A new year and a renewed football season mark a great influx of talent to the Badger Football team. From five-star offensive tackle recruit Logan Brown to the promising four-star quarterback Graham Mertz, things are looking up for a team that underperformed in stunning fashion last year.
Deservedly or not, now-transferred QB Alex Hornibrook took much of the blame for the early-season woes of the Badgers that — combined with an injured secondary — set the stage for the rest of the reason to come. Once the hero of the 2017 Orange Bowl, Hornibrook and the Badger offense increasingly relied on their running game to supplement his poor performances. In fact, throughout the nine games that Hornibrook participated in last season, there existed only one — their season opener against New Mexico State — during which the Badgers’ total number of pass yards surpassed their total rushing yards.
Jack Coan, a relatively unknown name at the time, took the reins of the Badger offense as an untested freshman following Hornibrook’s poor play and unfortunate head injury. He completed predictably average performances in the limited number of games he had to prove himself.
Coan averaged a measly 103 yards passing per game. Yet total yards do not paint the full picture of what Coan was able to accomplish in relatively few games with little preparation.
After his admittedly limited participation, Coan accumulated a completion percentage greater than that of Hornibrook and achieved a lower interception to touchdown ratio. Coan got a bad rap because the Badgers lost many of the games that he participated in, including losses to Northwestern and Penn State, both of which the Badgers undoubtedly expected to win at the beginning of the season.
This image of two QBs that equally failed to guide the Badgers away from their one-dimensional run offense is one of the main reasons that Mertz created so much noise upon his arrival to Madison. But the question remains — will he actually play?
There is little doubt that Mertz is coming in with a base level of talent that is extremely promising for the years to come. After committing to Wisconsin in 2017 prior to his senior season, he later received offers from Michigan, The Ohio State University and other Big Ten teams, as well as other Power Five teams like Clemson and Alabama.
Wisconsin saw that Mertz was the real deal before their contemporaries and they now get to reap the benefits. There is, however, no guarantee that this investment in Mertz is going to pay off right away. As a developing QB, it can take time to adjust to a new offense that operates at the highest levels of college football competition.
What the Badgers have brewing is an intense battle for the position of starting QB. On one side is the raw talent of Mertz that warranted offers from the upper echelon of college football dynasties. On the other is the now-tested Coan, who has demonstrated himself to be a viable option during high-pressure situations. Perhaps the best example of this is when he went 16 of 24 for 160 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions in last year’s triple-overtime win against Purdue.
If Mertz wants the starting job, he’ll have to prove that he can come out of the gate performing at or above Coan’s level even after Coan has a half-season head start on him. This QB battle is one that will most likely be resolved quickly by the Badger coaching staff, as some of their toughest tests come early in the season with home games against Michigan, Northwestern and Michigan State all in their first five weeks.
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One sign does point to Coan taking the initial starting spot at the beginning of the 2019 season. Throughout spring practices observed by Herald staff, he received the majority of reps during QB drills. Mertz seemed to have been relegated to a more observational role as he takes the time to learn the Badger’s offensive system. This does not mean this situation maintained itself throughout the summer, and it is distinctly possible that Mertz successfully demonstrated his value during summer practices.
It is impossible to know who will get the start at this point. One potential scenario is Mertz and Coan split time on the field in order to fill different roles within the offensive system. Either way, the Badgers are sure to produce an exciting season with both a bolstered home schedule and a plethora of new weapons at their disposal.