The wait is finally over.
The University of Wisconsin football team opened its fall camp Wednesday, which means its most highly anticipated quarterback competition in a decade has commenced.
“It’s on,” quarterbacks coach Jon Budmayr said.
By now, you know the entries. Three-year starter Alex Hornibrook transferred to Florida State after a disappointing season, leaving four quarterbacks — junior Jack Coan, redshirt sophomore Danny Vanden Boom, redshirt freshman Chase Wolf and the people’s choice, highly touted true freshman Graham Mertz — to arm wrestle for the starting job.
Coan has the most experience, having started four games last season and improving toward the end. Some think the competition is between Coan and Mertz, who enrolled early so he could participate in spring practice and demonstrated the wide range of skills that made him one of the top quarterback recruits in the nation. But to anoint Coan and Mertz would be a disservice to Vanden Boom and Wolf, both of whom showed quite well during spring drills.
Coach Paul Chryst has leaned heavily on experience when making quarterback decisions in the past, which would seem to give Coan a leg up, but the reality is the Badgers have four pretty good quarterbacks from which to choose.
“That’s why I love the quarterback room so much is because there’s guys that work at it,” Budmayr said. “We’ve got to clean up some stuff because for them to be on the field you want to be able to trust them — the decision-making and all the stuff that goes into it. But they work like crazy at it. From a talent standpoint, you don’t get nervous with any of them because they can all make the throws that you’re asking them to make. Now it’s just honing in one some of the decision-making and situational play.”
If you’re looking for indicators in this competition, trust would seem to be a good one. The coaches will gravitate toward the quarterback who knows the offense, understands situations and remains even-keeled. In other words, a quarterback they can trust.
The first week or so of practice will be spent on playbook installation and skill development. After that, the real competition will start.
“I think the experience is huge, it’s really valuable, and yet we’re not going to have a ton of experience at that position,” Chryst said. “I think we can coach that, though, and help them through that and they’ll gain it. That’s why I’m pumped that Jack did have some genuine experience where he’s been in a lot of different situations. The other quarterbacks have got to be smart enough to see the other quarterbacks on tape ... and learn from others’ mistakes.”
Coan was far from dynamic in any of his starts but was efficient in his final two, victories over Purdue and Miami (Fla.). His arrow is pointing up and he took first-team reps throughout the spring, but he’s taking nothing for granted.
“I’m not really worried about the competition,” Coan said. “It’s mainly a competition between me and myself, I feel like. I’ll bet you the other quarterbacks would say the same. It’s really just focusing on how you can improve yourself and maximize each and every play.”
Still, the game situations Coan experienced last season give him a mental library to draw on that the others don’t have. He didn’t make many plays down the field, but that should come with growth, both in his confidence and the coaches’ confidence in him.
“I feel like it helped a lot, just playing in all the different situations and environments,” Coan said. “It’s one thing to play in practice, but it’s a whole ‘nother speed in the game.”
Mertz has experience of a different kind, having been exposed to a wide variety of approaches at the various camps and all-star games he attended. During the spring, he threw with accuracy, touch and anticipation — signs of a freshman who is wise beyond his years.
The best thing about Mertz is he showed up with the proper attitude. He even swore off Twitter six months ago so he could concentrate on preparing himself to compete for the starting job.
“The biggest thing was just spring ball, graduating early, getting up here,” Mertz said. “Spring ball came and once you just throw yourself into it and just say, ‘I’m all in. I’m just going to test myself to see how I do,’ that’s when you really grow. I thought it was great for my growth and my aspect on the whole playbook.”
The competition will play itself out, but my belief is Coan’s experience will earn him the starting job, in part because the opener is on the road against a quality South Florida team. Some of Chryst’s quarterback decisions at UW support that belief. He usually picked the one who had played the most or been in the program the longest.
As UW’s offensive coordinator in 2007, Chryst chose senior Tyler Donovan over touted transfer Allan Evridge. In 2009, he surprised everyone by picking fourth-year junior Scott Tolzien over highly rated redshirt freshman Curt Phillips. In 2015, his first year as UW’s coach, Chryst chose senior incumbent Joel Stave over junior Bart Houston. The next year, he picked Houston over Hornibrook, then a redshirt freshman.
Chryst’s history doesn’t guarantee any one outcome this year, though. All we really know is the competition is finally on.