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Inside Graham Mertz’s journey to Wisconsin

The heralded prep quarterback shares his path to Madison.

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Logan Brown, Graham Mertz, and Joe Tippmann (left to right) pose for a photo during official visits to Wisconsin on June 9, 2018, at Camp Randall Stadium.
Dan Sanger (courtesy of Joe Tippmann)

Over 14 months ago, Graham Mertz verbally committed to Wisconsin as the second known pledge for the Badgers’ 2019 recruiting class.

Flash forward to December 2018, and boy, a lot has happened.

A state title as a junior. Offers from some of college football’s blue bloods. National accolades after standout performances in regional camps.

You would expect a large number of frequent-flier miles on the Mertz family airline statements, but the family has actually taken more excursions on the nation’s highways.

“We love road trips,” Graham’s mother, Amy, said.

Well, maybe a nice discount card from their favorite oil-change station then.

According to Graham’s father, Ron, the family drew a large circle where it could make 6-to-7-hour drives to schools that could be potential targets early in his son’s recruiting process.

“Made sure we got to them with all the camp stuff,” Ron said on Dec. 21, when both parents were driving to Des Moines to watch Graham’s older sister, Drake forward/center Mya, play Iowa in basketball. “Then later on, I guess the bigger-venue things they usually fly the kid out, so that’s been pretty nice. We’ve spent plenty of time on the highway and in the airport, I’ll say.”

The Mertz family. Graham’s oldest sister, Lauren, played basketball at Kansas State from 2014–15. Mya (center) currently plays at Drake.
Given courtesy of the Mertz family

After all the camps and recruiting visits, Mertz made his verbal commit official by signing his national letter of intent with the Badgers on Dec. 19.

“We were at the end of a season banquet for the all-state team, and a reporter came up to me, just started rattling off all the things that happened in the past year,” Mertz said on Dec. 11. “It’s kind of crazy to look back at it but it’s definitely flattering to go through and have all the options.

“But Wisconsin was my second offer, and I was at the Northwestern game last year, and I just fell in love with it. I knew it was the place I wanted to be.”

Mertz will come to Wisconsin as the program’s highest-rated quarterback recruit since the advent of the recruiting services, and he will also enroll early to take part in spring practices—an opportunity Joel Stave, Alex Hornibrook, and Jack Coan all took advantage of when they came to UW.

To see how far Mertz has come, it’s worth taking a look back at how he became one of the most coveted prep quarterbacks in the nation.

Graham Mertz joins Bucky’s 5th Podcast to recap his recruitment. Subscribe on iTunes, Google Play, and TuneIn.

Realizing potential at Blue Valley North

Seeking an opportunity to lead and start full-time rather than split time at Bishop Miege High School in Roeland Park, Kan., Mertz transferred to Blue Valley North 10 miles away before his junior year. Bishop Miege at the time boasted not only the upcoming Mertz, but also Carter Putz. Putz became the 2017 Gatorade Kansas Football Player of the Year, led the school to three state titles, and currently plays baseball at Notre Dame.

After a meeting with the Bishop Miege’s head coach, who Ron described as “absolutely wonderful” and understood the situation, Graham made the switch to the Mustangs.

“I think Graham has always been really adaptable,” Amy said. “I mean, when he left Miege, he left all his friends that he had gone to school with for years. He’s really good at making new friends and I think he was really self-motivated. We didn’t tell him to change schools, he just wanted to play. That’s all he wanted to do, was play and be the guy.”

Blue Valley North head coach Andy Sims recalled he could tell right away that Mertz was a “humble, high-character” kid.

“He’s just like any other high school kid at the time in that when you’re dealing with a quarterback, you’re typically dealing with a taller kid, a confident kid, but he was very, very humble as he should have been,” Sims said. “This is a kid that had just played some JV football, had never taken a varsity snap before. He came to my high school looking for an opportunity that he wasn’t going to be able to get at his private school, but after talking to him for a couple of minutes, you can just tell that you got yourself a really good kid.”

It is one thing to become a varsity high school quarterback, but another to become a Division I signal caller that programs like Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan, and Wisconsin recruit heavily.

Sims saw a kid that was skinny but had good size. The first things he looks for are the intangibles—can he lead, how he acts around his friends and in the hallways of his high school.

“You can just get the sense of the kid and then once you start to see him throw, then you put the next piece together,” Sims said. “OK, we got a big, tall kid right here, he’s very mature, and man, does he throw a good football. Well all that is good. You’re checking boxes, right? One, two, three, but that doesn’t mean they can play the position.”

It was not until the first couple of games in the 2017 season that Sims realized the potential Mertz possessed and that he was “maybe a little bit better than he thinks he is.” Blue Valley North runs an Air-Raid style offense where the quarterback has to make a lot of checks and audibles, and needs to read defensive coverages at a high level.

