MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz’s production thus far hasn’t lived up to the standards set by his lofty recruiting ranking and sparkling debut as a starter.
He’s ready to stabilize what has been an erratic career by helping the Badgers earn the Big Ten championship game appearance that has eluded them each of his first two seasons as a starter.
“My word’s been ‘consistency’ the whole year,” Mertz said Tuesday on the eve of Wisconsin’s first preseason practice as the Badgers prepare for their Sept. 3 opener with Illinois State.
Mertz was the nation’s No. 65 overall prospect in the 2019 class, according to composite rankings of recruiting sites compiled by 247Sports, when he signed with Wisconsin. That made him the Badgers’ first top-100 247Sports Composite signee who didn’t play on the offensive line since 2007, when they landed running back John Clay.
He left an early impression that only raised hopes he might lead Wisconsin to Big Ten titles. In his first college start, Mertz went 20 of 21 and threw five touchdown passes in a 45-7 blowout of Illinois. He set a school single-game record for completion percentage and matched the record for touchdown passes.
But, he’s been inconsistent since.
“We really want him to trust himself and go play,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said. “Play with consistency and understanding that we have a lot of trust him and faith in him. With that, there’s responsibility.”
Mertz’s 2021 season exemplified his rollercoaster career thus far.
He threw a combined six interceptions and no touchdown passes in losses to Penn State and Notre Dame during Wisconsin’s 1-3 start. He bounced back and played relatively well when the emergence of running back Braelon Allen and Wisconsin’s top-ranked defense spurred the Badgers to a seven-game winning streak.
When Wisconsin couldn’t run effectively and needed Mertz to step up in the regular-season finale at Minnesota, he threw no touchdown passes as the Badgers fell 23-13 and lost their shot at a Big Ten championship game berth. He then regrouped to help Wisconsin beat Arizona State in the Las Vegas Bowl.
“That’s how you learn from the process and grow as a man,” Mertz said. “When adversity hits, how do I respond? When good things happen, how do I respond? You go through all of that and you learn a lot about yourself.”
One thing Mertz has learned is that his teammates still have plenty of faith in him.
Allen says Mertz accepted even more of a leadership role this offseason. Center Joe Tippmann, who rooms with Mertz, marvels over the quarterback’s work ethic.
“We’re definitely confident in him,” Tippmann said. “The way the guy works in the offseason, it’s unmatched. He’s constantly working his (butt) off. I know that’s going to pay dividends for the team and for him.”
Mertz is facing more obstacles as he heads into his third season as a starter.
Wisconsin must replace top two wideouts (Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor) and starting tight end Jake Ferguson from last season’s team, leaving Chimere Dike as the only returning player who had at least 100 yards receiving last season. Mertz is adjusting to new offensive coordinator Bobby Engram.
Mertz and his new coordinator wasted no time developing a mutual respect.
“He’s a great man,” Mertz said. “For me, it’s more than just football with him. It’s life lessons and stuff like that. It’s been amazing.”
Mertz believes he also will have no trouble helping some of these unproven receivers step forward. He considers that part of his responsibility.
“It just comes down to doing your job,” Mertz said. “For me, how can I do my job better, to free those guys up to go play free? We’ve got young guys, but they’re hungry. They’re ready to rock.”
NOTES: Running back Chez Mellusi said he should be ready to practice fully when the Badgers open workouts Wednesday. Mellusi tore his left ACL last November. … Allen has honored former Wisconsin running backs coach Gary Brown by getting the initials “GB” tattooed on his left arm. Brown died in April at the age of 52. “I’m dedicating this season to him,” Allen said. … Wisconsin will hold an open practice on Aug. 21.
TOP PHOTO: FILE – Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz throws a pass during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Illinois Friday, Oct. 23, 2020, in Madison, Wis. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)