Buzz surrounds Graham Mertz, the four-star quarterback who signed with the Wisconsin Badgers earlier this month.
Look at his high school stats for Blue Valley North in Overland Park, Kan.: 3,886 yards and 51 touchdowns this season, 96 touchdown passes in two seasons. Look at his national ranking: the No. 102 player in the country according to 247Sports composite. Look at his accolades: Gatorade Kansas Player of the Year, Elite 11 and The Opening Finals honoree.
And watch how the quarterback position did not fare as well as widely hoped for the Badgers’ 2018 squad. Redshirt junior Alex Hornibrook was limited to nine games by symptoms related to a head injury and threw 13 touchdowns to 11 interceptions while completing 60 percent of his passes. Sophomore Jack Coan appeared in five games and threw five touchdowns to three interceptions while completing 60 percent of his attempts.
The hype is real for Mertz’s arrival in Madison next month as a mid-year enrollee, a move that will set him ahead of the curve in gaining comfort and confidence in Paul Chryst’s offensive scheme.
While the excitement around Mertz certainly makes sense, other highly-touted quarterbacks have come to Wisconsin before. Names such as Curt Phillips, Bart Houston, and D.J. Gillins come to mind. Due to injuries, having to adjust to multiple offensive schemes, or other factors, they did not make as big an impact as their hype—fairly or unfairly—predicted.
So just how much does Mertz have to learn? What should be the expectations for him as a true freshman? What are the actual expectations from inside the program?
B5Q reached out to two former quarterbacks who played in Chryst’s system in the past 13 years, Mertz’s high school coach, and Mertz himself to gain insight.
Every player, every situation is different
Various factors play a role in how a quarterback learns and executes his college offense. No matter how talented the quarterback is, there is a significant jump in talent between high school and college football.
Five-star quarterback Trevor Lawrence beat out Kelly Bryant and Hunter Johnson to start for Clemson this season and guide the Tigers to a College Football Playoff berth.
Wisconsin saw firsthand what Nebraska’s Adrian Martinez could do in October, as the true freshman threw the ball around Camp Randall Stadium to the tune of 384 passing yards with two scores.
On the other hand, first-year signal caller Artur Sitkowski took snaps in 11 games for Rutgers, completing only 49 percent of his passes with 18 interceptions.
Those three played early, but for other quarterbacks, gaining familiarity with the playbook and earning playing time may not happen so quickly.
“It’s different for every person,” Bart Houston told B5Q earlier this month. “You got people who are just freaks of nature who are ready to play college ball when they’re sophomores in high school, but then people like me where it takes them five years in college just to get on the field and be comfortable. It’s different, and circumstances with people in front of you change it, but knowing the playbook can take two months. Understanding it can take a year. Mastering can take a lifetime, really.”
A former four-star recruit according to ESPN and Scout, Houston came to Madison during summer 2012 but underwent labral surgery on his right throwing shoulder, so his expectations under offensive coordinator Matt Canada and head coach Bret Bielema were different compared to Mertz’s.
“It was, pay attention, learn as much as you can, and get better,” said Houston, who played in 26 career games while completing over 65 percent of his passes for 1,540 yards and nine touchdowns.
John Stocco recalled how he came into the program and how he came from a simpler offensive system and needed a redshirt season to learn Wisconsin’s system. Previously, Brian White was UW’s offensive coordinator from 1999–2004 before sharing coordinator duties with Chryst in 2005. Stocco also had experienced signal callers Brooks Bollinger and Jim Sorgi already in front of him.
Stocco watched Mertz’s highlights and called the young quarterback “impressive.”
“He looks very accurate,” Stocco told B5Q. “He throws a nice deep ball and what I really like is he’s got good footwork in the pocket.”
Stocco played quarterback at Wisconsin from 2003–06, starting mainly those final three seasons. He currently ranks third in school history in passing yards (7,227), passing attempts (934), completions (534), and touchdown passes (47).
He played under Chryst when the latter became co-offensive coordinator in 2005 and offensive coordinator in 2006.
