Wisconsin football: What would be a successful season for Graham Mertz?
It’s happening. It took an unfortunate injury, but redshirt freshman Graham Mertz is slated to start at quarterback at 7 p.m. CT Friday in Wisconsin’s season opener at home against Illinois. Mertz, a 4-star recruit who picked Wisconsin despite scholarship offers from the best in the sport — including Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State — will finally see the first meaningful playing time of his career after senior quarterback Jack Coan injured his foot in a non-contact injury during practice earlier this month.
It’s not certain if or when Coan will be back after undergoing surgery on Oct. 6, but no matter who lines up at quarterback the majority of this season, the Badgers should be in good hands. Mertz is about as exciting of a recruit as the Badgers have had, possibly ever, and Coan is coming off a productive season in his first full year as a starter.
Mertz kept his redshirt last season, competing in just two games. He completed 9 of 10 passes for 73 yards.
The future of the position is intriguing as well. With the NCAA announcing an eligibility freeze due to COVID-19, Coan could potentially return next season. As long as he and Mertz stick with the program, the Badgers will continue to have fantastic depth at the quarterback position.
As we focus on the upcoming season, what should we expect from Mertz? What would we consider to be a successful season in Year 1? There are tons of hype, and rightfully so, for Badgers fans to see what the team can do with a top quarterback. It’s the most important position in sports, and Wisconsin hasn’t had an elite one since Russell Wilson in 2011.
Here are some useful tips for Mertz to have a successful season in his first year as a starter.
Be Jack Coan
Head coach Paul Chryst had to be satisfied with what he saw from Coan in 2019. It wasn’t a year fans will remember forever from the quarterback position, but QB turnovers had been a major issue ever since Wilson’s lone season in Madison. Coan completed 69.6 percent of his passes for 2,727 yards and threw 18 touchdowns with 5 interceptions.
If Mertz puts up those numbers in his first season as a starter, Badgers fans should be very happy and excited for his future. Obviously, Coan compiled his stats in a 14-game season, but if Mertz can do something similar in however many games the Badgers play, that’s a good start.
Find a go-to target
Jonathan Taylor is off to the NFL after three incredible seasons with the Badgers, and it should be a crime that he was never a Heisman Trophy finalist. However, the biggest hit to the Badgers’ offense in 2020 will be the loss of Quintez Cephus to the next level. He played at an incredibly high level, and he was by far the most productive wide receiver last season for the Badgers with 59 catches for 901 yards and 7 btouchdowns. When Wisconsin needed a big play, Coan went to Cephus, and it was usually effective.
We saw the previous year what the passing game looked like without him, and it wasn’t very pretty. Mertz will need to find a guy he likes to throw to and trusts. It might not even be a wide receiver, because the Badgers don’t have anybody at the position who is anywhere close to what Cephus was. Wisconsin will need wide receivers to make plays for the system to be productive, but the go-to guy could be tight end Jake Ferguson, who was second on the team in catches (33) and yards (407) in 2019.
Don’t lose the job
With the uncertainty over Coan’s return, this might be a bold statement, but if Mertz goes back to the bench without an injury, it’s highly likely something didn’t go right in his time as the lone starter. If the Badgers offense is rolling along and it’s not in spite of Mertz, there should be no reason he heads to the bench for a full game in 2020, especially in an eight-game regular season.
If Coan returns and takes every snap at quarterback, that likely means the offense had not been operating as it should with Mertz, and Wisconsin probably lost at least one game. While it’s tough to predict an undefeated season, the Badgers very well could be favored in all of their regular-season games.
Maybe Wisconsin could utilize a two-quarterback system, which can be a tricky situation. But if Coan comes back and grabs the starting role immediately, that’s probably not a sign of a successful first season for Mertz.