Graham Mertz stood behind a table Monday and fielded question after question about his predecessor.
It’s a natural storyline as the No. 18 University of Wisconsin football team (1-1) heads into Saturday’s marquee matchup against No. 12 Notre Dame (3-0) at Soldier Field in Chicago. Former UW quarterback Jack Coan leads the Irish against Mertz, a UW redshirt sophomore and the man who replaced Coan as the Badgers’ QB after Coan suffered a foot injury during training camp last season.
It’s a dramatic script fueled by fascination with the quarterback position and its importance to a team’s chances of winning games. It has roots in a quarterback controversy that never materialized in reality but never left fans’ minds when Coan was still on the UW roster.
Neither Mertz nor Coan asked for this, but Mertz had to deal with more of it this week after Notre Dame didn’t make Coan available to reporters during their weekly news conferences.
To his credit, Mertz didn’t complain — he was polite in answering questions about Coan, who started 18 games for UW over two seasons. Mertz complimented Coan’s work ethic and the example he set for him and the rest of the quarterback room. For all the comparisons between the two quarterbacks made and asked about this week, Mertz maintained his focus is on his play and where he needs to improve.
Asked if the attention on the perceived Mertz versus Coan showdown bugged him, he told reporters it’s not as if he and Coan are playing a one-on-one basketball game.
Part of the Coan-Mertz intrigue is that without question Coan has had a better start to the season. Coan has thrown for 828 yards, eight touchdowns and is completing 62.6% of his passes in three games. Mertz has 326 yards, no touchdowns, two picks and is completing 66.7% of his passes, though his stat line would look better had one touchdown pass not been called back by a penalty and another dropped in the end zone against Eastern Michigan.
That slow start is something Mertz hopes to shake this week against the Irish’s solid defense.
“The big thing is just trusting the game plan, trusting the progression, trusting your film study,” Mertz said. “Truly trust in what you see and just keep working through stuff when you need to.”
Handling the noise
UW coach Paul Chryst and his players emphasized repeatedly that Saturday’s game is about two good teams facing one another, not the quarterback battle. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has shared similar thoughts this week.
But that doesn’t stop the hype machine. ESPN’s College GameDay and Fox’s Big Noon Kickoff will be broadcasting from areas around Soldier Field, and it’s all but assured that a good bit of the five combined hours of pregame television coverage will be devoted to Mertz and Coan.
To a man, Mertz’s teammates say he hasn’t allowed the circus around him and Coan to obscure his focus this week.
“I see it firsthand, but he’s a great leader,” said Joe Tippmann, UW’s sophomore center and Mertz’s roommate. “He’s always putting the team first. No matter what they’re saying about him, he’s putting his head down and he’s getting ready to play his best game for the team so that we can play our best game.”
Mertz said he’s exchanged a few text messages with Coan since the latter left for Notre Dame, but they haven’t talked much recently. They’re friendly, but maybe not as tight as some of the players Coan shared the UW locker room with for a longer period of time.
UW senior quarterback Danny Vanden Boom came into the Badgers’ program with Coan in the 2017 recruiting class and was one of the UW players who helped Coan move out of Madison this offseason. Vanden Boom hasn’t played much in his Badgers career, but he’s been a valued voice in the quarterback room, helping Mertz learn since his arrival in 2019.
Vanden Boom said he hasn’t seen any change in Mertz this week.
“Graham’s done a nice job of taking care of his business, studying his stuff,” Vanden Boom said. “He’s been in the limelight his whole life. He’s been a highly recruited guy and has had a lot of attention. He’s familiar with criticism, he’s familiar with praise because he’s been on both sides of it.”
Mertz has started every UW game since Coan’s foot injury last fall. Mertz is 5-4 as a starter, with all four losses coming against AP Top 25 teams.
UW’s defensive players — the ones who practice against Mertz each day and who actually will be facing Coan in Chicago — said Mertz has done well ignoring the hype around this game and the opposing quarterback.
“Graham’s handled it just like he has kind of everything — don’t let it get to you,” senior inside linebacker Jack Sanborn said.
“I think he understands the bigger picture and understands the goal of this week, and that’s to go out and play our best ball as a team and win the game. I think he has a good understanding of that, and I don’t think he’s going to have this cloud that.”
Mertz is dying to play better.
It’s evident in his voice as he talks about what he’s working on and what he needs to do on the field. He’s tired of not playing up to the standard he holds himself, which he knows he hasn’t done to start the season.
“I want to start dealin’, man,” Mertz said. “I want to play good football, consistent football. I know that I’m going to. It’s just taking those steps every day to make sure you get to that point.
“As a quarterback, you’re not going to walk out Day 1 and be Joe Montana, Drew Brees, all those guys. It’s truly a process. You’ve got to trust it.”
But the desire to make plays happen can’t overwhelm him. He has to stay patient. As much talk as there is outside the program about Mertz and the offense pushing the ball down the field more, trying to force deep shots that aren’t available only will make matters worse. Mertz knows that mistakes made trying to press the issue will become turnovers, especially this week against Notre Dame and star safety Kyle Hamilton.
Cleaning up the fundamentals in his throwing motion, timing and anticipation were some areas Mertz spent his bye week addressing. Another fix he needs to make is maintaining his poise in the pocket throughout a play.
Mertz hasn’t been disciplined with his feet as he goes through a play’s progression. His arm talent isn’t able to overcome the improper footwork and it’s led to some inaccurate throws. Mertz was pressured often and sacked twice early in UW’s season-opener against Penn State. His footwork when pressure comes hasn’t been sound since that point in the opener.
“I think he does a good job in practice, when those situations occur, trying to address it,” Chryst said about Mertz’s poise in the pocket. “That’s when you have to do it, right? It just has to kind of be how you play. And I think that it’s a work in progress, but I think he is progressing.”
There also are finer points Mertz wants to correct on the field — ball placement issues that can turn a completion for a first down into an explosive play by allowing a receiver to catch and run. Those are the plays UW’s offense have been missing. Mertz lamented one pass in particular, a dig route to senior receiver Kendric Pryor, as being too low and not allowing Pryor to gain yards after the catch. The play resulted in a 17-yard gain, but it could’ve been more, and those missed chances are what Mertz wants to begin capitalizing on.
Mertz, who is in his third year in the program, makes his 10th career start Saturday. Given that seven of those starts were during the pandemic-altered 2020 season, the sample size of Mertz with a full-strength roster isn’t large enough to make judgments on his ceiling. But Saturday’s game will play an outsized role in fans’ perception of who he is as a quarterback.
Like much of this week, Mertz knows all he can do about that is try to play his best.
“I’m out here just playing the game I love to play,” Mertz said. “For me, it’s just another opportunity to do what I love to do. And I can’t complain about that at all. But I’m excited.”