Graham Mertz played less than a half of football in total in 2019.
His redshirt season at the University of Wisconsin saw him go 9 of 10 passing for 73 yards. But with him set to take the reins as the Badgers starting quarterback, it seemed like a good idea to dive into those few dozen plays and see what was there to learn.
Even in a limited sample size, Mertz showed some great traits, and a few iffy ones.
Let’s get back in the film room for the first time in the 2020 season:
Situation: First-and-10 at the UW 25, late third quarter
Play: Graham Mertz throws incomplete pass intended for Jack Dunn
Breakdown: Hey, look, he’s human.
This is Mertz’s first play of his college career, and he shows some jitters. Badgers coaches call a simple play-action pass with a bit of a design roll-out — a safe play call to give your rookie quarterback an easy, defined read.
The Badgers get what they what, with Jack Dunn wide open in the flat after coming in pre-snap motion, but Mertz overreacts to a rusher who has a blocker in front of him. Mertz doesn’t set his feet, eliminating his base to get some power on the throw, while also drifting away from his target. The throw ends up short.
If Mertz sets his feet, this is likely a big play up the sideline for Dunn.
Situation: Third-and-12 at the UW 22, late third quarter
Play: Graham Mertz completes a pass to Aron Cruickshank for 19 yards, first down.
Breakdown: Mertz has all day to throw behind a wall of an offensive line, and he intelligently stays patient as he feels no rush coming. That patience allows routes to develop down field.
Cruickshank takes an inside release before cutting inside, and he’s open immediately on the cut. Mertz makes a bit of a high throw, but he may have been trying to insure that no one at linebacker depth could come back and make a play on it. Cruickshank makes a good catch to keep the drive alive.
What interests me here is Mertz’s legs. Look at his wide base as he stands in the pocket. That allows him to really drive off his back foot, transfer his weight, and put zip on the throw over the middle.
Rarely will you get this clean of a pocket for this long against Big Ten competition, but Mertz handled his first career third-down situation well, delivering a strike for a first down.
Situation: Third-and-6 at the UW 45, early fourth quarter
Play: Graham Mertz completes a pass to Jack Dunn for 7 yards, first down.
Breakdown: Protection is good again here — UW coaches left the starting line in the game for Mertz despite the lopsided score.
Mertz stands tall in the pocket and makes and easy pitch and catch for the first down. Dunn does a good job getting his defensive back to turn his hips, anticipating a vertical route, before cutting inside.
Mertz pulls a subtle move here that should encourage Badgers’ fans about his poise in the pocket. Watch how his head and eyes start on Jack Eschenbach (41) as he goes out into his route. He’s really looking for Dunn the whole way, but by engaging with Eschenbach quickly, he forces CMU’s linebacker to react. Once he does, the area is vacated for Dunn and he can pick up the first down with ease.
Eye manipulation is a skill that takes years for quarterbacks to develop, and Mertz shows early ability of it here.
Situation: Second-and-12 at the UW 35, late third quarter
Play: Graham Mertz runs for 10 yards
Breakdown: Mertz’s mobility is something that I’m interested to see utilized in the UW offense.
Mertz is by no means a dual-threat quarterback, and running won’t be a pivotal part of his game, but he is a good athlete and with his arm talent, getting him on the move won’t affect his ability to challenge defenses down field like it might for other quarterbacks.
This play is a lot like the first in this story, with a play-action fake, a rollout, and defined reads with a basic levels concept. It appears that Eschenbach (41) is the target here on the 12-yard out route. However, Eschenbach is tangled with a defender at the top of his route when Mertz checks on him.
With all three options covered, Mertz makes a decisive move to run, and picks up a good chunk of yards to set up a short third down.
Mertz won’t make flashy runs, but if he can do things like this and avoid taking unnecessary hits, his legs will be an asset.
Situation: First-and-10 at the KSU 37
Play: Graham Mertz completes a pass to Adam Krumholz for 14 yards, first down.
Breakdown: This play looks simple, but this throw is a thing of beauty.
For a quarterback with the arm strength Mertz has, it can be hard not to rifle every pass you make. But the touch he shows here indicates he knows when to let it rip and when to make it easy on his receiver.
Mertz stands tall in a clean pocket, and puts a perfect pass on Krumholz’s chest after he’d beaten his man to the outside. KSU linebacker Kesean Gamble tries to make a leaping tip, but Mertz perfectly lofts it over his outstretched arm and into Krumholz’s hands.
These are the kinds of throws that’ll be needed to keep the chains moving against Big Ten competition.
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