Jack Coan has quietly gone about his business since he ended the 2018 season atop the depth chart at quarterback for the University of Wisconsin football team.
“He’s grown,” Badgers quarterbacks coach Jon Budmayr said Monday. “I like the approach he’s had to it.”
It’d be surprising if Coan isn’t the starter when the Badgers open the 2019 season Aug. 30 at South Florida. Based on how the reps have been distributed during a handful of practices open to the media over the past week, the junior has a significant lead over redshirt freshman Chase Wolf and true freshman Graham Mertz.
Budmayr said he hasn’t seen Coan, who’s taken most of the reps with the No. 1 offense, looking over his shoulder at the talented youngsters behind him. Fans have been raving about Mertz since he committed to UW nearly two years ago, but any outside noise about the Kansas native challenging for the starting job doesn’t seem to have impacted Coan’s focus during the spring, summer or start of camp.
Budmayr said he and Coan spent the spring going over Coan’s snaps from the 2018 season, when he appeared in five games with four starts. There were plenty of growing pains, to be sure, but Coan also had moments where the game appeared to slow down for him.
“You watch those and you start defining the areas of growth that we can get better at,” Budmayr said. “That list, that’s enough to excite you and to make you lock in and say, ‘Oh, man, I’ve got a lot on my plate.’ He’s truly taken all that stuff that he’s playing the game of football and understanding how to play it efficiently.
“There’s a lot that goes into that and if you let yourself veer off from outside the moment to distractions, you’re never going to be able to maximize who you are.”
Coan completed 56 of 93 passes for 515 yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions as a sophomore. Budmayr said the coaching staff has asked Coan to “take a big jump in decision-making,” which includes both taking care of the ball in general and getting positive yardage on early downs rather than force the ball downfield.
After spending the previous two camps as the backup to Alex Hornibrook, Coan is now the veteran in the quarterbacks room. Budmayr said he’s been happy with how Coan has handled that responsibility.
“One of the neat things about Jack is it’s important to him to set the standard for the room,” Budmayr said. “Jack knows what he has to improve on and what he has to get better on. But he also wants this unit to be the best unit, so he’s taking it upon himself to prepare himself to play at the highest level but also to make sure that when there are questions asked, when there are discussions being had in the meeting room, that he’s feeding them with knowledge.”
Wolf and Mertz split time with the No. 2 offense during a scrimmage Monday.
What Wolf lacks in size — he’s listed at 6-foot-1, 196 pounds — he makes up for with an ability to make plays on the move.
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“He’s got a good grasp of the offense right now,” Budmayr said. “What’s even better, though, is he’s playing with confidence and he’s got great understanding of the types of throws that he can make. With that, I think we’ve got to reign him in a bit with some decision-making, which he understands. It’s important to him, but he can make some unique throws and extend some plays with his feet that present some problems and it’s been fun to watch him grow with that area.”
Budmayr said Wolf has to clean up some of his decision-making. Ditto for Mertz, who has gotten a lot thrown at him since he arrived in the spring and began learning a new playbook.
UW spent the first week of camp working on installation of the offense, which often can leave young players’ heads spinning.
“He can make all the throws, that’s not the issue, but it’s just understanding and recognizing defensive coverages and progressions and trusting his eyes,” Budmayr said of Mertz. “I think that’s the tough thing when you take that jump is speed of the game and (when) a window might have been real last fall, is it real this fall? He’s getting that understanding and I’ve loved the way he’s attacked it each day.”
Any official announcement that Coan will be the starter to open the season likely will have to come from UW coach Paul Chryst. But that seems like a formality at this point.
Budmayr said there’s plenty of room for improvement from Coan and the others.
“We’ve got to keep going,” he said. “This next week is big for that.”
Junior tight end Luke Benzschawel sustained a right leg injury during the scrimmage and left the field on a cart.
Losing Benzschawel would be a big blow at a position where depth already was a concern.
Benzschawel and sophomore Jake Ferguson were the only two healthy veterans at tight end prior to Monday. Zander Neuville was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA last week, but Chryst doesn’t expect him to contribute in camp as he works his way back from injury.
The only other healthy tight ends on the roster are redshirt freshman Jack Eschenbach and a pair of true freshmen, Hayden Rucci and Clay Cundiff.