Once it was over, Graham Mertz took time to reflect after his first college football season as a starter.
It hadn’t gone how he wanted — after a record-setting starting debut in which he threw five touchdown passes, challenges started to pile up for the sophomore. He contracted COVID-19, testing positive the day after the Illinois game as part of an outbreak that derailed the University of Wisconsin’s season for nearly three weeks.
He struggled as his timing and accuracy were sporadic over the final six games of the year and UW finished 4-3. Mertz said as he evaluated the season, he looked inward first, asking himself how he needed to get better in each aspect of his game. He also took stock of how he needed to improve his approach off the field.
“I took a couple of days just to kind of take that approach. ‘How can I be the best Graham during the season?’” Mertz said Friday.
When Mertz did begin studying tape, he broke his play down into particular elements and spent days watching each snap with an eye on that component. From his drop-backs to his understanding of scheme and recognition of defenses, Mertz took note of the strides he needed to make.
He didn’t specify when it happened, but Mertz also sustained a shoulder injury and had to get a cortisone shot one week. He rejected the idea that it was an explanation for his struggles.
“I’m not one to sit here and make excuses for how I played, and having a little banged up shoulder doesn't justify losing three games (in a row) and playing like that,” he said. “So I'm not going to sit here and make that an excuse, because it's not.”
Mertz has a new position coach in Badgers head coach Paul Chryst, who has a track record of helping quarterbacks improve in their second year under his tutelage. These comparisons aren’t apples-to-apples since Jon Budmayr was leading the QB room last season, but Chryst oversaw the offense enough that they bode well for Mertz.
Here’s a look at how quarterbacks have made a jump in their second seasons under Chryst as a QB coach or offensive coordinator:
- Derek Anderson (Oregon State, 2003-04): Increased completion percentage 3.1 percent to 54.2%, improved touchdown to interception ratio from 24:24 to 29:17
- Scott Tolzien (UW, 2009-10): Increased completion percentage 8.6% to 72.9%, increased yards per attempt (8.2 to 9.2), TD to INT ratio from 16:11 to 16:6.
- Alex Hornibrook (2016-17): Increased completion percentage 3.7% to 62.3%, increased yards per attempt (7.0 to 8.3), TD to INT ratio from 9:7 to 25:15.
Chryst’s influence is already being felt with a different approach in the quarterback room, and even early on Mertz feels the work he’s put in paying off.
“I feel like I'm playing some smooth and crisp ball right now, and I'm loving it,” he said. “It can only go up from there, which is fun.”
Williams: ‘I feel the best I ever have in my life’
After his sophomore season was derailed by knee injuries, senior nose tackle Bryson Williams has seen his body change multiple times.
He said after his surgery, he gained too much bad weight and was at 320 pounds.
“I just felt terrible,” he said. “I was slow, I wasn't any stronger than I was at 290, just 30 pounds heavier, which is really not good.”
Williams said over the past 18 months, he’s lost 60 pounds and is now gaining back good weight for the season. He said he’s sitting at about 285 pounds and enjoying the results.
“I feel the best I ever have in my life, even before my surgery,” he said.
Williams’ improved physique could help him have more position flexibility to move between the nose and defensive end spots.
Wright clears the air
UW redshirt freshman quarterback Daniel Wright made news last week when the spring roster was released. He was listed at 257 pounds, 42 pounds more than the fall roster.
Wright, who stands 6-foot-8, said that wasn’t entirely accurate.
“They didn’t get an official weight on me when I came in,” Wright said with a smile. “I was about 235 when I got to campus. So I have gained about 20 pounds, but not quite as much as everybody was reporting.”
The weight and strength gains have made Wright a more explosive and quicker player, he said. While he’s enjoying playing quarterback, he’s open to a position change if coaches ask.
“If they feel like I’d be better off at a different position, if that’s what the team needs, I’m all about it,” he said. “I could see it playing out in a different way, but right now I’m really loving playing quarterback.”
A game-by-game look at the Badgers' schedule
A game-by-game look at the Badgers' 2021 football schedule
WEEK 1: vs. Penn State
Date: Sept. 4
All-time series: UW trails 9-10
Last meeting: UW lost 22-10 in 2018
Key returner: WR Jahan Dotson posted five games of over 100 yards receiving and was a catalyst of the team’s four-game winning streak to end last season.
Note: The Nittany Lions’ losing season last year was their first under coach James Franklin and the program’s second since 2004.
