This week’s Wisconsin football spring preview shifts focus to the wide receiver unit and the position everyone is talking about: the quarterbacks.
Plenty of storylines can be written about why Head Coach Paul Chryst’s team struggled a year ago. One such reason is the significant drop-off in the passing game.
The 2017 Badgers went 13-1, averaged 192 yards through the air and almost two passing touchdowns per game with a completion rate of 62.8 percent.
The 2018 Badger offense — a unit which returned almost everybody from the previous year minus tight end Troy Fumagalli — only averaged 158 yards through the air and 1.5 passing touchdowns per game with a completion rate below 59 percent.
These statistics came with ex-Badger Alex Hornibrook under center a majority of the time. But now Hornibrook’s time at Wisconsin is over and the Badgers will look to adjust in more ways than one.
Yes, it was a three-year stretch full of a lot of winning, the highest winning percentage of all time for a Badger quarterback to be specific. But it was a three-year stretch leaving Badger fans wanting more, and wondering how far the team would’ve gone had someone else been under center.
Here’s who will take the helm heading into the 2019 season. Spoiler: the answer may surprise you.
This offseason marks the first season since 2016 — a year which saw Hornibrook take over for then-senior Bart Houston — where there are questions about who will lead the team under center during the spring practice session.
Spring can be a time where depth charts start to get filled and the projected starters at various positions begin to gain experience with the first-team offense and defense.
But Chryst has said several times that the quarterbacks on the roster will share reps during these spring practices.
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“There aren’t depth charts in the spring,” Chryst said.
Quarterbacks on the spring roster include junior Jack Coan —who started four games a year ago — redshirt freshman Chase Wolf, redshirt sophomore Danny Vanden Boom — who played in three games a year ago — and true freshman Graham Mertz.
Many Badger fans expected Mertz — the 2018 Gatorade Kansas state football player of the year — to win the starting job outright as soon as he signed with the Badgers as Mertz quickly showed why he was the No. 5 quarterback in the 2019 recruiting class.
Realistically, however, it’s rare to have an 18-year-old true freshman — someone who is young enough to still be in high school — be ready to start at a high-level program like Wisconsin as soon as he arrives on campus.
Especially in an athletic program where it’s rare to see a true freshman anywhere.
Though, Mertz has looked impressive at times during the spring practices and throws one of the cleanest and most accurate deep balls Wisconsin has had at the quarterback position in quite some time.
At other times, however, he has looked his age. Mertz has sometimes had trouble with the fast-closing throwing windows which come with the speed of the college game.
The quarterback who has looked best this spring is Coan.
Coan took over for Hornibrook a year ago when the starting quarterback was sidelined with a concussion. While Coan didn’t overly impress during his four starts — throwing for 515 yards, five touchdowns, three interceptions and a completion percentage of 60 — the playing time gave him valuable experience coming into the 2019 season.
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“I definitely feel more comfortable coming into this year,” Coan said. “I feel like you get more comfortable as you get more playing experience.”
While Coan doesn’t throw a deep ball close to the level of Mertz, he has looked comfortable under center and has looked more refined passing-wise than he did a year ago.
Additionally, Coan is the most athletic of the quarterbacks on the roster and has shown an ability to be mobile and pick up yards with his legs, something Hornibrook and various Wisconsin quarterbacks in the past were not able to do very well.
Quarterbacks Coach Jon Budmayr has liked what he’s seen overall out of the quarterback room thus far this spring.
“They’re competing,” Budmayr said. “They want to be the best them. Jack certainly has the most experience of the group and I’ve loved his approach. Graham, 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. Now it’s just a matter of adjusting to some of the speed, some of the windows that get a little bit tighter at this level.”
While Coan has taken many of the first-team reps during spring practice scrimmages, he has mentioned the relationships the quarterbacks are building as the spring has progressed.
“I feel like we all have a good relationship in our room,” Coan said. “We all bounce ideas off each other and ask questions to each other. It’s always open communication.”
My guess as to who will be under center when the Badgers open their season against South Florida August 30, is Coan. But, Mertz could be close to the job depending on how he progresses this summer and how Coan performs early in the season.
The wide receiver unit returns all of their talents from a year ago.
The projected starters at the position are senior A.J. Taylor — the team leader in receiving yards a year ago — junior Danny Davis and redshirt junior Kendric Pryor.
What will be important this spring and summer is how the quarterbacks mesh with the receivers and whether the offense can find the vertical passing game it lacked a year ago.
Taylor has looked impressive during the spring session as the No. 1 option for whoever is under center.
He and Mertz have connected on some impressive deep balls in individual drills and Taylor has shown an ability to consistently separate from defenders during full-squad scrimmages. He should benefit immensely from Coan or Mertz — both more refined passers than Hornibrook — under center this season.
Davis, unlike Taylor, has been sidelined a bit this spring. He will look to build upon the rapport he had with Coan last year where he was his No. 1 option during Coan’s time under center.
The trio of Taylor, Davis and Pryor should make the eventual quarterback’s job easier and should help bring the passing game back to where it was in 2017.
The one struggle for this receiving corps is not knowing who will be under center. Focusing and adjusting to multiple options during spring and summer practices could prove deflating compared to the teams that focus on one quarterback and his relationships to his receivers alone.
Other names to watch at the position as the season approaches are redshirt junior Jack Dunn, sophomore Aaron Cruickshank, redshirt junior Adam Krumholz and redshirt freshman Taj Mustapha.
All four have contributed in the past and will be valuable depth pieces to the receiving core.
The final spring position preview will feature the specialists — minus the missed field goals of Rafael Gaglianone — and tight ends.