“I would imagine that just based on Graham’s numbers and seeing the film a little bit, it seems like his offense is a little bit more advanced, so it might not be as big of a curve for him, though one thing I do know is that every guy is different,” Stocco said. “I just know that part of it is no matter how advanced the system is that you played in, there is always going to be a learning curve and some guys pick it up quicker than others. So it will be interesting to see how he handles it his first year.”
Picking up Wisconsin’s offense
Stocco detailed the process of becoming comfortable in an offense like Chryst’s. Figuring out formations, shifting and motioning, making sure the other players are lined up correctly, and protection and the play call itself all are factors to consider. Go ahead and add on figuring out where to go with the ball pre-snap, deciphering hand signals from the sidelines.
Mertz has been working on learning the offense for the past month-and-a-half.
“I’d go up [to Madison] and visit and take a bunch of notes, and then on these last home visits they can come down and I’d just take notes in my notebook about everything,” Mertz said. “So we’d start with formations, then formations lead to shifts and motions, then that led to pass protections, and then pass protections led to pass game. Then pass game led to run game, and then that led to run checks, so we have a whole checklist we went through. It started with personnel, too, so we’ve been getting after it a little bit on that sense.”
While Stocco came from a simpler high school system and Houston played in a split-back veer triple-option scheme, Mertz thrived in an Air-Raid attack at Blue Valley North under head coach Andy Sims where he had to make a variety of throws and different checks.
There will be an adjustment in taking the ball from under center instead of primarily out of shotgun, but Mertz noted he has been working with his quarterback coach on that aspect in training sessions since the sixth grade. The biggest change the Elite 11 honoree mentioned was timing and working to “just mess with the defense as much as possible with run fakes, pass fakes, and just timing.”
According to Sims, one aspect that could benefit Mertz is the fact that the hashes are closer in college than high school, so some passes like deep outs or longer throws to the opposite side of the field will be easier to throw.
On the flip side, Sims noted there will be more run checks that Mertz will have to adapt to.
“All the checks in the pass game he’s going to be able to make,” Sims said. “He’s done it a thousand times, but being able to run the correct run play at the correct defensive line techniques and the correct formations, he’s going to need to learn that and so he may be a little bit slower on that than maybe somebody that’s done a little bit more of a pro-style offense.”
Enrolling mid-year should help
Some recent Wisconsin quarterbacks have used spring ball to propel themselves into early roles in their respective careers. Joel Stave (2011), Alex Hornibrook (2015), and Jack Coan (2017) all enrolled early in their freshman year and found meaningful playing time—and all started—during their second seasons.
Mertz will enroll for the spring 2019 semester in January, allowing him to participate in 15 practices between March and April.
“I think most quarterbacks are doing that nowadays, and it’ll definitely help a ton,” Mertz said. “Just getting out there learning from Alex, learning from Jack, and just getting into the system, getting into the school, getting used to the whole aspect of college life earlier will help in the long run.”
According to Stocco, taking part in spring ball is a huge deal. He believes that the extra time between practices will allow Mertz to watch film the next day, grab receivers to correct any mistakes, and go onto the next practice with the next set of installed plays.
“The most important thing that you can get is reps,” Stocco said. “It’s all important—watching film, taking actual reps or if you’re on the practice field watching the guy that’s out there take reps, it’s all important and it all helps—but nothing is going to give you more of an impact than actually taking a rep. So the more reps that you can get, the faster you’re going to be able to pick it up. Being able to come in a semester early and go through the [15 practices], he’s going to have so many more reps under his belt by the time fall camp rolls around.”
Houston played for three offensive coordinators in his time at Wisconsin: Canada, Andy Ludwig (2013–14), and Joe Rudolph (2015–16), the latter coming with Chryst from Pittsburgh. Mental reps—or “stealing reps,” as the terminology Houston remembers Ludwig using to describe watching from the sidelines when others are in—will be huge. Essentially, he believes Mertz will have the ability to start everything three months early.
“Learning how to hand the ball off, I mean footwork’s huge and [quarterbacks coach Jon] Budmayr does a great job,” Houston said.
Setting the tone early
In front of Mertz at the position are players who have experience in meaningful college football situations, including bowl games.
