Disaster struck for the Wisconsin football program Saturday as starting quarterback Jack Coan injured his foot at practice, according to Jeff Potrykus of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Coan’s injury will require surgery and will keep him out of action indefinitely.
That muddies the waters for the Badgers’s offense, who were expected to rely on the veteran to power the offense in the absence of last year’s two biggest playmakers, running back Jonathan Taylor and wide receiver Quintez Cephus.
On last year’s depth chart, redshirt freshman Graham Mertz and redshirt sophomore Chase Wolf were listed as co-backups to Coan. Together, they’ve combined to attempt just 11 passes, although there is significant optimism surrounding the development of Mertz, who was Wisconsin’s highest-rated QB signing in the modern era.
Still, neither Mertz nor Wolf shares the veteran pedigree of Coan, who started all 14 games for Wisconsin in 2019 and has 18 starts total in his Badger career. Coan was extremely efficient last season, completing 69.6% of his passes for 2,727 yards (8.0 yards/attempt), 18 touchdowns and five interceptions.
Despite dealing with nagging injuries all season, Coan was effective down the stretch in some of Wisconsin’s most difficult games, including a 280-yard, two-touchdown effort against No. 8 Minnesota in the Axe game and a two-touchdown performance in the Big Ten championship against No. 1 Ohio State.
Coan’s 2,727 yards in 2020 marked the third-highest single-season total in Badger history, trailing just Russell Wilson in 2011 (3,175 yards) and John Stocco in 2005 (2,920 yards). His completion percentage was also the third-highest single-season mark for the Badgers, behind Scott Tolzien in 2010 (72.9%) and Wilson in 2011 (72.8%).
Members of the coaching staff gushed about Coan’s offseason progress in a media Zoom call Friday. Offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph praised his leadership.
“[Coan’s] anticipation has been very good,” Rudolph said. “That reflects confidence. I feel like he’s really in tune with Coach Budmayr. His leadership was always outstanding.”
Someone will have to step up and fill the massive void left by Coan’s absence, and Mertz is the most likely candidate to do so. A top-100 prospect in the class of 2019, Mertz committed to Wisconsin early in the process and held his commitment even after Ohio State, Notre Dame and Texas A&M pushed hard to flip him.
At the All-American Bowl in 2019, Mertz threw for 188 yards and five touchdowns against some of the top high school talent in the country, earning MVP honors in the process. Those five touchdowns set an All-American bowl record, which Mertz broke in the first half of game action.
Mertz participated in the Elite 11 QB competition as a high schooler, a gauntlet that pits 24 of the country’s best QB recruits against each other. While Mertz was not the MVP (that honor would go to current Oklahoma starter Spencer Rattler) he impressed throughout the process and was named one of the event’s finalists.
Mertz appeared in two games as a freshman last season, completing nine of 10 passes for 73 yards in fourth-quarter blowouts against Central Michigan and Kent State.
Mertz’s main competition is Chase Wolf, a dual threat quarterback who was a three-star recruit in the class of 2018. Wolf appeared in just one game last season, completing one pass and rushing for nine yards in Wisconsin’s week-one victory over South Florida.
Coan’s replacement, whoever he may be, will have large shoes to fill. Luckily, the opening portion of the Badgers season is relatively weak.
Wisconsin opens against Illinois at Camp Randall on Oct. 24. The Badgers then travel to Lincoln to play Nebraska in week two and host Purdue in week three. Wisconsin is expected to be heavy favorites in all three of their opening games, but the new QB will be tested in a big way in week four when Wisconsin travels to play Michigan.