The passing attack was a major disappointment this past football season, and it was a big part of the reason why the Badgers offense struggled to get anything going outside of runs from running back Jonathan Taylor.
The passing game was led by then junior quarterback Alex Hornibrook, who was unable to keep stride with Taylor who led the nation in rushing.
A quarterback room that combined to throw for 19 touchdowns on the year along with 14 interceptions went through major turnover this offseason. Thirteen of those passing touchdowns are no longer on the roster after Alex Hornibrook made the surprise move to transfer to Florida State.
The group is also welcoming new fan favorite Graham Mertz who is coming in as a highly touted four-star recruit who set the record with five touchdowns in the All-American Bowl game.
Coming into spring practices, junior quarterback Jack Coan is the favorite to win the job as the starter. Because of uncertainty surrounding Hornibrook’s concussion injuries last year, Coan appeared in five games, starting four, including the finale in the Pinstripe Bowl in the Badgers' blowout win against Miami.
He ended the 2018 season throwing for 515 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions on a 60 percent completion. His best performance came in a triple-overtime win at Purdue, when he threw for a career high 160 yards and two touchdowns with no picks.
Coan spent last season preparing as if he was the starter. His mentality going into this season has not changed and he said that he will continue to prepare with the mentality that he is the starter going into each game.
Everyone in the quarterback room loves the way Coan approached spring coming into the year. Head coach Paul Chryst said he’s “got natural leadership skills” as he has worked closely with all three of the other Badger quarterbacks. Second-year quarterback Chase Wolf called Coan “a great leader,” while offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said, “he has done a great job leading those guys.”
“Jack’s been great. I’ve learned a lot from him,” Mertz said when asked how Coan has made his transition easier and sophomore quarterback Danny Vanden Boom called Coan “a great resource for all of us.”
Throughout the spring, Coan got the most work with the first team and the most reps.
During the final spring practice the offense had a much more pass-happy offensive attack and Coan found his groove leading three touchdown drives, highlighted by a drive that ended in a fade to senior wideout A.J. Taylor, and included a 25-yard out to Taylor. Coan has looked solid throughout the spring, and is the leader in the race to win the starting job.
“I definitely feel more comfortable coming into this year. I feel like you get more comfortable as you get more playing experience,” said Coan, whose comfort level has continued to grow throughout the spring.
But while Coan may be the favorite to land the starting job, true freshman Graham Mertz has come into the spring with the most hype.
The talented passer has shown flashes of brilliance throughout the spring. On an April 19 practice, he hit receiver Jack Dunn on a long ball, and then finished off the drive on a nice eight-yard throw that threaded between two defenders to running back Garrett Groshek for a score.
But while Mertz has definitely had bright spots throughout the spring, he’s also shown his inexperience and youth. He is prone to getting out of the pocket when pressure isn’t there.
“Although he made some great location throws, he’ll be the first one to tell you after watching tape, ‘I could’ve hung in there, I didn’t have to get flushed,’” Coach Budmayr said on Graham.
Mertz has the exceptional ability to be mobile and make accurate throws on the run but has a tendency to lean on it too heavily. Budmayr said they will work on tightening his feet and read progression, but that he has a ton of potential.
Graham has not been afraid to pull the trigger into tight windows, which has lead to a few sailed balls. During a practice he found Jack Dunn and Groshek for nice throws, but also missed A.J. Taylor over the middle and was picked off by cornerback Rachad Wildgoose.
On the final practice of spring practice, he tried to hit Taylor again but he was covered tightly and a balled that sailed over Taylor to the arms of safety Scott Nelson who picked it off.
“I’ve got room for improvement. Got a lot of stuff to learn,” said Mertz. “(I’m) trying to be a sponge and learn as much as possible.”
Coan has been a big part of the freshman’s development, and the sophomore is constantly at Mertz’s side helping him with hand signals.
However, even with the help, he’ll still have a tough time winning the job, as a true freshman has not started at quarterback for the Badgers since Jay Macias in 1991.
The other two “forgotten” guys in the quarterback room are Danny Vanden Boom and Chase Wolf.
But, as Budmayr puts it they are “certainly anything but forgotten in our room.”
Despite early rumors, both are still far from out of the race to be the starter, as they each bring different skill-sets.
Vanden Boom saw the field in three games in 2018. He saw his lone pass attempt go for a touchdown against New Mexico.
“Every bit of experience, whether it's a rep in practice or in a game, is very valuable,” said Vanden Boom.
He said he’s most improved in his timing this year, and has felt more comfortable this time around. During the last spring practice he hit Cruikshank for a score on a drive that he completed five passes with only one incompletion.
According to Coach Budmayr, sophomore hopeful Chase Wolf “can make any throw, just a matter of when it is a good decision to make that throw.”
Though Wolf is seen as more of a traditional quarterback, throughout spring practice he was used out of the pocket and had plays drawn up that made him throw on the run, or make plays with his legs.
Although the group is competing for the starting job, they have created a tight bond as they have grown together. When all four guys were available to the media, they all spoke glowingly of their relationship and desire to help one another.
“Couldn’t ask for a better group of guys. We love each other and want to grow as a group,” said Mertz.
“It’s good to have a bunch of good guys in the quarterback room,” said Coan, while Wolf went as far to say “the whole quarterback room is like brothers."
The group of players has not allowed competition to cloud their relationship, which made the group much more cohesive. Each player made sure to insert “good egg” into each of their responses.
Coan started out by saying that there are “just a bunch of good eggs in the room;" Wolf added, “Jack’s a good egg, they’re all good eggs out there,” and Vanden Boom closed it out with the comment that they are a “really tight group. A ton of good eggs in the room.”
Joe Rudolph summed it up with his abundance of confidence in the group for the upcoming year saying, “I have confidence that all four guys can go into a game and know what you would you’d get. They would be themselves and compete. That huddle would have confidence in them.”