“That’s really when it stood out to me, and I think that’s when other coaches, once they kind of knew what we were doing offensively, and once they kind of got to know Graham and they started putting two and two together, that’s when I think a lot of things started clicking for college recruiters,” Sims said.

Ron, who played college football at Minnesota from 1989–92, realized his son could make it at this type of level when watching him throw against his peers in Nike events.

“Then you could kind of tell, alright, if these kids are of the elite, then he’s right in that club,” Ron said. “It kind of got validated two, three years ago when he started doing more of the exposure camp stuff. Again, as parents, you’re always looking at it through hopeful, rose-colored glasses, but it proves his point when you saw him against other elite kids. He took it from there and ran with it. Once he started to mature a little bit, kind of came into his body, that was a moment where it was more certain.”

As a junior, Mertz completed 62 percent of his throws for 3,684 yards and 45 touchdowns. Also a threat on the ground, he contributed 455 rushing yards and five scores, including a pivotal touchdown in the Class 6A title game.

“Our job is to prepare this kid for college, and that’s what I try to do offensively, and he jelled with it right away and that maturity that you got from speaking to him, now you saw the maturity on the football field,” Sims said. “We go through the football season, and there’s rough patches like any other high school program is gonna have, but then you go down all the way to the state championship game and he takes you on a 97[-yard] drive with five minutes left, and he caps that off with a scramble diving for the pylon—touchdown, state championship. And you’re just, well, yeah, that’s what a Division I quarterbacks should do for your high school, right? They should take the game over and they should look different than any other kid on the field.”

Recruiting process heats up

Kansas offered Mertz before he even took a varsity snap. Ron remembers the padded, full-team summer camp at KU before Graham’s junior year.

“That got the ball rolling in some ways,” Ron said.

Mertz committed to Wisconsin in October 2017, but the subsequent winter and spring saw interest from other programs spike. Michigan offered in December, then a who’s who of college football—Ohio State, Georgia, Alabama, Texas A&M, Oregon, Notre Dame, and Clemson—also presented opportunities for him.

Mertz recalled Minnesota coming really hard at him, then Ole Miss. Before completely shutting his recruiting process down, Mertz remembered Ohio State, Notre Dame, and Texas A&M all pushing pretty hard, especially the Buckeyes. A story in The Athletic ($) in June reported Mertz was receiving 90–100 messages a day.

“I’m not exaggerating on that,” Mertz told B5Q. “It was a lot I had to deal with, but I think at the end, just completely shutting down [the recruiting process] was probably the best thing I’ve ever done. It allowed me to just to have a senior year of playing without any stress. Just playing football and playing the sport I love, so it was the best decision I ever made.”

At some points, Mertz had to break away from all the contact.

“You got coaches calling, but before that, it was you have to call the coaches,” Mertz said. “So you get a text that says, ‘Call me,’ and you’d have 20 text messages saying, ‘Call me.’ You can’t call all of them, so it was definitely crazy throughout the school day, but still had to get my work done. Sometimes it got to the point where I just shut my phone off and just go through the school day without looking at my phone, which those were good days, just stressful, just getting-work-done days.”

Despite the constant contact from colleges, Sims did not see a change in his quarterback.

“I never saw any pressure,” Sims said. “I think that’s what Wisconsin fans should be excited about, is here’s a kid that can handle all of these things at a young age, right? Here’s the best way to put it: you guys are getting the worst version of Graham Mertz, right? This is as bad as he’ll be. This should be exciting. This is the worst he’ll handle pressure. This is the worst he’ll play football. You’d like to think the University of Wisconsin is going to coach him better than I’ve coached him, and I think I’m a good coach. You’d like to think the pressure and all the stuff he has now with everyone calling him—well, if he’s handling it this good now, what is three more years of maturity going to do for him?”

Shutting it down

“It’s funny,” Ron said. “He’s wanted to do this all his life, and for him, I think, it was gratifying to see the attention finally come through and the validation that, yeah, he’s going to have a chance to live his dream as a quarterback. He’s also a real polite kid, so he’s not going to not respond to people that reach out, especially people that are talking about a chance to go live his dream and play college football, so he took all of those calls and he paid attention to everybody.”

Ron added that Graham would be on the phone “all the time” with college staffs and that he could see it started to weigh on his son.

“A lot of late nights,” Amy said.

On the night of June 14, Mertz tweeted a message that reaffirmed his decision loud and clear. After all the calls from people trying to pull him in different directions, he realized he wanted to shut it down and remain committed to Wisconsin.

“That was the point where I was like, ‘Alright, I’m just done,” Mertz said.

The relationship with Wisconsin

Throughout the entire process—and from the start with Wisconsin—Mertz wanted to build and keep trust.

“I never tried to go behind the coaches’ back and they never tried to go behind mine,” Mertz said. “We always just told each other what was going on. After every offer, [other schools] would come to the school and they’d offer me. The first person I would call would be either [quarterbacks coach Jon Budmayr] or [head coach Paul Chryst] to let them know. I think that really started off our trust.”

