Wisconsin lists four quarterbacks on its 2019 spring roster, but only one will lead the offense on to the field against South Florida on Aug. 30 as the starter.
The most talked about position group heading into the Wisconsin Badgers spring camp, the practices open to the media have shown each quarterback making strides, making mistakes, all the while competing for fall camp reps coming up in August.
How they perform these 15 spring sessions will dictate the amount of reps they receive in the fall. Quarterbacks coach Jon Budmayr stated that earlier this week, but also called out the development opportunities between late March to late April.
“You earn the right for more reps in the fall by how we do in the spring, but we’re still trying to learn each day and get better and improve,” Budmayr said. “That’s what I’ve loved about the group is [that] their approach has been just that.”
The four quarterbacks—junior Jack Coan, redshirt sophomore Danny Vanden Boom, redshirt freshman Chase Wolf and true freshman Graham Mertz—all have competed. Each showed signs of leading the offense during various drives. Despite that battle, the group also has developed together on the field, and from the sounds of it, off of it as well.
“We all know that competition gets the best out of us so we couldn’t ask for a better group of guys,” Mertz said. “We love each other, and we want to grow as a group, and we think that competition will bring us to the best level that we can be.”
All four spoke with the media on Friday night after Wisconsin’s 12th spring practice. All four described the positive relationship they hold with each other.
Some could simply dismiss their answers as “coach speak” or “player speak;” however, the words used in these conversations appear different, genuine.
During one reply to a question, Mertz—who spoke first with the media out of the four—used the phrase “good egg.” According to a UW official, it thereafter became a spontaneous running joke that each quarterback should work “egg” in when responding to the cameras and recorders in each of their sessions.
All went along with it at least once during their respective interviews.
“It’s just a really good group of guys, and I know a lot of people probably say this around the country, but it’s just a really, really tight group and there’s nobody else that I want to be working alongside,” Vanden Boom said. “We learn a lot from each other, like you said, a lot of guys getting reps. It’s valuable to get reps yourself, but it’s also important to make sure you’re learning from other guys’ reps and going there.”
Out of the four contenders, Coan returns to Wisconsin for the 2019 season with the most experience of the group. Playing in 11 career games, including four starts last year, he holds a significant advantage of playing meaningful game action.
From the six practices open to reporters heading into the final week of spring practices, all of Coan’s reps under center can be construed as “first-team” work. On Tuesday, Budmayr praised Coan’s approach from when he came back from winter break through spring ball.
What is also evident, however, is the leadership he is taking within that position. When asked, Vanden Boom, Wolf and Mertz all complimented Coan’s ability to help them develop. On Tuesday, offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph called out his third-year quarterback acting comfortable, seeing more of his personality, and as a leader.
“He’s spending as much time teaching Graham as he is working with ‘Wolfie’ [Chase Wolf] and working with ‘Boomer’ [Danny Vanden Boom],” Rudolph said. “He cares about them, and I think that’s making him feeling stronger and better about his position and his role.”
Everyone is competing for those fall reps that will eventually decide who becomes the starter, but there is discussion between them in hopes to make each better. That includes Coan assisting in breaking down the details.
“I’ve learned so much from [Coan] just in the past four weeks of spring ball,” Mertz said. “Everything we’ve done, breaking down film, stuff like that. Like if I see a read and I don’t think it was right, then I’ll ask him what he saw right after. Then after he has a play, I’ll ask him what he saw, just stuff like that, back and forth, trying to be the best we can be.”
Vanden Boom pointed out how Coan dives into film and works to understand the game, making him a great resource for the other three quarterbacks. The third-year player from state powerhouse Kimberly expanded upon the closeness of the group while knowing the significance of one of them being able to consistently guide the offense to success.
“We all care about each other,” Vanden Boom said. “It’s ultimately the most important thing is to put a quarterback out there on Saturday afternoons that will give us a chance to win. The addition of Graham obviously that’s really important from a competition level. He makes everybody better, adds to the value of the room. We just got to put out on Saturday afternoon a guy that is going to be able to get the job done, and Jack does a great job of ensuring that.