Hornibrook will be a redshirt senior in 2019. Coan burned his redshirt and started against Miami in the Pinstripe Bowl with Hornibrook dealing with recurring symptoms from a head injury suffered earlier this year.
All the quarterbacks on UW’s roster—not just Hornibrook and Coan but redshirt freshman Danny Vanden Boom and freshman Chase Wolf—have eligibility to return and will have at least a year on Mertz in Chryst’s system.
Sims and Stocco both believe coming in and acting as not just a member of the team but a leader will be needed. That may not be an issue, as Sims noted Mertz came to Blue Valley North as a transfer before his junior season and earned captain honors from his teammates from a group of Mustangs that included 35 seniors.
“His job is to make sure that the guy on the defensive side of the ball believes in him,” Sims said. “And the receivers do, and the o-line does, but also the defensive backs. When you’re talking about the quarterback position, you’re talking about somebody that transcends offense and defense.”
“You’re talking about leadership qualities, and the only way you can have leadership qualities and get people to buy into you and buy into what your abilities are is to be a member of a team, not the quarterback. Not the guy over in the corner throwing passes. He’s got to—and he will do this—he’s going to come in and he’s going to be the guy lifting right next to him, sprinting right next to him, getting up early in the morning at 6 a.m. for winter workouts. He’s going to be a part of all that, and I think it’s through that process that he’ll earn a lot of people’s trust within Wisconsin.”
Stocco echoed those thoughts on leadership, always being on time, having a great attitude, and putting in extra work on and off the field. He also mentioned understanding where his teammates need to be on the field within different formations. Then comes calling the play correctly in the huddle—Stocco noted and Houston confirmed that Wisconsin calls two plays in the huddle and quarterbacks check to one when they get to the line of scrimmage—and comprehending the defensive looks and coverages coming his way.
“If you have one high safety, where is your ‘intent?’ It’s usually if you can identify where to go with the ball, whether it’s one-high or two-high, you’ll usually have an intent and then a checkdown,” Stocco said. “Or you’ll have an alert, an intent, and a checkdown, but for the freshmen they might just focus on intent and checkdown. So you identify the coverage correctly—can you get it to your intent? Then if something happens—he falls down, he’s not open—can you check it down to your back? That’s kind of the progression as I see it for freshman quarterbacks coming in.
Speaking from the coaching staff’s perspective, Houston laid out his thoughts and hopes for a true freshman quarterback.
“If I was a coach, my expectations would be to do well, learn the signals, learn the playbook enough where you can call the play in the huddle,” Houston said. “Get going on the field and move the ball down the field, and heck, if he can do that within the first five practices of spring ball, awesome. If he can’t, then his development will keep going.”
With the performance of Wisconsin’s quarterbacks this season, the hype for Mertz only increased as the season wore on.
Despite being flattered by the outside expectations, Mertz said he will keep his head down and work when he gets to Madison. He said the coaches expect him to “just come in and compete.”
“Just add to the competition and bring out the best in everyone,” Mertz said. “I’m ready to get in there and compete. That’s my main thing. It’s going to be a great time, going to have fun with it, work hard, and my goal is to just compete as hard as I can every single day.”
Sims said that as a freshman, Mertz will make mistakes, but he believes he will handle the adjustments and those outside expectations just fine.
“He’s got very, very thick skin,” Sims said. “He’s very confident in himself. He’s extremely confident in his teammates and I think it’s through that process that he’ll show everybody what he’s capable of doing. Within a year or two, I’d like to think he’s going to be the starting quarterback. May not be his freshman year but maybe a year after, but the sky’s the limit for the Badgers in my opinion. But again, I’ve coached him the last two years, so I know what he’s capable of.”
It should also be mentioned that Mertz isn’t the only signee in this class who has people buzzing. Once the 2019 recruiting cycle is complete, Wisconsin’s class may be its highest-rated since the advent of the recruiting services.
“As a class, we all want to get in there and work and just produce as much as we can and hopefully end up with a national championship,” Mertz said. “I know a lot of people going around throwing that word around easily, but I think this class, we all know that’s what we want to do. It’s great to have a really high-ranked class, and we’re just ready to get in there.
“We’re all hungry, and we’re ready for it.”