QB Graham Mertz Takes in First-Year Experience as a Badger

Jake Kocorowski

PASADENA, CALIF. -- It's been quite a year for Graham Mertz. 

On Jan. 5, the quarterback's hype train for his early arrival to Madison picked up considerable steam when he threw for a game-record five touchdown passes in the 2019 All-American Bowl in San Antonio. A four-star recruit, No. 65 player in the nation and No. 3 pro-style quarterback in the 2019 class by 247Sports composite rankings, he enrolled at UW later that month and participated in both spring and fall camp practices. When the Badgers' released their depth chart on the final week of August, he claimed a spot as a co-backup behind junior Jack Coan.

When talking with reporters earlier this week during Rose Bowl media day, he reflected farther back than that.

“These past two years -- I'm gonna take it two years -- but two years have been pretty surreal going from freshman year, sophomore year in high school being a backup (at Bishop Miege)," Mertz said on Dec. 30. "Then transferring to a new school (Blue Valley North) and then kind of taking that over -- and then three years later in the Rose Bowl, it's pretty surreal. 

"So just when you said that, it kind of took me back for a second. I'm like, 'Dang, it's really only been two years and all that stuff's happened,' but it's pretty cool.”

Mertz eventually redshirted this season after only playing in two games. In the limited time he saw reps with two non-conference games in hand, he completed nine of 10 passes for 73 yards. Against Central Michigan in September, the first completion of his college career eventually became the longest of his freshman campaign, a 19-yard strike to sophomore wide receiver Aron Cruickshank on his first career third down conversion.

Though Mertz officially played in a couple of contests, offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph acknowledged last week that Coan's status for a couple of games may have been up in the air. The former Badger lineman turned assistant complimented Mertz's development and how he prepared for the potential for significant playing time.

"I thought there were a couple of games where Jack was a little bit banged up, weren't sure exactly where he would be, and I thought he (Graham) just did an outstanding job of preparing," Rudolph said on Dec. 27. "I saw his confidence level improve tremendously. I thought how he handled the huddle, how he handled everyone at the line of scrimmage, how he prepared, I saw all those things kind of come together for him. And I told him those weeks, I go, 'Dude, if you've got to go, you're ready. You're prepared that way.'

"I could see it. I could see his development. It was fun to see that in him, and I think he was proud of kind of those steps he had made from earlier weeks to where he was then, just through the experience of going through it, so it was good."

Mertz told AllBadgers.com and the Wisconsin State Journal's Colten Bartholomew that he received the most practice snaps with the first-team offense during UW's week of preparation for the Nov. 9 matchup with Iowa. He receives reps with the "ones" every week, but heading into the matchup with the Big Ten West division rival, those increased.

"We had a bye week going into that, so that was the one where I was taking all the one reps," Mertz said.

Mertz believes receiving the first-team reps allowed him to become more comfortable with the starters, and it also meant a lot for his growth. The young signal caller also appreciated Rudolph's comments.

“My goal every week is just to prepare like a starter and be ready to go all the time, and I'm confident in my ability, and it was good to hear him say that," Mertz said. "I'm just ready to go whenever I’m needed.”

With Wisconsin's 2019 season drawing to a close after its 28-27 loss to Oregon in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, many now wonder what could come from the quarterback position in 2020 with a group that arguably is the most talented and deep in recent memory. Coan solidified himself as the starter this season in demonstrative fashion, completing 69.6% of his passes for 2,727 yards and 18 touchdowns to just five interceptions. He led the offense to score 34.7 points per game while averaging 433.2 total yards per contest -- 200.1 of those through the air with a rejuvenated passing attack.

Quarterbacks coach Jon Budmayr also boasts a room that hosts the talented Mertz and Chase Wolf, a co-backup with a strong arm and perhaps the most mobility of the four quarterbacks on UW's current roster. The latter completed his redshirt freshman season and played in three games in 2019, completing one pass for two yards.

For Mertz, the biggest area he has focused on and wants to dive more into this offseason is to master the team's pass protection schemes. That will likely include discussions with Rudolph, who in addition to his coordinator duties also coaches the offensive line. 

“That's the biggest thing and knowing where I'm going to be protected at all times and just kind of get that out of the way and just focus on everybody else," Mertz said. "For me, I'm just going to probably get with Coach 'Rudy' a little bit and just try to master o-line.”

Heading into winter conditioning and spring ball, those on the outside will look at what lies ahead for the position and Mertz's development. Taking a step back, his first year as a Badger allowed him to acclimate to college football and go under center for live reps in front of the Camp Randall faithful. He also took in the experience of being part of a program that earned a berth in the Big Ten Championship game against Ohio State and "The Granddaddy of Them All" against Pac-12 champs Oregon.

"When you can play Ohio State two times in one year, it's pretty cool to go against those guys," Mertz said. "That's an NFL defense you’re going up against so it's great to have that growth. Same thing with Oregon, so it's been great to have those extra practices and really grow in addition to the season, and I think that was pretty special.” 

*Note: Rudolph audio and quotes courtesy of CollegePressBox.com