For better or for Mertz: Maligned QB will be key for Wisconsin in 2022
There’s no mystery as to why Wisconsin made a heavy push for quarterback Caleb Williams when the former Oklahoma passer entered the transfer portal. The choice between Williams and Wisconsin incumbent Graham Mertz is no choice at all.
After he shockingly overtook Spencer Rattler as the Sooners’ starter, Williams threw for 21 touchdowns and 4 interceptions while averaging 9.1 yards per attempt. He also ended up as Oklahoma’s No. 2 rusher with 435 yards on 79 carries.
Without question, Williams would have represented Wisconsin’s most electrifying QB since Russell Wilson. Heck, he would have represented Wisconsin’s only electrifying QB since Wilson. For that matter, he would have been the Badgers’ only electrifying QB ever besides Wilson. (With all due respect to Brooks Bollinger’s electricity).
That pipe dream died after a week or so. Williams did the expected and signed with his former head coach, Lincoln Riley, who took the USC job in the offseason.
The Badgers were stuck with Graham Mertz.
Granted, if dullness was Mertz’s biggest issue, the disappointment would be somewhat mild. Few programs do better with boring than the Badgers. Scott Tolzien took Wisconsin to a Rose Bowl.
More often than not, Mertz simply wasn’t good enough in 2021. He finished 9th among qualified Big Ten quarterbacks with a 59.5% completion percentage. He was 9th with 6.9 yards per attempt. And worst of all, Mertz somehow found risks in a game plan built on low-risk throws.
Mertz tied for the Big Ten lead with 11 interceptions. But the guys he tied with — Purdue’s Aidan O’Connell and Maryland’s Taulia Tagavailoa — provided ample rewards to offset their mistakes. O’Connell had 26 touchdown passes and Tagavailoa 25.
Mertz threw for 10 touchdowns. And against opponents that weren’t Rutgers or Northwestern, he threw 5 in 11 games.
Given that they’re stuck with Mertz, the Badgers have to hope he improves this offseason. And it looks as if this spring isn’t going to show us whether that will be the case.
New OC offers new hope — with a caveat
At the very least, Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst deserves credit for self-awareness.
In addition to his head coaching duties, Chryst served as Wisconsin’s quarterbacks coach and offensive play-caller last season. It didn’t work.
Chryst’s help wanted ad for a new offensive coordinator produced an NFL candidate. Bobby Engram, a former standout receiver at Penn State who stayed in the NFL for a decade as a player, came to Madison from John Harbaugh’s Baltimore Ravens staff.
A year ago, Jim Harbaugh made a similar move in hiring defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald from his brother’s staff.
It produced immediate results. The Wolverines snapped out of a decade-long abyss with a Big Ten title. Macdonald is already back in Baltimore, promoted to Ravens DC after his successful stint at Michigan.
The Badgers are likely hoping to get more than 1 year out of Engram. Given the makeup of the roster, Wisconsin is better suited to contend for a Big Ten title in 2023.
But an upgraded passing game in Year 1 would certainly be a welcome development.
The only trouble with bringing in a new offensive coordinator is that it takes some time to coordinate said offense. And that means any wanted progress from Mertz is unlikely to take form until late in August training camp at the soonest.
Based on reports from Wisconsin beat writers, Mertz’s spring looked a lot like the fall that preceded it — up-and-down.
Tight ends would help
We do know Mertz is comfortable throwing to his tight ends. Senior Jake Ferguson was his top target last season with 46 receptions.
Unfortunately for the Badgers, personnel issues made throwing to tight ends pretty difficult this spring.
Clay Cundiff and Jack Eschenbach, the expected top 2 options, both missed all of spring. So did ideally named tight end Cam Large. This allowed more reps for Hayden Rucci, who himself was hurt halfway through Wisconsin’s spring.
Thus, Mertz went through more or less an entire spring without his security blankets. Like Linus, one assumes his confidence is boosted considerably when they are available.
Receivers still green
On top of the new offensive coordinator and lack of tight ends, Mertz also worked with a largely unproven receiving corps this spring.
Chimere Dike, who had 19 catches for 272 yards as a sophomore, is the most experienced player in that group. Behind Dike, the next guys up are sophomores Markus Allen (3 catches, 65 yards) and Skyler Bell (1 catch, 15 yards). Another option, Dean Engram — Bobby’s son — switched from the defensive backfield this offseason. Keontez Lewis, a transfer from UCLA, didn’t have a catch in his lone season with the Bruins.
If Mertz is to jell with this receiving corps, it’s going to take some time. The 15 practices allotted to the Badgers this spring were never going to be enough.
It will be the 15 in August that will be crucial to how Mertz grows heading into the season — and with that, how good Wisconsin is capable of being in 2022.