If the start of spring football practice is here, it can only mean one thing at the University of Wisconsin.
It’s time to talk quarterbacks.
Coming off a 10-4 season in which they finished ranked 11th in the nation, the Badgers return all four quarterbacks from the deepest and most talented quarterback room they’ve ever had.
Normally, that would signal a quiet spring with little or no change in the pecking order, especially since senior-to-be Jack Coan established himself as a quality Big Ten Conference quarterback while making 14 starts last season. At UW, however, it means it’s time to rev up the debate over who should start under center.
Of course, most of the talk comes from outside the program. Or is it all of the talk?
Coach Paul Chryst met with reporters to kick off spring drills Monday and two things stood out when he was asked about his approach with the quarterbacks during the next 15 practices: First, there will be no competition this spring to determine playing time in the fall, and second, Chryst loves everything about the quarterback room, which consists of Coan; last year’s co-backups, redshirt freshman Graham Mertz and redshirt sophomore Chase Wolf, and luckless Danny Vanden Boom, a redshirt junior who might be vying for the starting job in many other UW seasons but can’t seem to make much headway with that threesome in front of him.
Actually, it makes no sense for Chryst to conduct a quarterback derby this spring. There are plenty of practice repetitions to go around and Chryst said everyone would get enough of them to show improvement, which is the primary focus for the coaches and players.
“The spring’s a great time to improve your craft,” Chryst said. “Jack did do a lot of really good stuff last year and yet I think one of his strengths as a player, as a competitor, is he’s always working to get better. And he needs to. We all do. In the spring, there’ll be a lot of reps. Whether it’s Jack, whether it’s Graham, you’ve got Chase and Danny, those guys will all get work. I’m not worrying about how we’re going to play in the fall. I’m more excited to see if we can make the most out of this spring for them.”
Clearly, individual improvement will be the No. 1 goal this spring. Besides, why would Chryst declare a pecking order months before he has to? There already is risk enough in this era of transfer-itis, where players can — and do — transfer right up to the start of fall camps in August.
If any of the quarterbacks were inclined to leave, however, they would probably be gone by now. Mertz, Wolf and Vanden Boom have to know Coan is entrenched as the starter following a junior season in which he made huge jumps in every statistical category. They also know he’s in his final season.
Nationally, Coan ranked seventh with a 69.6 completion percentage and 19th in passing efficiency. His 18-to-5 touchdown pass-to-interception ratio was excellent. But while Coan is now a veteran with 19 starts under his belt, the rest have seen scant game action. Mertz, who was being prepared to start when Coan battled a knee injury near midseason (it was a false alarm), attempted 10 passes in two games, completing nine. Wolf, who has shown an intriguing ability to make plays on the move, and Vanden Boom have attempted — and completed — one pass apiece during their careers.
Those numbers don’t signal “quarterback derby” in any way, shape or form, no matter how much fans clamor for the heavily recruited Mertz to play. Still, Chryst admires the competitive nature of all four quarterbacks and knows they’re all intent on improving their skills to better position themselves for playing time when there is an opening.
“That group, they’ve done a ton,” Chryst said. “We’re actually just reviewing the winter conditioning and a couple of the strength coaches commented that the energy that that group gives competing against each other for the team, it affects the whole room. I think they’ve done a really good job of being competitive and balancing that with being good teammates for each other. I think the individuals in that room, they’re pretty impressive and how they approach things has been impressive. That’s why we’re so excited this spring for them to get their work.”
Chryst likes the group so much he didn’t bring in a scholarship quarterback during this year’s recruiting cycle. The coaches did convince Daniel Wright of Sergeant Bluff, Iowa, to walk on, but he won’t be a factor until later in his career at best.
For now, it’s Coan, Mertz, Wolf and Vanden Boom, all trying to utilize their practice reps to get better.
“They’re going to compete against each other; they’re going to compete against themselves,” Chryst said. “They’re a competitive group. But they won’t do it at the expense of (one another). I don’t think there’s one of them that even in the back of their mind is happy when the other ones sail a ball or something. They’d rather beat you at it than have a guy screw up. And I think our players know that. They know that those four guys will do anything for this team. That’s a great starting point.”
It’s the ending point that matters, and if the expected improvement takes place, UW’s quarterbacking duties will be in good hands by the fall.
Intriguing position battles to watch when the Wisconsin Badgers start spring practices
Intriguing position battles to watch when the Wisconsin Badgers start spring practices
Let’s get this out of the way immediately — UW coach Paul Chryst won’t name either Jack Coan or Graham Mertz as the team’s starter during spring practices. That much was proven last year as Coan took starter’s reps but didn’t earn the title from Chryst until fall.
The question this time around is how much ground has Mertz gained on Coan throughout the season.
Coan fought through injuries last year that almost held him out of the team’s Nov. 9 game against Iowa. Mertz said at Rose Bowl media day that he took the No. 1 quarterback reps that week, and offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said Mertz was ready to play.
“I thought he just did an outstanding job of preparing. I saw his confidence level improve tremendously. I thought how he handled the huddle, how he handled everyone at the line of scrimmage, how he prepared, I saw all those things kind of come together for him. And I told him those weeks, if you've got to go, you're ready, you're prepared that way. I could see it. I could see his development,” Rudolph said at a Rose Bowl media conference.
