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More Offseason Mertz Musings

We haven’t talked about QB1 in a while, so let’s do that!

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

I think at this point in time, we have all made our opinions on Wisconsin Badgers starting quarterback Graham Mertz known. There are many fans who are waiting and hoping for someone to usurp his QB1 position because they think he stinks and there are many others who see the potential in Mertz to be one of the top quarterbacks in the Big Ten and, given his talent, the country.

Hell, some of those fans are the same person! Who the hell let one writer post all three of these posts on this website?!?

While those viewpoints are two wildly disparate ends of the Quarterback Spectrum, I think all of us can agree that Mertz is probably somewhere in the middle but just hasn’t been good enough during his time in Madison.

The thing about Mertz that gives me some hope for this upcoming season is the fact that he has now been in the program for four seasons but has only played in 21 games (19 as a starter). That’s fewer than two seasons worth of games and leads me to believe that there is still more to tap into for Mertz than he has shown.

Between getting COVID during the 2020 season and then a series of minor, nagging injuries in 2020 and 2021, Mertz has only ever been truly, 100% healthy during the first start of his career against Illinois. This does not excuse his poor play, and Mertz would be first in line to tell you so, but it does inform some of the reasons why his play wasn’t to the level anyone would like.

So where does that leave us?

For starters, it leaves us with a lot of areas for Mertz improvement. Let’s talk about the turnovers first because there is no quicker way to lose a game than by consistently turning the ball over. Mertz was, uh, really bad at ball security last season. His interception rate of 3.9% was highest (which means it was the worst) in the Big Ten and tied for fourth highest in all of FBS football. Not to pile on, but Mertz also fumbled the ball five times, tied for second most in the Big Ten.

The quarterbacks that were worse than Mertz played for UNLV (2-10 record), UConn (1-11 record), Texas State (4-8 overall) and Tulsa (7-6 overall). Not the company you want to be with, especially when two of the QBs had more touchdowns, higher completion percentages and higher yards per attempt than Mertz.

When you look at Mertz’s rate stats from last season, he was a bottom-four signal caller in the Big Ten:

  • 59.5 completion percentage; tied fourth worst
  • 6.9 yards per attempt; tied fourth worst
  • 3.5 touchdown percentage; tied third worst
  • 3.9 interception percentage; worst
  • 121.3 QB rating; only fifth worst (by 1.2 points)!

Again, the company he was keeping statistically was dreadful. You had your Rutgers and Northwestern and ::shudders:: Iowa quarterbacks all down there at the bottom of the conference.

Last season, Mertz wasn’t sacked a ton, but he was not good against pressure (as can be seen in the tweet above) nor did he usually make the correct decision when pressured. It did take a couple of games for the offensive line to gel last year, and both Mertz and the big fellas did show improvement as the year progressed, but Mertz will face a number of good to great Big Ten defenses every year who will be thinking all they need to do to win is just get near him and a mistake will follow.

What Mertz needs to do is start making better decisions under pressure. In all honesty, some of those decisions can be “take a sack” or “throw it into the ninth row of the stands.” Something young QBs often struggle with is the desire to “make a play” on every snap. That’s never going to happen and will likely result in something bad for the offense.

This offseason, Mertz has lost a number of his top targets as Jake Ferguson, Kendric Pryor and Danny Davis have all moved on. However, he has a young and talented group of receivers ready to make a name for themselves and the ceiling there is much higher than it was last season. Chimere Dike will be the No. 1 target while youngsters Markus Allen and Skyler Bell impressed at the end of last season. Throw converted cornerback Dean Engram and UCLA transfer Keontez Lewis in the mix and you’ve got some exciting, if unproven, options out wide.

Losing Ferguson is huge, but the Badgers have a number of players that, if healthy, can try and fill the void that the current Dallas Cowboys tight end left. There is also, obviously, stud running back Braelon Allen and a new-look offensive line that will take some pressure off of the passing game.

SRS Distribution Las Vegas Bowl - Wisconsin v Arizona State Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Wisconsin has a new offensive coordinator (Bobby Engram) and QB graduate assistant (Keller Chryst) this year that have brought new ideas to the table and it sounds like they’ve been working on a lot of the “little things” with Mertz to improve his game.

Unlike last season where Penn State was first on the schedule and Notre Dame and Michigan followed in the third and fourth weeks, the Badgers start off this season with FCS Illinois State, a middle of the Pac-12 Washington State and an absolutely dreadful New Mexico State team. Wisconsin, and Mertz, should be 3-0 and brimming with confidence heading into a Sept. 24 date with the Ohio State Buckeyes in Columbus.

This season is a make-or-break one for Graham Mertz and the game against the Buckeyes is a potential legacy definer. Has Mertz made enough changes to his game and have the Badgers made enough changes to the offense for things to break the right way for the talented, yet under-performing, signal caller?