When Graham Mertz jogged onto the football field for his high school team’s season opener Sept. 1, he was a quarterback who had never started a varsity game. At the time, Mertz held one scholarship offer from Kansas based on his work at offseason camps. But the truth is, his ceiling as a college prospect was uncertain.
“You always kind of hoped,” his father, Ron Mertz, told Land of 10. “But you never really knew how he’d do once he had the chance to be the guy.”
As it turned out, Graham Mertz was nothing short of spectacular. His first three games of varsity film at Blue Valley North (Kan.) were enough to impress Wisconsin, which offered him a scholarship. Mertz committed to Wisconsin on Oct. 8 and then dominated in leading his team to its first state championship. Ole Miss and Michigan took notice by extending scholarship offers.
The latest twist came Wednesday, when Mertz tweeted he had received a scholarship offer from Ohio State. If Mertz ultimately signs with Wisconsin, he would be one of the highest-rated quarterbacks the program has had in the recruiting ranking era. Mertz is listed as the No. 7 pro-style quarterback in the 2019 class, according to the 247Sports composite.
Given the growing interest in his talent, whether the Badgers can hang onto Mertz in the coming year will be among the most closely watched storylines in Wisconsin’s recruiting class. But both Graham Mertz and his father reaffirmed to Land of 10 on Tuesday his commitment to Wisconsin — one day before the Ohio State offer — citing the relationships Mertz has built with quarterbacks coach Jon Budmayr and coach Paul Chryst.
“He’s fully committed to Wisconsin,” Ron said. “It’s flattering to see all the other attention. There’s definitely kind of a sense that Wisconsin was here first, it feels right in my gut and that’s where he’s going to be. But any 17-year-old kid has to find some satisfaction in the attention of others. I’m sure he’s enjoyed that. I try to keep him grounded.
“In fact, he met with Coach Budmayr [Tuesday] and just again had that connection of this is a really great, high-character guy who I look forward to spending my college career with. He hasn’t shown any wavering. He’s all in. It feels like home, I guess, is the punch line for him.”
Mertz initially visited Wisconsin for a football camp in June 2016 before his sophomore season, which helped put him on the Badgers’ radar. He took an unofficial visit to watch Wisconsin’s 33-24 victory against Northwestern this season on Sept. 30, less than two weeks after he earned a scholarship offer. Minnesota then offered him on Oct. 4, but that didn’t deter Mertz from committing to the Badgers.
What was it he liked so much about Wisconsin?
“Everything,” Graham Mertz said. “You can’t go wrong with the education, the game day experience, the amount of support the fans have for the team and then just the players on the team. Coach Chryst is a great guy. Coach Budmayr, our relationship, all three of us, it’s just getting stronger. We’re going to get this ’19 recruiting class going.”
Ron Mertz was an offensive lineman for Minnesota in the late 1980s. He remembered being recruited by then-Iowa linebackers coach Barry Alvarez, who went on to lead Wisconsin’s historic turnaround after he became coach in 1990. Alvarez is now the school’s athletic director.
“Just the way he’s turned that program to be such a successful, credible and high-character kind of program, you never hear anything negative about what he’s doing and what the Badgers program is all about,” Ron said. “So the reputation has been there.
“And really kind of on Graham’s behalf, he’s a relationship person. I think he has a pretty strong sense of the kind of people he wants to be around. From Day 1, Coach Budmayr, Coach Chryst and even from my memory, Coach Alvarez, had that.”
The 6-foot-4, 205-pound Mertz has arrived at this place after spending two years as a backup at Bishop Miege High School and playing on the junior varsity team. For all his potential, he just so happened to be stuck behind one of the best quarterbacks in the state, Carter Putz, who earned Kansas Gatorade Player of the Year honors in 2016. Putz was one grade ahead of Mertz, which meant Mertz wouldn’t have started this season, either.
The Mertz family decided Graham would transfer to Blue Valley North, which was located about 10 miles south.
“The best decision we ever made, in hindsight, was to give him a chance to go do his thing,” Ron said.