However, no one should underestimate the toughness and perseverance that Coan showed last year. He completed nearly 70 percent of his passes, gained 2,727 yards and had 18 touchdowns and five interceptions. His teammates spoke often of Coan’s consistency and leadership.
“He’s a leader that he’s going to get his job done. He’s someone you can trust. I think with being a leader, that’s probably the biggest thing, is just being able to trust a guy. His character, trust who he is, trust he’s not going to lead you wrong, he’s not going to steer you wrong,” receiver A.J. Taylor said in November.
“Jack’s doing to do what he needs to do, everything he needs to do to get his body right, get his mind right, to just be as sharp as he can possibly be. It makes everybody else want to do the same.”
Assuming both Coan and Mertz are healthy, this will be a battle until late August.
When UW’s offense got back on track in the latter half of the season, the middle three offensive linemen — left guard David Moorman, center Tyler Biadasz and right guard Jason Erdmann — got in sync. All three of those players are gone now, with Moorman and Erdmann graduating and Biadasz leaving a year early for the NFL.
How the Badgers replace those players isn’t so much a question of if they have the talent to do so, but whom among the team’s bevy of O-line choices step up and earn spots. Left tackle Cole Van Lanen will more than likely stay in his role, but the other four spots on the line may feature new starters.
Kayden Lyles and Josh Seltzner each started four games at guard in a rotation with Erdmann. They could be ready to take those roles in full, but the question becomes who else could be in that guard mix. If Rudolph, also UW’s offensive line coach, elects to move last year’s starting right tackle Logan Bruss to guard — a spot he played at times last season — then he becomes a strong, experienced option.
Such a move would also create a spot at right tackle, another position that has multiple options. Can former five-star recruit Logan Brown get healthy enough to compete for the job? Can former four-star recruit Joe Tippmann get in the mix? Will freshman five-star recruit Jack Nelson make a push for snaps?
Expect to see a lot of rotation during spring practices and competition at these spots to be high.
Questions are wide receiver for the Badgers aren’t centered as much on the starting spots, rather the backup roles that still get a good deal of snaps.
Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor are both seniors next season and with the departures of A.J. Taylor and Quintez Cephus, are the most experienced receivers on UW’s roster. They’ll need to assert themselves as true No. 1 and No. 2 options after spending most of their careers in a rotation. One of them will also need to become a reliable third-down option like Cephus was to help the offense stay on schedule.
But the Badgers need to find more options behind Davis and Pryor to create big plays. One UW package had Jack Dunn and Adam Krumholz at receiver last year, and it most often was a handoff. But Dunn caught a touchdown pass against Purdue on a play-action pass from that set.
An option at receiver already on the roster is A.J. Abbott, a former three-star recruit who at 6-foot-2 and nearly 200 pounds is similar to Cephus physically. But incoming freshmen like Chimere Dike, a three-star recruit already on campus, have a chance to carve out a role.
How the group comes together under new position coach Alvis Whitted will also be something to keep an eye on.
It’s unlikely one player will replace the output Zack Baun had for the Badgers at outside linebacker in terms of rushing the passer. Partially because of Baun’s development and the tools he had as a senior for the Badgers, but also because the outside linebacker snaps may be divvied up more.
Noah Burks, a senior, is one of the few players in the group with snaps under his belt. He played opposite Baun last season, with Tyler Johnson and Christian Bell rotating in that role late in the year. With Johnson and Bell gone, defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard will look for someone to step up at outside linebacker.
Izayah Green-May, a junior, lost the starting role to Burks last season and played sparingly. He saw his most action in the Big Ten Championship Game after Burks was injured. Leonhard said that Green-May, who stands 6-foot-6, has to use his size differently in order to be an effective rusher.
If Burks and Green-May can secure the starting roles, perhaps the talented crop of freshmen — four-star prospects Nick Herbig and Kaden Johnson, and three-star Aaron Witt — can make their way into the action as rotational players.
“Really like that linebacker group and how it shaped up and how they complement each other,” Leonhard said on the December signing day.
The Badgers will have six viable options at cornerback that have gotten a good number of game snaps — Caesar Williams (redshirt sr.), Faion Hicks (redshirt jr.), Deron Harrell (redshirt jr.), Rachad Wildgoose (jr.), Donte Burton (redshirt soph.) and Semar Melvin (redshirt fr.).
Williams was a crucial piece on the outside late last season, and made some game-swinging plays against Minnesota to return Paul Bunyan’s Axe to Madison. Wildgoose was the best option in the slot, but Leonhard showed he was comfortable giving snaps to whomever was the hot hand at the position.
Players who earn starting roles may still be part of a rotation at their spot — cornerback depth will be crucial the Badgers next season. Nine of UW’s 12 regular-season opponents next season feature spread-based offenses.
“You cannot take a day off as a corner, because you’re either making good habits or bad habits. To us, it’s a lot of just seeing who’s locked in, how they’re feeling, how comfortable are they?” Leonhard said before the Minnesota game. “Health sometimes plays into that factor, and a lot of it to me is confidence. That’s the name of that position, confidence and technique.”
Contact Tom Oates at firstname.lastname@example.org or 608-252-6172.