Identifying a key moment from a Paul Chryst press conference is arguably one of the most difficult tasks to complete in college football media so when assigned this task, I knew I was in for a battle. During the closing thoughts of his 10-minute session at B1G Media Days on Friday — thanks to a question from Saturday Tradition’s very own Dustin Schutte — he talked about the importance of consistency for this program, specifically at the quarterback position. For Wisconsin to take another step closer to some of the premier teams in the sport, it starts with the consistency of Graham Mertz.

The first season with Mertz under center could not have been more chaotic, and it is difficult to know what to take away from the 2020 version of Wisconsin’s quarterback of the future and the Badgers’ offense as a whole. Expectations for this team were certainly raised after his first start as a college football QB, but it was a major struggle on offense afterward. With the defense expected to be a strong unit once again, this Wisconsin offense needs to do its part for a return to Indianapolis.

The long list of excuses

Mertz did not make any last year, but let’s point out the long list of excuses for him. Many quarterbacks would have struggled with what he dealt with in 2020, especially in their first season as a starter.

Despite being one of the most hyped recruits in recent Wisconsin history, Mertz was expected to be the backup heading into last year until Jack Coan broke his foot in early October. Mertz played as well as possible in his first start, and the Badgers appeared to have found their best QB since Russell Wilson.

Later that same weekend, Mertz tested positive for COVID-19, and the season was never the same after that. The Badgers had 21 days off in between games and with 3 games canceled, they never found a rhythm offensively. Wisconsin’s 2 best wide receivers missed nearly the entire season, their best running back played just 4 games and the quarterbacks coach was out during a key stretch due to a positive COVID test.

One of Chryst’s biggest strengths is his play-calling duties, and he gave up that role last season as he dealt with the chaos around a pandemic-impacted year. Finally, it was revealed after the season Mertz was playing with an injured throwing shoulder.

When you put all that together, there are plenty of excuses as to why Mertz’s numbers looked unspectacular. In 7 starts, he completed 61.1% of his passes for 1,238 yards with 9 touchdowns and 5 interceptions.

Set up for success

While plenty of B1G teams and players can be given a pass for 2020 with the stop-and-start nature of the season, there are no excuses for Mertz and the Badgers’ offense in 2021. If Wisconsin fans have the same feeling of Mertz at the end of this season as they do right now, something went terribly wrong.

With Coan now set to be the starting quarterback at Notre Dame, Mertz will have gone through a full offseason of being the leader, operating with the first-team offense. He received good news following the season as wide receivers Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor announced they would take advantage of an extra year of eligibility, and Jake Ferguson opted against entering the NFL Draft to play tight end. Mertz threw to a lot of inexperienced receivers last season and all of a sudden, the Badgers have a solid group of pass-catchers with depth.

With quarterbacks coach Jon Budmayr gone to be the offensive coordinator at Colorado State, Chryst has taken over that role and will also regain control of the play calling. He knows the quarterback position well, so this is great news for the development of Mertz in Year 2 as the starter.

The pressure on Mertz to be great will be high, and he has the talent to do it. He’ll need to be sharp early with the toughest tests on the schedule coming early with 3 of the first 4 games consisting of Penn State, Notre Dame and Michigan.

It’s time for Mertz to show why the top programs in college football wanted him as a recruit because the excuses cannot continue into the 2021 season.