Jack Coan vs. Graham Mertz: Looking back at Wisconsin's quarterback decision
Following an early bye week, the Wisconsin Badgers will head to Soldier Field for Saturday’s big game against Notre Dame. ESPN’s College GameDay and FOX’s Big Noon Kickoff will be in Chicago getting ready for the noon ET kick, and the No. 1 topic on the preview shows regarding this matchup is what to expect from Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz and former Wisconsin quarterback Jack Coan, who will make his fourth start at Notre Dame.
It’s impossible to know how things would’ve played out, but the quarterback position at Wisconsin could have looked completely different in 2021 if not for an injury to Coan weeks before the 2020 season began. He was coming off his first full season as a starter and remains the best quarterback the Badgers have had since Russell Wilson. After breaking his foot during practice, though, he never saw the field in 2020 as the Graham Mertz era began.
Wisconsin struggled to move the ball following the first 2 games of the 2020 season. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Coan was healthy enough to play for the Dec. 5 game against Indiana, so he could’ve taken over a struggling offense and started the final 4 games of the season. Instead, Mertz started every game, and when he was injured, Chase Wolf entered as the backup.
It remains unclear why Coan never saw the field in 2020, and it would be interesting to know the conversations that led to him transferring. At the very least, we can assume he was never promised a return to the starting role. He entered the transfer portal shortly after Wisconsin’s bowl win.
Now, Coan is the starter at Notre Dame, though freshman Tyler Buchner has taken a few snaps in every game this season. Coan has completed 63.3% of his passes for 828 yards with 8 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. He’s also lost a fumble. The Irish are 3-0 but haven’t looked all that impressive in wins over Florida State, Toledo and Purdue.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin is 1-1 after an early bye week. Mertz made plenty of unforced errors in a season-opening loss to Penn State and wasn’t asked to do much in a blowout win over Eastern Michigan. He has completed 66.7% of his passes for 326 yards with no touchdowns, 2 interceptions and a lost fumble.
Badgers fans are left to debate if Wisconsin made the right choice, for now or the long run. Should the coaching staff have committed to Coan for the 2021 season? Was giving the reins to the program’s highest ranked quarterback recruit, as it did, the right move?
Let’s make the case for both options as we head into Saturday’s big game.
The case for Jack Coan
Coan had a full season of success as a starting quarterback in college football, and Mertz cannot say that to this point. He completed 69.6% of his passes for 2,727 yards with 18 touchdowns and 5 interceptions in 2019. Wisconsin finished 10-4 that season, with losses in the B1G Championship Game against Ohio State and the Rose Bowl against Oregon.
I’ll never claim to know exactly what the locker room situation is for any team, but whenever Coan’s former Badgers teammates talk about him, they express love for him and respect his toughness. That toughness was on full display late in Notre Dame’s Week 2 game against Toledo. With the Irish trailing 29-24 with just over a minute to play, Coan dislocated his finger, ran over to the sideline for the trainer to pop it back into place, then threw the game-winning touchdown pass on the next play.
Coan would’ve been the starter in 2020 if not for the foot injury and planned to use the extra year of eligibility due to COVID-19 for another senior season in 2021. It would’ve been quite the risk to return to Madison with a chance to not see he field in his final year of college. If he was told or suspected that he likely wouldn’t be the guy this season, a transfer was a no-brainer.
The case for Graham Mertz
At some point, the Badgers needed to see what Mertz could do as the full-time starter with a normal offseason to prepare for a 12-game schedule. He did not play well in 2020, but the whole season was a mess for Wisconsin for a ton of reasons that made it a difficult situation for anybody starting at quarterback for the first time. Wisconsin has never had this highly rated of a quarterback recruit in the online rankings era. Wisconsin connected with him early on in his high school days, and that’s why he ultimately chose the Badgers ahead of offers from a slew of top programs — including Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State.
If the Badgers named him the backup in 2021, maybe the coaching staff worried Mertz would land in the transfer portal with the NCAA’s new immediate-eligibility rule. No matter what you think of Mertz at this point, losing a player with that much talent after one pandemic-impacted year would’ve been a tough blow. At the very least, going from starter back to No. 2 wouldn’t have been good for the confidence of a quarterback who is expected to be the team’s future at the position for years to come.
One area that will not be talked about enough during the inevitable comparison between Mertz and Coan is the playmakers Coan had available to him that Mertz does not have. Wisconsin does not have a running back as talented as Jonathan Taylor, and the importance of wide receiver Quintez Cephus cannot be emphasized enough. Whenever a big play was needed, Coan went to Cephus, who dominated the number of targets and finished with 901 receiving yards in 2019. No other wide receiver on the roster finished with more than 278 yards. Coan started 4 games in 2018, and without Cephus that season, his completion percentage was just 60.2 with 515 yards, 5 touchdowns and 3 interceptions.
Danny Davis is a very good college football wide receiver, but he is not the NFL talent Cephus is. Coan benefitted greatly with Cephus on the roster, and there’s no doubt the passing game would be better if Mertz had a player of his caliber catching passes.
It appears Wisconsin bet on future potential ahead of proven past success. The winner of this weekend’s game doesn’t necessarily prove which quarterback is right for the 2021 version of the Badgers and beyond. This was a multi-year decision.
While the Coan vs. Mertz debates will continue, they will reach their peak with the Badgers-Irish showdown. It’ll be tough to find a more relevant data point than Saturday’s final score.