Graham Mertz’s junior season highlights
Graham Mertz said the task of taking over as the starting quarterback at a different high school and building trust with new teammates and friends was “a little intimidating” at first. But Mertz’s leadership became apparent during offseason workouts, and he was named a captain entering his junior season.
“I really wanted to take on that role this year because I never really had the chance to do that,” Graham Mertz said. “So being a starter at a new school, coming into summer workouts, I really wanted to push the team, push myself to become that leader for the team. It ended up working out great.”
Blue Valley North football coach Andy Sims noted his team runs a spread system that is quarterback-driven and requires the signal caller to make audibles and checks at the line of scrimmage, as well as call plays himself. Sims said Mertz struggled early in the season because he had never been asked to fulfill such a role.
Blue Valley North opened the season 3-4. But then Mertz and his team caught fire, winning the final six games to capture the Kansas Class 6A state championship. The Mustangs averaged 45.5 points per game during that stretch. Mertz finished his season completing 269 of 434 passes (62 percent) for 3,684 yards with 45 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. He added 5 rushing touchdowns.
“One of my biggest strengths has to be my pocket presence and pre-snap reading and post-snap confirming my pre-snap reads,” Mertz said. “It’s kind of just playing mind games with the defense and looking off safeties, throwing people open. I love everything about this game. I’m trying to get everything at the strongest point it can be at.”
Mertz’s team featured five different players that recorded at least 500 yards receiving, including two 1,000-yard receivers. Even though the offense is spread-based, Sims said Mertz would be perfect for Wisconsin’s pro-style system.
“I think that’s going to fit right into his wheelhouse,” Sims said. “If he has the opportunity to drop back, play action, have max protection and hit one of the best receivers in the country on a post route, he can throw that football. There’s nothing wrong with that at all.
“But if he’s got to divvy the ball around a little bit, there’s nothing wrong with that. He’s very similar to Russell Wilson in that aspect in my mind. Russell Wilson has tremendous feet. He can take off and run. But if you just look at Russell’s Wilson’s mental makeup and his arm strength, it’s very high and very strong. I think you’re starting to see that.”
Mertz was at his best in the biggest moments. He guided his team to a thrilling 44-37 double-overtime victory against Blue Valley in the state semifinal, throwing for 305 yards with 3 touchdowns. He also rushed for 95 yards and accounted for 5 touchdowns total. In a 49-42 state championship victory against Derby, Mertz completed 24 of 30 passes for 462 yards with 4 touchdowns. He scored on a 15-yard touchdown run with 57 seconds remaining to seal the victory.
“That’s what every quarterback should look forward to,” Mertz said. “In the state championship, it was kind of a shootout. We got the ball on our 3-yard line. We went 97 yards in a minute or so with one timeout to win the game, which was probably my favorite memory of the year. I love those moments.”
Mertz has been a quarterback his entire football-playing life and began working with local quarterback coach Justin Hoover when he was 12. Those sessions, which focused on footwork, drills and leadership, helped Mertz to be a much more advanced quarterback despite his limited game experience. Sims noted his maturity, humility and work ethic also had begun to shine through, which make him well equipped to handle the recruiting spotlight.
Mertz was invited this month to participate in the U.S. Army National Combine in San Antonio, Texas. The combine features 650 underclassmen from 2019, 2020 and 2021 who take part in testing, camp drills and 1-on-1 competitions. Mertz earned rave reviews and was deemed one of the best quarterbacks there, which only enhanced his stock. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and wide receivers coach Dan Enos visited Mertz on Friday, five days before Ohio State entered the fray with its scholarship offer.
In just a few months, Mertz has gone from a relatively unknown commodity to one of the most sought-after quarterbacks in his class. He is sure to attract even more suitors as his senior season approaches. But, despite the increased attention, Mertz insists he remains content with his commitment to the Badgers.
“It’s different with Wisconsin,” Mertz said. “It’s a family there. It’s kind of hard to say no to family. Right now I’m just sticking with Wisconsin, sticking with my gut, and that’s where I want to be.”