From the moment he announced his college choice, Graham Mertz has received more attention than the typical Wisconsin quarterback.
Mertz is about to get his chance to show he’s worthy of all the acclaim that accompanied his arrival on campus last year. Now that foot surgery has sidelined returning starter Jack Coan indefinitely, Mertz is likely to open the season as the 16th-ranked Badgers’ first-team quarterback.
“Right now I’m very confident in my ability to win games,” Mertz said Thursday. “Practice has been going great in that sense. I feel like we’re ready to go. I’m excited for it.”
Mertz, a 6-foot-3 redshirt freshman, is competing with sophomore Chase Wolf and junior Danny Vanden Boom but appears on track to start Wisconsin’s season opener Oct. 24 against Illinois if Coan is unavailable. Coan hurt his right foot while dropping back in practice Saturday.
“That’s kind of the path we’re on right now,” quarterbacks coach Jon Budmayr said. “Jack was obviously taking all the snaps with the ones. When he went down, now Graham’s taking those snaps. For Graham, he’s got to keep improving each day and maximize this opportunity he has, but I would see that being the case.”
Mertz was rated as the nation’s No. 3 pro-style quarterback and No. 65 overall prospect in his high school class according to composite rankings of recruiting sites compiled by 247Sports.
“We had everybody from Jim Harbaugh to Ryan Day in this office, and anybody and everybody you can think of in between recruiting him at that time,” said Andy Sims, who coached Mertz at Blue Valley North High School in Overland Park, Kansas.
Wisconsin fans aren’t accustomed to seeing blue-chip recruits with the ball in their hands.
Mertz became Wisconsin’s first top-100 247Sports Composite signee who didn’t play on the offensive line since 2007, when the Badgers landed running back John Clay out of Park High School in Racine, Wisconsin.
“The biggest thing to me in the recruiting process is everybody says find a place that’s like home,” Mertz said. “I feel like this is a place where it was home for me, and I felt like I could win a bunch of games here.”
Teammates say Mertz spent the offseason improving his mental approach to the game so that it caught up to his considerable physical strengths.
“He came in very physically gifted,” Vanden Boom said. “He throws the ball really well. He’s got good feet. I think all of those things are just drilled into him. It kind of comes naturally. He’s been working on that stuff for his whole life. He’s a very natural thrower of the football. But I think Graham’s biggest strides have come mentally. He definitely understands what we’re trying to do.”
Mertz will face a challenge as a redshirt freshman trying to lead an offense with plenty of upperclassmen. Perhaps his high school experience will help: Sims noted that Mertz transferred into Blue Valley North after his sophomore year. He immediately set such an example that before his junior season he was named one of four captains on a team with 35 seniors.
Mertz led Blue Valley North to a state title as a junior and a runner-up finish his senior year, when he set a state record by throwing 51 touchdown passes.
“His leadership skills are tremendous,” Sims said. “He’s able to rally teams around himself. He has that type of personality. He’s very much a lead-by-example guy, and your right guard loves that about their quarterback.”
Mertz could have a tough time matching Coan’s efficiency.
Coan threw 18 touchdown passes and only five interceptions last season while ranking 19th among all Football Bowl Subdivision players in passer rating. Coan helped Wisconsin (10-4) win the Big Ten West Division title and reach the Rose Bowl.
“Jack is a fantastic decision maker,” Mertz said. “He knows every coverage, where he’s going with the ball. That’s one area where, last season I needed to work on that. Seeing him play and in the film room, that’s one area where he helped me a ton and continues to help me.”
That example shows how much Coan is making his mark on this program, whether he’s taking the snaps while healthy or helping out Mertz while recovering from surgery.
“That's who Jack is,” Budmayr said. “He’s an unbelievable leader. He’s an unbelievable presence for our team. He’s going to attack and approach this recovery better than anybody. He’ll be back stronger for it.”
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