The family also has a preexisting connection to Wisconsin. Amy hails from Green Bay and still has family in that area, and they have taken summer vacations to Door County.

“We’re very much Wisconsinites even though we live in Kansas,” Amy said.

For Ron, yes, his son committed to his alma mater’s arch rival. He may have received messages from former teammates, but he reiterated this was not his decision—it was all about what was best for Graham.

“We’ve always had respect for that program,” Ron said. “[Athletic director Barry Alvarez] actually recruited me when he was [linebackers coach] at Iowa with coach [Hayden] Fry, so I’ve known Barry for, shoot, 30-some years, maybe more. Respect for the program he’s built over there. My gosh, Wisconsin has been a—you hate to call it a dynasty, but a well-established, respectable kind of icon program, at least in our eyes and in Graham’s eyes too.”

“And the cheese curds helped, too,” Amy added.

Accolades and what’s ahead

It seems like you could roll out a scroll of papyrus to list the various achievements Mertz has claimed. A state champion his junior season who led Blue Valley North to the Class 6A state title game again in late November, he also recently was named the Gatorade Kansas Football State Player of the Year after throwing for 3,886 yards and a state-record 51 touchdown passes.

Nationally, he competed in the Rivals Five-Star camp, earned Elite 11 status, and participated in The Opening Finals this past summer. The latter showcased some of the best prep standouts in the nation, with 4-and-5-star wide receivers and defensive backs facing off.

“That’s college ball, that’s the speed of college ball, and it was just fun to get out there and just play against those defenses,” Mertz said. “All around, it was just a great experience, both of those. It was a dream come true. I always dreamt about being Elite 11 and that was a goal of mine. I’m glad I was able to do it in my high school career.”

Before he enrolls at Wisconsin, Mertz will also participate in the prestigious All-American Bowl with fellow Wisconsin commit, offensive lineman Logan Brown on Jan. 5 in San Antonio, Texas.

“That was a thing since first grade, second grade. I’ve always been watching that game every year,” Mertz said. “It was crazy when I got the call this year, and it was definitely flattering and I can’t wait for it. It’ll be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and it’ll be a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I’ll be able to have forever, which I can’t wait for.”

During his All-American Bowl jersey presentation, Ron and Amy accompanied Graham on stage.

“[Wisconsin’s] coaches have even said this is the kind of reward for all of the things you’ve been through and worked towards through high school, so let him enjoy his reward,” Ron said. “Which I thought was just yet another example of how those guys, I love their view towards these kind of things. I really appreciate how Paul and Jon have approached it.”

Sitting immediately to Graham’s right on that stage, his parents received an award themselves. Their son received his jersey before thanking his family, coaches, and teammates in a short speech.

“It’s just been crazy, but it’s been so much fun. We’re so proud of him,” Amy said. “We’ve seen him work so hard for every accolade, and the All-American Bowl will just kind of be a cherry on the sundae for us, and then we send him off to Madison.

“So it is emotional, you know?”

Facing expectations

It’s commonly said that everyone’s favorite player is the backup quarterback. For Wisconsin fans who have tracked Mertz’s progression, a lot of hype has been built up, and him being the highest-rated quarterback signee magnifies their yearning for a prolific signal caller.

“I think there’s kind of two different versions [of expectations], right?” Ron said. “The stuff you read on social media and the fans who are super enthusiastic. The most popular kid in the world is always the non-starter QB. The most popular person in any football program. So everyone has, from a fan side of it, they already have him as the next coming of Russell Wilson.”

“But the coaches, as you’d suspect, they’re pragmatic. They’re offering him the opportunity to come to be part of the program, part of the family, and the ability to compete. That’s it. They’re not saying, ‘Hey, you need to come in here and take this and go’ and anything like that. They’ve been consistent as you’d suspect them to be, not promising anything other than a fair shot.”

Mertz feels flattered by the outside praise but tries to keep his head down.

“I know as soon as I step on campus, I’m no longer a four-star quarterback,” Mertz said. “I’m the Wisconsin quarterback.

“All the hype goes away as soon as you step on campus, and I’m going to just keep doing what I’ve been doing for the past two years, and that’s just playing the sport I love and just having fun with it. I know that there’s a lot of hype around the whole class, and we all know that as soon as we step on the campus that we’re all one of the Wisconsin Badgers football team and we got to produce.”

Wisconsin’s 2019 recruiting class currently ranks No. 27 in 247Sports’ composite rankings and No. 25 in Rivals’ rankings—both the highest rankings the Badgers have ever received from those services. UW’s coaching staff secured Mertz along with the five-star lineman Brown and highly-touted recruits Joe Tippmann, Rodas Johnson, Spencer Lytle, and Hayden Rucci.

“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.”