“Whether it’s him or whoever, he helps to make sure that we’re doing our job in the backfield there.”
Coan completed over 60 percent of his passes for 515 yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions during the 2018 season. Like the others, he called out the connection with his fellow quarterbacks.
“I feel like we all have a good relationship in our room, so I think we all bounce ideas off of each other and ask questions to each other, so it’s always open communication,” Coan said. “It’s good to have a good bunch of guys in the quarterback room.”
Playing in his first set of spring practices as a Badger, Wolf went so far as to say the quarterbacks are “like brothers” and hold “a great bond.”
That relationship dates back even to last season. Wolf described a scene after a rough Big Ten West division loss in Evanston, which was Coan’s first career start after the now-departed Alex Hornibrook was ruled out with symptoms related to a head injury.
“I remember after the Northwestern game, we lost,” Wolf said, “but Danny and I, we went up to Jack and hugged him and said we loved him. I think that’s a great component to have in the quarterback room. Him having trust in me, and me having trust in him kind of creates, I think, just a great relationship and helps me to learn from him. Jack’s a really smart player. He knows what he’s doing and so if I can model that, then I’ll be great.”
Much has been made of Coan having the most experience of the group—and especially the hype behind Mertz’s recruiting process and prep accolades. The latter includes the four-star recruit earning Elite 11 accolades as one of the nation’s best prep quarterbacks in the nation; competing in The Opening Finals where some of the nation’s best prospects go head-to-head, and throwing five touchdown passes on way to claiming MVP honors at the 2019 All-American Bowl.
“He has stepped up in the offense better than I could expect,” Wolf said about Mertz handling his first semester as a college quarterback. “He shows confidence when he’s out there, and he’s just really talented. I think the thing about him is that he is very confident in his ability and that has led to him to have some good drives out here and to have a great spring practice.”
Despite praise from the three quarterbacks when asked about him, Mertz assessed himself constructively, stating there are opportunities to develop further.
“I got room for improvement,” Mertz said. “I got a lot of stuff I got to learn, got a lot of stuff to grow, but I’m just trying to be a sponge right now and grow as much as possible.”
Vanden Boom and Wolf both noted what the former called “the buzz” surrounding Mertz. Vanden Boom heard about it from his friends and others, while Wolf admitted he was excited to meet him.
“It was kind of hard not to recognize it,” Wolf said. “Throwing five touchdowns in the All-American [Bowl], it’s great. That’s greatness. I want to surround myself with great talent and the best competition I can face myself with.”
Some outside of the program may think of Vanden Boom and Wolf, who themselves held significant accolades in their high school days as fellow state champions as Mertz was, as afterthoughts in the quarterback room.
That is the not the case to their position coach.
“They’re certainly anything but forgotten in our room, and to my approach,” Budmayr said. “I love having every guy in that room that we have right now. It’s a really good group and they’re into it. They’re competitive but respectful, so they appreciate it when good football is being played. They know how to learn from it when it’s not but at the same time they’re competing. They want to be the best of them, so Danny and Chase are absolutely in that same mold. That’s what you love about the group is they’re into it and very coachable.”
Budmayr called out Vanden Boom’s “great sense of who he is,” with one of his biggest strengths knowing the passes he can and cannot make. When he can, “he cuts it loose.”
Budmayr, himself a former Badger quarterback, acknowledged Wolf’s arm strength to “make any throw,” but he also said it’s now determining when the right time is for the redshirt freshman to make that type of pass. Rudolph previously mentioned Wolf’s ability to scramble while being a presence outside the pocket in the passing game as well.
All four will finish up spring ball next Friday, and after summer conditioning, fall camp will begin in late summer. Who receives those reps and how many of them remain to be seen until the team starts those practices months from now.
According to Rudolph, his quarterbacks are “all confident in kind of being their own guy.”
“Everyone of those guys, including ‘Wolfie’ and “Boomer,’ have really gone in and executed at times really well,” Rudolph said. “I think they’ve all flashed, but in the end, we’re looking for consistency. Who can be the best play in and play out, but they’ve all done some things to really show their growth.”