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Red-shirt junior Graham Mertz is entering a make-or-break season for Wisconsin in his third year as the Badgers’ starting quarterback.
The former high-school All-American committed to Wisconsin over offers from Alabama, Georgia, Clemson, Ohio State, LSU, Michigan, Oregon, and Notre Dame. He was viewed as the biggest QB recruiting win in school history. In short, expectations were sky-high when he stepped onto campus.
Those expectations went into hyperdrive after his first career start against Illinois. Mertz completed 20-of-21 passes for 248 yards and five touchdowns. It seemed as though Wisconsin had finally found the QB that could get them over the proverbial hump.
Thus far, the Kansas native has compiled an uninspiring 13-7 record in 20 career starts for UW. In that time, he’s completed 60.8% of his passes for 3,269 yards with 19 touchdowns, 16 interceptions, and a 123.5 passing efficiency rating.
Mertz has been an adequate to below-average starting QB in the Big Ten, which is a far cry from what Wisconsin needs at the position to compete for league titles. For the Badgers’ offense to bounce back in 2022, they’ll need their QB1 to take a noticeable step forward in his development and become an above-average starting QB.
A simple breakdown of quarterback play at any level essentially comes down to two things. One, you must accurately throw the football when the pocket is kept clean. You aren’t good enough to see the field if you can’t do that. Two, if you’re going to excel at QB, you need to be an accurate passer when under pressure. Generally speaking, this separates the elite QBs from the rest of the pack.
So, where does that leave Mertz?
CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA – DECEMBER 30: Quarterback Graham Mertz #5 of the Wisconsin Badgers looks on against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons during the first half of the Duke’s Mayo Bowl at Bank of America Stadium on December 30, 2020 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Using the logic above, I’m confident Mertz is no worse than an average QB with the potential to be above average. According to PFF, when UW kept the pocket clean, the Kansas native completed 66.5% of his passes last season.
However, when facing pressure, the junior signal caller completed an abysmal 37.8% of his passes. It was a night and day difference.
On a more troubling note, eight of Mertz’s 11 interceptions last season came while throwing from a clean pocket, according to PFF.
Taking it a step further, his on-target rate when throwing the deep ball last year ranked No. 511 out of 513 qualified QBs over the previous five seasons. According to PFF, of his 41 pass attempts that traveled 20+ yards downfield, Mertz connected with his receivers just 11 times (26.8%).
Wisconsin’s inability to stretch the field has hindered the Badgers’ offense from reaching its full potential. However, it is worth noting that Wisconsin’s offensive line ranked No. 98 (55.5) out of 130 division one programs in pass-blocking last season, according to PFF.
The pessimist in me questions whether the Kansas native has the instincts or decision-making ability to take that crucial next step in his development. Last season, Mertz struggled mightily under duress, resulting in sloppy footwork, inaccuracy, and a tendency to rely on his first read.
I have no doubts about Mertz’s ability to make all the necessary throws; he has plenty of arm talent. My concern is with his ability to make the right reads and process them quickly enough to deliver the ball on time.
In the clip below, on third and three, Kendric Pryor creates enough separation from his defender that should have gone for an easy completion and a Badgers first down. Instead, Mertz rolls out and hesitates, then throws the ball so late that Pryor has to come back for the football, forcing fourth down.
What Wisconsin needs at QB
Wisconsin doesn’t need Mertz to play like Russell Wilson for the Badgers to contend for a Big Ten title. However, they will need him to be efficient within the framework of the offense and take better care of the football.
For example, additional usage of play-action concepts could go a long way in establishing his confidence. Last season, Mertz completed 64.5% of his passes out of play action on 10.7 yards per attempt – his highest YPA average out of any individual passing concept, according to PFF.
A lot of expectation falls on the plate of first-year offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Bobby Engram. Perhaps the new wrinkles he installs in UW’s offense will work to accentuate the strengths of the fourth-year signal caller.
Quick hitters, crossing routes, and screen plays where Mertz can get the ball out quickly should assist him in establishing a rhythm that helps Wisconsin’s offense move the chains.
Like most people, I have concerns with Mertz. Still, I remain optimistic that he can take the next step toward becoming a reliable signal caller for UW.
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