Badgers: QB Graham Mertz unfazed by pursuit of Caleb Williams

MADISON — Graham Mertz was well aware of Wisconsin’s pursuit of former Oklahoma quarterback Caleb Williams when he hit the transfer portal earlier this year. The Badgers’ starting quarterback the last two years didn’t obsess over it like some fans and members of the media did.

“It’s the coach’s job to find the best player,” Mertz said Monday. “What am I going to say? ‘Oh, no, I deserve this.’ I don’t deserve anything. I’ve got to prove it every day, prove it’s my job. That’s what I’m going to do. That’s what I’ve always done.”

Though both downplayed their seriousness in going after Williams, coach Paul Chryst and new offensive coordinator Bobby Engram felt it necessary to have conversations with Mertz and backup Chase Wolf about Williams, who eventually chose to enroll at USC.

“Anytime something like that is happening, I’m going to talk with him,” Chryst said at the start of spring practice. “I never personally spoke with Caleb and told Graham such. He understands and that’s the world that we are in right now.”

If the push for Williams impacted Mertz’s confidence or swagger, it hasn’t shown in practice. He still carries himself the way he has since stepping on campus as the most-hyped quarterback recruit in school history. But he admitted that he’s not attacking things the exact same way as in past years when the on-field results didn’t live up to his own expectations.

“It’s same approach, but with a few new wrinkles to it. That’s the whole key. You’ve got to evolve,” Mertz said. “What is the definition of insanity? If you keep doing the same thing and expecting different results, you’re gonna go insane. For me, it’s just how do I keep evolving as a quarterback and do my job and do it better every single day. My confidence has never has gotten tested to the point where I doubt myself. I think that’s a bad thing to ever doubt yourself or have that lack of confidence. It’s just how can I prove to myself every day that I’m evolving into the quarterback I want to be. I think it’s just doing the little things right every day.”

Helping the evolution process is some new voices in the quarterback room for a third straight year. Mertz has liked the addition of Engram as OC and quarterbacks coach. He’s brought some new concepts and routes to the offense after his eight years in the NFL with the Baltimore Ravens. Some of his focus with Mertz has been to get him to take what the defense is giving him and not trying for the home run every play.

Then there is graduate assistant Keller Chryst, the nephew of the head coach. He played the position at Stanford and Tennessee, giving Mertz someone that knows what he’s dealing with to learn from. He’s already gained valuable insight from the younger Chryst, specifically mentioning the way he has them training their eyes and how to see the field.

The junior has also changed up his training off the field, specifically his diet. Mertz ended up weighing more than 230 pounds by the time last season was done. He felt sluggish and unable to move the way he wanted to. This offseason he got as low as 215 pounds but is now at 220. The last few months have included a lot of chicken and rice mixed with a variety of vegetables.

“It was how do I get to the spot where I’m moving the best I ever have in my body,” Mertz said. “I got to 220 and feeling more mobile, more flexible, throwing better than I ever have.”

Since his starting debut against Illinois in 2020 when he threw five touchdowns, Mertz has thrown 14 touchdowns and 16 interceptions, though he was better down the stretch of 2021 as the Badgers won eight of their final nine games. In those contests, he had eight touchdowns and five picks. Wins are not a quarterback stat, especially at Wisconsin, but the Badgers are 13-7 in games he’s started, including 9-4 last season. Mertz understands that record is OK at some schools but not accepted by some of the more passionate folks that make up the Wisconsin fanbase, including those that were chanting Caleb Williams’ name at a basketball game in February.

“Everybody is allowed to have their own opinion. I mean, if I were a fan, and we lost four games, I wouldn’t be happy. You appreciate when fans ride with you through thick and thin,” Mertz said. “I’m excited for this year. I hope they are. But if you want anybody else, and you can make a change, you do whatever.”

Mertz will be Wisconsin’s starting quarterback this fall. Wolf, redshirt freshman Deacon Hill and freshman Myles Burkett don’t appear in position to challenge for playing time. Mertz understands fans want more from him and he doesn’t disagree.

“That should be your expectation every year. If that isn’t, then you’re doing something wrong,” Mertz said of wanting to have his best season yet. “If you’re not growing, you’re not evolving, then just going to be left behind in the dust. How do I have the conviction behind me to say this is going to be the best year yet? It’s going to be.”