Wisconsin QB Graham Mertz owning his progress heading into 2022
MADISON, WIS. -- Graham Mertz revisited all of his snaps from his 2021 season, and then he did so again ... and likely again. That included all 284 passing attempts - 169 of which were completed - that resulted in 1,958 yards, 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions during Wisconsin's 9-4 campaign.
Mertz, now heading into his fourth year at UW, did not reveal exactly how many times he watched every rep, simply noting "multiple" with a laugh.
“That's the fun part about my position is having that open mind and knowing that I haven't even come close to where I want to be as a quarterback, and how do you attack that every day?" Mertz told reporters on Monday. "And for me watching with coach (Paul) Chryst, watching it with Bobby (Engram), watching it with (graduate assistant Keller Chryst), watching on my own, you get something new every single time you watch it, that you can bring to practice the next day or bring to walkthroughs or meetings.
"It's definitely valuable stuff.”
Mertz sits in position to be Wisconsin's starting quarterback for the third straight season. Many are eager to see what this offense, and any potential new concepts, can bring to improve last year's output of under 25.4 points per game. Though the offense accumulated 210.9 yards per content on the ground -- good for 21st in the nation -- the aerial attack failed to lift the unit overall to more profound heights. The Badgers ranked 120th in the nation in passing yards per game (160.2) and 105th in team passing efficiency (120.7).
Wisconsin retooled their offensive coaching staff with the hire of Bobby Engram -- a longtime Baltimore Ravens assistant, and father of UW wide receiver, Dean Engram -- as its offensive coordinator. Bob Bostad moved back to the offensive line where he coached Badger greats Gabe Carimi, Peter Konz, Kevin Zeitler, and others from 2008-11.
Chryst also transitioned Chris Haering to mentor the tight ends after he previously instructed the special teams unit since 2015. Mickey Turner moved off the field into the program's recruiting department. The program hired Al Johnson to guide the running backs in March, as Gary Brown -- who did not coach in the Las Vegas Bowl due to a non-COVID health reason -- "stepped away from coaching and assumed an off-field role with the program," according to a UW press release.
Many will look for new influence from Engram and other assistants that can help the offense become more formidable. Mertz called out the merging of the minds between his head coach and new coordinator.
“I think one of the coolest things that kind of just speaks to the relationship that (Engram) and Coach Chryst have or had ahead of this, too, was they trust each other and they wanted to kind of mesh together on the offense," Mertz said. "It's a couple new wrinkles, but it's Wisconsin football, it's our offense.
"We're gonna play the way we play, but definitely a couple of new wrinkles, new plays, new reads, new concepts, so it's been good. It's been fun.”
A lot of focus, however, zeroes in on the quarterback spot and what comes next from that group, specifically Mertz. When looking back at his play in 2021, he homed in on a few areas of growth to take his next step at UW.
“On the field, I'd say the biggest thing was just decision making and then timing and footwork," Mertz said. "And so that's one thing I took in the offseason, really valuing just the reps I got with the guys during winter conditioning. Throwing routes, making sure our timing’s right, and just try and translate it to spring ball, just to get as many reps as possible. So that's one of the biggest areas of just timing, anticipation, location, cleanup a little bit of footwork stuff. So that was most of it.”
The biggest growth in development, from Mertz's vantage point, came from what he called "the ownership of being a complete quarterback." That also included off-the-field work with his diet and maintaining and taking care of his body. He trusts himself "more than ever right now."
When discussing his evaluation process this last offseason for his on-field play and concepts to improve in, Mertz again pointed to that o-word.
“I'd say, just taking ownership of everything I do, and having conviction behind everything I do, and then truly moving with purpose," Mertz said. "And that's on the field, off the field, in my relationships with my teammates, in school.
"So for me, it's just the ownership of timing, anticipation, location, making sure everybody's route depth’s right. And truly being able to own it is my biggest area of, ‘Alright, how do I grow into that?’ And it's been fun. It's a fun process.”
Engram obviously knew of Mertz prior to his hire in late January. Dean Engram, who worked at cornerback the last three seasons before he moved to offense for 2022, came in with the Kansas signal caller as part of the class of 2019. Bobby stated that Dean "spoke highly" of his teammate as a person, along with his competitive nature.
Since arriving to Madison in a more permanent setup compared to college family visits, the elder Engram has now seen Mertz up close and personal heading into his third full month with the program.
"I've learned that Graham wants to be great, in terms of his approach, professional approach, his work ethic," Engram said, "and just really trying to own the offense and own his leadership role in the offense."
Engram noted that Mertz has been working on more minor details like his hands under center and working on his drop backs.
"We've been doing a lot more from under center," Engram said. "We're obviously gonna continue to use the (shot)gun, but it's been some intangible things as well, just in terms of his communication. With the guys in the huddle, with the guys at the line of scrimmage.
"As a quarterback, all of those things matter, so we're chasing every detail, and he's working hard at it."
Mertz, who entered UW as a midyear enrollee in January 2019, has experienced a Wisconsin scheme now for three-plus seasons. This technically registers as his third set of spring football practices as 2020's edition washed away due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wisconsin quarterbacks obviously spend time both under center and in the shotgun, but Mertz previously worked exclusively in the latter look during his years as a four-star prospect at Blue Valley North in Overland Park, Kan.
When asked why there has been more work on lining up in the former, Mertz believed it was due to several factors.
“I think it's just to get a better sense of timing, and truly just trusting the drop, and then being able to translate that into the (shot)gun," Mertz said. "I mean, it makes complete sense. You go and look back at all the quarterbacks from the past, and they were all under center to start, and then now they're in the gun and they have that sense of timing in their head where I can do whatever with my drop.
"But I know, the sense of timing is so different that it's not just footwork. So it's been fun to do that and just truly understand it. And obviously, not complete yet, but I got a couple more practices to do it.”
Engram also pointed to another area for Mertz: his progressions and checking down. The coordinator appreciates his quarterback's mentality of being aggressive, but also wants him to take advantage of throws opponents are giving them.
"We had a 3rd-and-3 on Saturday, and he took a shot," Engram said. "Great throw, didn't come up with the play, but we had a first down on an underneath route right in front of us. So those are the things that we'll continue to talk about, and he's seeing the offense.
"You like his mentality, you recognize the matchup, and he's taking the shots, but also just talking how we play the game situationally."
Mertz realizes his competitive nature and desire to generate plays, but he also admitted the humility needed to check down and make their opponents defend the entire field.
“I like throwing the football," Mertz said. "I like to throw the big ones, but that's definitely a fine line and a balance of that's just being the quarterback. Making those correct decisions consistently.”
Charting Mertz's improvements this season from 2021 will be key not just for the offense's success, but the team overall with a defense needing to replace starters on all three levels of the defense. His former teammates, inside linebacker Leo Chenal and cornerback Faion Hicks, told BadgerBlitz.com earlier this year that he was their breakout player candidate on that side of the line of scrimmage in 2022.
Myles Burkett, though just barely two months into his time as a Badger, sees how his fellow quarterback strives to better himself and others.
"Graham's my guy. Just, he has an insane work ethic," Burkett said. "It's just stuff that you don't see. Just being the first one in, the last guy out, and just always being up here always. Always being with coaches, always being that guy who, if you have a question, he can answer it for you. His work ethic is off the charts.
"I'm proud, because the way that he's been able to take me under his wing almost. He has the weight of the world on him right now -- and for him to take time to focus on me, to focus on what I got questions about -- that just kind of speak to the type of person he is. So I'm excited for Graham. I think that the progression that he's making is extreme when it comes to what type of player he can be, and I'm just really excited for him."
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