and rated as the best quarterback to ever sign with the Badgers. He played in two games as a true freshman, completing 9 of 10 passes for 73 yards.
But the last time anyone outside of Wisconsin’s program saw him compete was last October. He was still raw, relying on his immense talent more so than knowing when and where he should go with the ball. From all accounts, that’s changed now in his second fall camp.
“He came in very physically gifted. He throws the ball really well, he’s got good feet. I think a lot of those things are drilled into him and kind of come naturally. He’s been working on that stuff for his whole life,” redshirt sophomore quarterback Danny Vanden Boom said. “But I think Graham’s biggest strides have come mentally. He definitely understands what we’re trying to do, our concepts, defensive coverages, things like that. I’d say that’s definitely the greatest area where he has grown.”
Much of that has come as a result of his film room work with Budmayr. It’s nothing new for the duo. When Mertz would come to Madison on recruiting visits, the pair would end up spending a ton of time watching film together. When they would talk on the phone, it was all about football. In both settings, Mertz would write down almost everything in an effort to remember it.
“Especially as a quarterback, the more notes you can take, the more things you can grasp onto,” Mertz said. “Always having what I call a sponge mindset and just always wanting to soak things in. I think that’s the biggest thing a quarterback needs to do. The past couple weeks my note taking has been coming in handy for me and I’ll be ready to go.”
Mertz’s debut against the Illini would be the most anticipated start by a quarterback since Russell Wilson in 2011 and perhaps even greater than that. The excitement level around his recruitment, his commitment and now the wait to see him play is off the charts and has rarely been seen in Madison.
“I really don’t look at it a ton. Obviously people mention it to me and stuff like that, but for me I just try to focus on what I can control,” Mertz said. “That’s work ethic and just knowing like, alright, game week, you play football your whole life, just go out and execute. I think the biggest thing for me is just execution and playing with the confidence I had in high school, and I think I’m finally hitting that stride right now with the offense.”
Coan’s injury sent a shockwave through the program. Everyone knew Mertz was the future at the position, but following a junior season in which Coan threw 18 touchdowns and just five interceptions while helping the Badgers to the Rose Bowl, he had become the face of the offense and one of the biggest leaders on the team. He had built that trust among his teammates by fighting to play through injuries, playing well in big moments and winning a bunch of games. Mertz is having to do that without the benefit of a lot of in-game experience.
“The biggest thing is just showing it on field and showing it in the locker room and knowing how to lead. Not everyone takes leadership the same way,” Mertz said. “You just have to find that happy balance. I think the biggest thing right now for me is to build that trust and execute in practice. I feel like the past week has been great. Feel like the guys have really brought me in.”
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Despite his spot on the depth chart changing, Mertz hasn’t, at least not since Coan went down on Saturday.
“Sometimes when guys flip that whole script and now they’re someone they’re not, that’s really noticeable,” Budmayr said. “I wanted (Mertz) to maintain who he is. Graham’s always got a great presence in the huddle, he’s got a great camaraderie with the guys, so that didn’t change. I didn’t see anything with his play that changed.”
Mertz has played in a lot of big games, though admittedly none have been at the collegiate level. He did lead his high school team to a state title as a junior and then went back to the state title game as a senior before losing. But facing Illinois, the only Big Ten West team to beat the Badgers a year ago, is a different animal. Budmayr’s message to Mertz in that regard will be simple in the lead up to the game.
“Stay in the moment. There’s going to be good things, bad things (but) you’ve got to stay steady,” Budmayr said. “Have fun with it, enjoy it, but stay within the moment and trust your preparation.”
As the No. 3 pro-style passer in the country for the 2019 class, Mertz had his choice of nearly any school in the country. He could have gone to Ohio State, Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, LSU and any other number of powerhouse programs, but he chose Wisconsin.
“Ratings are great, all that stuff is great, in the end you can’t fall into the hype of alright, ‘I’m a four star, I’m going here because I’m a four star and all the four stars go here.’ No, that’s not how it goes,” Mertz said. “You have to find the perfect spot for you, how you play and I feel like I found the perfect spot for me here. I can’t wait to win games here.”
His first opportunity will come Oct. 23 or 24 against Illinois.