Spring is coming, and University of Wisconsin Head Football Coach Paul Chryst has much to consider in the coming months as his team looks forward to the 2019 season.
One of the most pressing concerns for Chryst and his team is who will be under center at quarterback come Aug. 31 against South Florida.
No one can definitively say who next season’s quarterback will be at this point, but the coaching staff knows what they want consistency in the position.
Ideally, this search for consistency should not be a huge issue, as the Badgers have plenty of options. Besides, a friendly quarterback competition never hurt anybody right?
So, without further ado, let’s meet the three candidates vying for the starting job in 2019.
Three-year starter and senior-to-be Alex Hornibrook is the most likely to win the job.
He has plenty of game experience, has won big games, bounced back from bad games, knows the offense, and knows how his teammates play. Essentially, he knows what it takes to win at the college level.
With all the buzz around his fellow competitors and questions being raised about his ability, he should have plenty of motivation entering 2019.
Following a 2018 season in which the Badgers ranked No. 4 in the preseason AP poll, the results were ultimately underwhelming.
Offensively, Wisconsin came into 2018 equipped with a top-notch offensive line, a stud running back in Jonathan Taylor and a capable receiving core.
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Hornibrook had seemingly put all doubts to rest following a mostly consistent, well-managed, winning 2017 season, capped off by a dominating performance in an Orange Bowl win over Miami.
Unfortunately, however, the Badgers and Hornibrook were unable to mimic their brilliant 2017 season, and questions about Hornibrook’s play came about quickly with an early home loss to Brigham Young.
To blame the Badgers’ disappointing 8-5 2018 campaign on QB play alone would be lacking, but the position is undeniably the most important in the game — and when a team does not meet expectations, fingers are often pointed at the quarterback.
The Wisconsin offense had just about every key ingredient necessary for another high-powered, run-first offensive campaign last year — all except for consistent quarterback play.
After a 5-2 start to the season, Hornibrook’s 2018 campaign was cut short because of a concussion and subsequent concussion-like symptoms, causing him to play inconsistently and miss four of the remaining six games — including the Pinstripe Bowl.
In his nine games, he completed 122 of his 205 passing attempts — 59.5 percent — for 1532 yards, while throwing 13 touchdowns to 11 interceptions.
In the game at Iowa, he exhibited the high level of play he is capable of, completing 17 of his 22 passes for 200 yards, three touchdowns and zero turnovers.
Unfortunately, that stat line was overshadowed by his inconsistent and lackluster play in performances like the Michigan game.
It’s difficult to compare his 2018 numbers to his 2017 numbers considering he played five more games two years ago. But even so, these were unimpressive stats for a player looking to take the next step and finish off his Wisconsin career as a starter.
There is some speculation that the concussion issue may affect his availability to play moving forward, but count on Hornibrook being healthy and ready to prove himself worthy come fall.
If Hornibrook can limit turnovers, stay poised in the pocket, throw the ball downfield when he needs to and effectively manage a game, he will likely find himself taking most of, if not all, the snaps from center in 2019.
The Badgers are desperately in search of the 2017 Hornibrook.
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The second candidate is Jack Coan, who will be entering his junior year with some valuable game experience under his belt. It was Coan who took over the games Hornibrook could not start in 2018.
Like Hornibrook, Coan had his ups and downs, contributing to the overall inconsistent quarterback play. He experienced failure in a tough game at Penn State, where he completed under 50 percent of his passes and turned the ball over multiple times on the way to a loss.
But he also experienced success when he bounced back from the Penn State loss with an impressive showing at Purdue, where he completed 67 percent of his passes for 160 yards and two touchdowns while committing zero turnovers.
Coan finished the year appearing in five games, completing 56 of his 93 passing attempts — 60.2 percent — for 515 yards, and throwing five touchdowns to three interceptions.
Again, the biggest question moving forward will be consistency, but that bit of game experience inches Coan closer to earning meaningful reps in 2019.
The third candidate and third most likely to start in 2019 is the quarterback with all the buzz around his name — Graham Mertz.
The highly touted incoming freshman and product of Kansas signed his letter of intent to play for the Badgers back in December.
Some may questioning his third place status here. Many fans are eager to see the proclaimed Wisconsin savior in red and white as soon as possible, but this is just a tentative placement.
Mertz is a highly rated four-star recruit who ranks among the best quarterbacks in the 2019 class, and even though he is joining two other quarterbacks with meaningful play under their belts, there is no doubt he wants to make an immediate splash in this program, and he has a legitimate chance to do so.
Not only does Mertz rank among the best quarterbacks in the 2019 class, but, according to 247Sports, he is also the highest ranked quarterback Wisconsin has snatched since the site has kept track in 2000.
In a program dominated by its rich offensive line and running back history, fans are now gushing over the promise of a young quarterback with so much proclaimed talent.
Dreams of a season similar to Clemson’s under freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence may be a little extreme for Mertz, but if he can translate his game to the college level quickly, it’s not out of the question for him to take over at some point in the middle of 2019 — just as Lawrence did this past season.
The consensus on Mertz is that his pocket presence, delivery and accuracy rank among some of his best attributes, while there is room for improvement in his skills outside the pocket.
We do not yet know what Mertz is capable of at the college level, but the future for him and this program is looking up.
Mertz has enrolled early, and his arrival in Madison gives him an opportunity to compete, make mistakes and learn a lot about himself this spring.
Redshirt sophomore-to-be Danny Vanden Boom and sophomore-to-be Chase Wolf round out the 2019 Badger depth chart at quarterback. As of right now, there is a slim chance either of these two will start in 2019 — and with Mertz coming in, it is unlikely they will ever see the field.
Alas, there have been bigger underdog stories. Vanden Boom and Wolf will be working just as hard as the next guy and if anything, will help push the aforementioned candidates to be the best they can be.
Whether Chryst finds it in his veteran Hornibrook, his most recent starter in Coan, or in the freshman prodigy Mertz, 2019 will be about finding consistency in the quarterback position to support an already dominant running game and offensive line.
The Badgers are not looking for a hero throwing the ball 70 yards downfield — as nice as that would be — but rather someone who can manage and find ways to win games while handing the ball off to likely preseason All-American running back Jonathan Taylor and working behind the always faithful Badger offensive line.
Let the competition begin, and may the best man win.