Graham Mertz knows the prep accolades—the Elite 11 and The Opening Finals honors, the 2018 Gatorade Kansas football player of the year award, being presented with the 2019 All-American Bowl MVP nod after slinging five touchdown passes in that January exhibition—all became null and void once he came to UW in January.
“It’s a clean slate,” Mertz told reporters on Friday night after Wisconsin’s 12th spring practice. “It’s college ball now, so none of that stuff matters, It’s just about winning now.”
Mertz, the former four-star, nationally-known quarterback, now finds himself embroiled in a competition with three other Badgers to be the starter under center for the 2019 season. Mertz, junior Jack Coan, redshirt sophomore Danny Vanden Boom and redshirt freshman Chase Wolf all have contended during spring practices for the opportunity to receive reps in fall camp.
In the six practices open to the media heading into the final week of spring ball, Mertz showed flashes of his potential in leading touchdown drives and delivering strikes to his receivers. He has also made mistakes, which despite the incoming hype, should be very much expected for a player that should really be finishing up and enjoying his final half-year of high school this spring. He knows there is more development to come.
“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.”
Quarterbacks entering Wisconsin as mid-year enrollees are not an uncommon occurrence. Recent Badgers like Joel Stave, Alex Hornibrook and Coan have all started during a spring semester to utilize a head start to grasp UW’s offense and learn during the 15 allotted practices.
Position coach Jon Budmayr believes Mertz has handled hype and expectations well since coming to UW, staying in the moment and not looking too far ahead.
“There was a lot of different obstacles he worked through in the recruiting process to get here, and so he’s very mature,” Budmayr said last Tuesday. “He’s allowed himself the opportunity to have success because of how he’s kept himself in the moment. That’s what I’ve appreciated the most out of him. He’s just diving in, wants to go to work and learn as much as he can.”
According to Mertz, the biggest adjustment he has had to make is in the mental part of the college game, “because it’s like you got to have an answer for every coverage, every play. That’s definitely the biggest thing, but it’s been a great a spring ball, and it’s been a great progress.”
Some of the positives seen from Mertz during the half-dozen practices open to the media include a strong arm that can consistently throw an out pattern with accuracy. Like the other three quarterbacks have shown at times as well, he also leads receiving targets and can hit them in stride on passes short and deep.
On April 13 during Wisconsin’s open practice to its fans, he led two touchdown drives in a scrimmage setting. He ended the second touchdown series with a throw where wide receiver Adam Krumholz reeled it in for the score.
During a late Friday afternoon practice last week, he hit wide receiver Jack Dunn for a long “would-be” touchdown in a skeleton (7-on-7) period. During another scrimmage session, he guided the offense on its only scoring drive—showcasing his arm strength with a dart to running back Garrett Groshek for a touchdown pass.
Before that performance on Friday, Budmayr believes Mertz has grasped Wisconsin’s offensive system well.
“Everything we’re asking him to digest, he’s digested it well and now it’s just a matter of getting reps at it so that those windows become real and the timing becomes real,” Budmayr said last Tuesday. “But one thing is he doesn’t have to think too much when he throws. He’s an accurate passer and the ball goes where he wants it to go, and now it’s just a matter of adjusting to some of the speeds, some of the windows that get a little bit tighter at this level.
“Once he gets that, I think he’ll grow even more comfortable. I’ve loved his approach, as with the whole group. They’ve been into it, and he’s just got to keep going and reps help that.”
Offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph noted last week that he love where Graham is at and is “competing his tail off.”
Wolf believes Mertz “has stepped up in the offense better than I could expect.”
“He shows confidence when he’s out there, and he’s just really talented,” Wolf said on Friday. “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.”
For all the positives that have popped out, there are still corrections that can be made by Mertz. This is spring practice, so throwing interceptions, working on snap exchanges with the center and overall just adjusting to the college game—and college life for that matter—should absolutely be expected.
In these sessions open to the media, he threw two interceptions to fellow true freshman mid-year enrollee Leo Chenal, who himself has assembled an impressive spring resumé working mostly as a second-string inside linebacker alongside Mike Maskalunas.
As well as he seemingly threw the ball last Friday, he threw a pick that landed in the hands of sophomore cornerback Rachad Wildgoose. There’s also work on the signals that come in from the sideline that Mertz admitted was an adjustment, but he believes he’s improving on that aspect of the position.
When asked about his freshman quarterback’s ability to extend plays, Budmayr mentioned that Mertz has a “good feel” to do so, but also stated that “Graham will be the first one to tell you after Saturday’s practice [on April 13 that] there were a couple of those that didn’t have to happen.”
“He got off a read a little bit too quick, or he got a little bit of nervous feet when there wasn’t—it was kind of a ghost pressure. It wasn’t actually in his face, so although he made some great location throws, like I said, he’ll be the first one to tell you after watching the tape, ‘I could have hung in there and my intent was open,’ or ‘one in the progression was open, I didn’t have to get flushed.’
“But that’s the art of playing quarterback is the ability to when it’s there, the protection’s clean trust it, cut it loose. When it’s it’s not if you can extend and avoid the negative plays and create something, then you got a good chance. I think he does a great job of that, and I just want to keep tightening up the feet and the reads so that it’s when he has to and not when he doesn’t have to will be the big thing.”
Budmayr noted last week that the spring performances will determine the amount of reps each quarterback receives in the fall while each player continues to develop. There is competition to receive those snaps in August with the hope to become starter in 2019, but Mertz and the other quarterbacks also called out the communication and bond in the room.
“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.”
When asked about the others in the quarterback room, Mertz complimented each. He stated he has learned a lot from Coan during spring ball already with breaking down film and other on-the-field work.
“Like if I see a read and I don’t think it was right, then I’ll ask [Coan] what he saw right after,” Mertz said. “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.
“I think that our group and our unit what we do best is learn from each other. We’ll be in the film room, and we’ll ask each other in the middle of the meeting ‘What were you thinking on that play?’ Just really learn from each other, so that’s our biggest thing right now—trying to bring our entire level of our group to the next level.”
Mertz called out Wolf’s ability to move around and throw the ball on the run, while Vanden Boom is “very clean in his mental game” in knowing where he will go each snap with every coverage that is shown.
“[Vanden Boom], Jack and Chase, everyone, they know what they’re doing, so as a unit, we know where we’re going with the ball,” Mertz said. “That’s been our biggest thing is, ‘Where is your intent, where are you going with it, and to value the football.’”
Mertz will continue to hone his craft and digest Wisconsin’s playbook heading into the final week of spring practice while also carrying on his studies as a first-semester college student.
Off the field, Mertz admitted people recognize him around the Wisconsin campus, but he attempts “to be a normal guy.”
“Like you see someone walking around and say hi to you, I don’t try to be the guy that’ll be like, ‘No, I’m not going to talk to you.’ I just try to be nice to everyone,” Mertz said. “My mom raised me to be a good egg, so I try to be that around campus.”
Update, May 7: We were right initially regarding Chenal intercepting two Mertz throws! We have re-updated the article once again, now for the last time.