This wasn’t how the Wisconsin football coaching staff expected the Graham Mertz era to begin, but it’s the one they’re going to have to work with.
Mertz has taken over the first-team offensive reps at quarterback following Jack Coan’s non-contact foot injury, head coach Paul Chryst told reporters Monday. Wisconsin later released a statement saying that Coan had undergone successful surgery; there is no timetable on his return.
Mertz, Wisconsin’s highest-rated quarterback recruit in school history, spent most of his true-freshman season on the sidelines last year. He did see game reps against non-conference opponents Kent State and Central Michigan, completing nine of 10 passes for 73 yards across the two games.
While he never saw the field after Oct. 5, offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said this past winter that Mertz prepared to start multiple times while Coan was dealing with undisclosed injuries. Coan ultimately stiffened up each time, starting all 14 UW games en route to a 10-4 season and Wisconsin’s first Rose Bowl appearance since 2013.
Now, with Coan out for the foreseeable future, Mertz’s first-team reps are no longer a cautionary move, but a necessity. Chryst, however, isn’t worried about the youngster taking over the offense.
“Graham’s good. He works at what he does,” Chryst said Monday. “You put the time in and you’re going to make progress. I appreciate that [Mertz] has done that.”
So what changes for a Wisconsin offense — known for embracing a slower, more methodical offensive scheme — without their veteran quarterback? Well...not much, according to Chryst.
“Not necessarily schematically,” Chryst said when asked how he would tweak the playbook to fit Mertz. “It was going to be different anyway without [Colts running back Jonathan Taylor] and [Lions wide receiver Quintez Cephus]. We have to make sure we put together a group that fit this year’s offense.”
While Coan’s high-floor, intermediate-ceiling profile was a good fit for the Badgers, Mertz certainly brings a much higher potential to the field. A consensus high-four star out of Overland Park, Kansas, Mertz took home the MVP award at the 2019 All-American Bowl, throwing a record-breaking five touchdowns on 7/14 passing for 188 yards.
The hype train surrounding Mertz spiraled thereafter, but Chryst doesn’t believe the spotlight on the quarterback will be a distraction for the Badgers going forward.
“Everyone understands the quarterback is going to get a lot of attention. That comes with playing that position,” Chryst said in response to how the team handled the injury news. “They’ve been around a lot of this. I haven’t necessarily taken a different attack to ‘boy I’ve got to send a new message or a different message.’”
As for Coan, he’s still one of Wisconsin’s leaders even without wearing the pads on Saturdays.
“It’s not about him and feeling sorry for himself,” Chryst said of Coan’s attitude since the freak injury. “His focus is on the guys and this team, which is what I loved about him when I was talking about him last week, and what I love about him now.”