Oohs and aahs filled Camp Randall Stadium two Saturdays ago. The Badger faithful shuttled around the bowl following the quarterback group wherever they went. But, they didn’t want to see the quarterbacks. They want to see the quarterback.
After an Alex Hornibrook era that saw Wisconsin’s winningest season in program history in 2017 and perhaps its finest three-year stretch of all-time, Badger fans were often left scratching their heads due to the subpar performance from their starting quarterback.
Enter Graham Mertz.
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Mertz, a 6-foot-3 product of Mission, Kansas, ranks as the highest-rated quarterback to come to Wisconsin in the online scouting era. He might also rank as the player with the highest expectations in Wisconsin football history.
Mertz struggled early on in throwing drills prior to the scrimmage portion of practice, which was open to the public. Quarterback counterparts Jack Coan and Danny Vanden Boom hit receivers in stride nearly every pass, while Mertz threw several errant passes behind and over receivers.
As spring practice shifted to the scrimmage portion of the afternoon, Mertz appeared much more comfortable in the pocket in a more realistic game setting.
The four quarterbacks took turns captaining the offense early, but Coan eventually transitioned into more of a coaching role to aid his young teammates under center. Mertz welcomed the fans with a stunning 14-play, 98-yard drive completing all three of his passes for 39 yards. He later led a 51-yard drive that ended in a 15-yard touchdown strike to wide receiver Adam Krumholz.
He passed his first test in front of Wisconsin fans, but something tells me he would have passed that test regardless.
Badger fans cheered and hollered for every single play by Mertz. A check down to a cutting running back elicited eruptions. Even simple, basic reads and throws led to fans nudging each other and saying one of two things, “I can’t believe we get this guy for four years,” or “Hornibrook couldn’t have made that pass.”
These are not fictional quotes. These are words that were tossed around Camp Randall as often as Mertz made a positive contribution on the field.
Coan and Vanden Boom, on the other hand, received no such applause during their time on the field.
For all the expectations placed on an 18-year-old, Mertz may be one of the only people his age to handle it. In fact, he’s handled the big stage fairly well in his young career. In January, Mertz dominated the All-American Bowl, throwing for 188 yards and a game-record five touchdowns. As a high school junior, Mertz led Blue Valley North High School to a Kansas state championship. He seems to thrive on the big stage, which only balloons his expectations.
Despite the hype, Mertz wasn’t the only person on the field.
Fellow freshman running back Brady Schipper wowed fans with his impressive field vision and ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. In his redshirt season last year, Schipper shifted to a wide receiver role before returning back to his home at halfback. Those receiving skills out of the backfield are something that the Badgers have lacked for years. Don’t expect Schipper to garner a huge amount of carries, but he could resemble more of a Dare Ogunbowale role in the passing game.
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Krumholz, a Stoughton, Wisconsin native, also impressed with a slew of catches from Vanden Boom and Mertz. Unfortunately for Krumholz, the Badgers return all of their core receivers from a season ago. But his chemistry with Mertz could mean more opportunities if Mertz gets the starting nod.
Senior tackle David Moorman saw consistent time at left tackle with the first-team offense. Moorman has really impressed coaches during winter conditioning and now in spring practice as well. The 6-foot-5, nearly 300-pound Moorman has played in all 41 games throughout his first three years, but only on special teams and as a reserve. With the departure of four-fifths of the Badgers’ offensive line from a year ago, Moorman is one of the many linemen seeking a spot.
Cole Van Lanen looks to be the assumed left tackle come fall, but Moorman could slide to left guard or right tackle. His flexibility is a huge plus given the injuries that generally plague offensive lines.
Sophomore tight end Jake Ferguson looked like his usual self in the passing game. The 6-foot-5 security blanket will provide whoever ends up behind center with a quality receiving option. Prior to the practice, Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez spoke of Ferguson (his grandson) and what it’s like to watch his grandson play at Wisconsin.
“Jake’s a playmaker and always has been,” Alvarez said. “He can catch the ball. I’m upset with the quarterback every time he throws and doesn’t throw to Jake.”
Alvarez held a town hall Q&A session in the University of Wisconsin Field House adjacent to Camp Randall. Questions concerning a variety of sports were asked, but the majority of them returned to football as that is Alvarez’s specialty. He spoke of his wish to expand the College Football Playoff, upcoming non-conference opponents and some questions skirting around the topic of Mertz.
Alvarez never mentioned Mertz or any of the quarterbacks when asked about what kinds of things Head Coach Paul Chryst looks for in a quarterback. Another question about how hard it is for a true freshman to start in his first year clearly invoked Mertz.
The Badger faithful are used to winning, and last year’s five losses felt like an incredible disappointment with such high expectations. Alvarez chided fans saying that “winning is hard” and that “sometimes people take winning for granted.” Perhaps, Mertz and the Badgers can make last season an anomaly.