WEEK 2: vs. Eastern Michigan
Date: Sept. 11
All-time series: UW leads 3-0
Last meeting: UW won 24-3 in 1996
Key returner: QB Preston Hutchinson averaged 277 yards per game last season.
Note: The Eagles have had two winning seasons since 2010.
WEEK 3: vs. Notre Dame (Soldier Field, Chicago)
Date: Sept. 26
All-time series: UW trails 6-8-2
Last meeting: UW lost 31-7 in 1964
Key returner: Safety Kyle Hamilton, who led the Irish in tackles, had six pass breakups last season.
Note: Former Badgers QB Jack Coan will be in the running to be the starting QB for the Irish after transferring this winter.
WEEK 4: vs. Michigan
Date: Oct. 2
All-time series: UW trails 17-51-1
Last meeting: UW won 49-11 on Nov. 14, 2020
Key returner: WR Ronnie Bell was a bright spot on an offense that struggled with inconsistent quarterback play.
Note: Despite the Wolverines’ 2-4 season, the program extended the contract of coach Jim Harbaugh and posted the second-best recruiting class in the conference.
WEEK 5: at Illinois
Date: Oct. 9
All-time series: UW leads 43-37-7
Last meeting: UW won 45-7 on Oct. 23, 2020
Key returner: QB Brandon Peters, who gives the Illini some stability under center while they adjust to a new coaching staff. The Illini are looking to bounce back from a tough 2020 that included a COVID-19 diagnosis.
Note: First-year coach Bret Bielema, the former UW coach, has said he envisions a three-man front for the defense, a major shift that already has prompted the transfer of DE Owen Carney Jr.
WEEK 6: vs. Army
Date: Oct. 16
All-time series: First meeting
Last meeting: N/A
Key returner: QB Tyhier Tyler (above) led the Black Knights in rushing (578 yards) despite only playing in seven of their 12 games.
Note: This could be a difficult test for the Badgers, preparing for a triple-option attack in the middle of the conference season.
WEEK 7: at Purdue
Date: Oct. 23
All-time series: UW leads 50-29-8
Last meeting: UW won 45-24 in 2019
Key returner: DE George Karlaftis (above), who was sidelined by injuries last season, is a potential game-wrecker off the edge. He helped land his younger brother Yanni Karlaftis, a four-star OLB who is the highest-ranked player in Purdue’s class and was considering UW.
Note: Last season’s game was canceled due to UW’s COVID-19 outbreak, but the Badgers haven’t lost to Purdue since 2003.
WEEK 8: vs. Iowa
Date: Oct. 30
All-time series: UW leads 48-44-2
Last meeting: UW lost 28-7 on Dec. 12, 2020
Key returner: QB Spencer Petras, made strides in first year as a starter, but with defense losing studs up front and the offense losing playmaker Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Petras will be asked to do more
Note: Iowa’s win over the Badgers at Kinnick Stadium was just their second in the rivalry since 2010
Week 9: at Rutgers
Date: Nov. 6
All-time series: UW leads 3-0
Last meeting: UW won 31-17 in 2018
Key returner: WR/KR Aron Cruickshank (above) — who transferred from UW last season — provided a number of big plays in the return game en route to winning the league’s returner of the year award and was the team’s second-leading receiver.
Note: UW has only surrendered 27 points in three matchups against the Scarlet Knights
WEEK 10: vs. Northwestern
Date: Nov. 13
All-time series: UW leads 60-37-5
Last meeting: UW lost 17-7 on Nov. 21, 2020
Key returner: Safety Brandon Joseph (above), earned All-American honors as a freshman after tallying six interceptions, eight pass breakups and 56 total tackles
Note: Longtime defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz — a former assistant coach at UW — retired after last season
WEEK 11: vs. Nebraska
Date: Nov. 20
All-time series: UW leads 10-4
Last meeting: UW won 37-21 in 2019
Key returner: QB Adrian Martinez (above), who battled for his position with Luke McCaffrey last season, comes into the season as the presumed starter after McCaffrey announced he was transferring
Note: UW has an 18-point average margin of victory over Nebraska in its seven-game win streak over the Huskers
WEEK 12: at Minnesota
Date: Nov. 27
All-time series: UW leads 62-60-8
Last meeting: UW won 20-17 in OT on Dec. 19, 2020
Key returner: RB Mo Ibrahim (above), winner of the Big Ten’s running back of the year award last season, scored 15 touchdowns and set multiple program records last season
Note: The Gophers have attacked the transfer market hard, landing seven transfer players this winter