Marcus Graham’s three-person traveling party hit the road last Tuesday morning for a 14-hour drive home to Mount Holly, N.C., after visiting with the University of Wisconsin football program. It had been an exhilarating trip. But Graham didn’t know just how much he enjoyed his time there until he unpacked his thoughts on the car ride with both his father and his high school football coach.
Fourteen hours later, he realized they had spent most of the drive discussing every facet of the program and where Graham fit into the team’s future. Quite simply, the opportunity to play for the Badgers was too good to bypass after he had earned a scholarship offer on his visit.
“We were just star struck at all of it,” Graham told Land of 10. “It really opened our eyes and it made us really push toward a decision. Me and my dad said to each other, ‘This is the fit we’ve been looking for.’ We were excited about that.”
Added Graham’s father, David: “It just blew us away. We were still thinking about it all the way down the road 14 hours later driving back to North Carolina.”
Marcus Graham wasted little time in taking the next step. He announced Friday he had committed to Wisconsin as a member of the Badgers’ 2019 recruiting class.
Thankful 🙏🙏 pic.twitter.com/EcL52mwODt
— Marcus Graham (@TheMGraham) April 6, 2018
Graham, who is 6-foot and 175 pounds, is rated as a 3-star prospect and plays quarterback for Mount Island Charter. He won’t play quarterback at Wisconsin, but does not yet have a defined position. Graham said Badgers receivers coach Ted Gilmore wants him to play wide receiver, and defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard wants him at cornerback. If given the option, Graham noted his preference at this stage is receiver because he has played on offense his entire football career.
Wisconsin was not the first school to recognize Graham’s versatility. He chose Wisconsin over scholarship offers from Air Force, Campbell, Cornell, Dartmouth, East Carolina, Elon, Hampton, Howard, Old Dominion and Syracuse. But what stood out about Wisconsin were the relationships Graham felt he built with the coaching staff and the players.
Graham, who primarily was recruited by Wisconsin running backs coach John Settle, said offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph offered him a scholarship last Monday on his visit. During that conversation, Graham was struck by how they talked about family as much as football. Graham also noted that cornerback Madison Cone, a fellow North Carolina native, took the time to offer his thoughts on life at the university.
Meanwhile, David Graham was impressed with how disciplined the team was during drills, which he viewed as a reflection of the coaching staff. He also took mental notes about how the players interacted with them and almost couldn’t believe what he saw.
“They would come up, they would shake our hands, and if we asked them a question, they would respond,” David said. “And it just felt like they were welcoming and very honest. It seemed like a great family atmosphere, an environment that people felt really good about themselves and was caring. To be honest with you, you don’t get that at every place you go to when you visit.
“That was something that was there. It wasn’t staged. It was athletes that were just coming in and going out, and they would stop and talk. It felt really good as a dad to say, ‘I can leave my son here. These are some really good kids.'”
Graham completed 61.4 percent of his passes for 1,270 yards with 16 touchdowns and 1 interception during his junior season. He ran for 858 yards with 15 touchdowns and averaged 8.3 yards per carry. Graham also played wide receiver and caught 13 passes for 265 yards with 4 touchdowns. He noted his quickness and ability to stop on a dime to cut had helped him stand out on the field.
“He has unreal talent from the standpoint of pure athletic ability,” said Mountain Island football coach Robert Washington Sr., who also made the campus visit. “Of course, I feel like Marcus flew under the radar a little bit. I think at first, Marcus went to a lot of camps the last couple years as a quarterback. So no one really was checking for him because I guess he thought he would get a couple more inches on him and be a quarterback. Once he committed to just being an athlete and playing a position that best suits the team at the next level, he blew up.”
Marcus Graham’s junior season highlights
Washington said his favorite moment from the season came after he chastised Graham on the sideline for a mistake he had made. Graham was working with several new teammates and was building trust with a young offensive line. Early in the game, Graham rarely remained in the pocket long enough to throw and instead took off with his legs before the play had developed.
“I call a timeout just to chew him out,” Washington said. “And I’m chewing him out and I’m looking him in the face. I’m just in full-blown coaching mode. He looks back at me and he says, ‘Yes, sir,’ and goes in there and does it exactly the way we wanted it done.
“I looked toward my offensive coordinator and was like, ‘Man, where do they get these kids from? These kids don’t exist anymore.’ This is not the typical kid because in this generation, it’s more of asking, ‘Why?’ Marcus will ask you, ‘Coach, how do you need it done,’ even when he disagrees. And then when he disagrees, we’ll go into film room. We do film study, and then that’s when he’ll ask his questions.”
Wisconsin has done an excellent job in recent seasons of evaluating and identifying talent well before other programs. Graham appears to represent the latest in a long line of such players, even if coaches must determine his position.
The Badgers signed two players listed as athletes in the 2018 class and ultimately placed Aron Cruickshank at receiver and Jaylan Franklin at tight end. Both played quarterback in high school like Graham because they were the best athletes on the team. So did T.J. Edwards, a 2-star recruit who has developed into an All-American linebacker for the Badgers.
“I think he’ll be a great fit because Wisconsin is smash-mouth,” Washington said of Graham. “It’s a good brand of smash mouth ball. Marcus is a physical kid, so I think he’ll be a great blocker for Wisconsin if he has to block for the running backs or quarterbacks. Plus I think with his speed, it allows Wisconsin to have a different dynamic. You could put Marcus in the slot. You put a linebacker on him, it’s going to be a nightmare for him.”
Graham’s commitment boosts Wisconsin’s 2019 class back up to No. 5 in the 247Sports composite team rankings. The Badgers have never finished higher than No. 30. He becomes the ninth player committed in the class, and Graham already has a relationship with one member of the group. He and wide receiver Nolan Groulx (Cornelius, N.C.) were teammates on a traveling youth football team.
“We have a real close relationship,” Graham said. “It was cool to commit and see how excited he was, having the possibility to play with each other again.”
Given that Wisconsin was Graham’s most recent offer, he likely would have earned more opportunities from Power-5 programs that took notice of his skill set. Washington already had begun receiving inquiries from other schools after Graham’s Wisconsin offer. He said Graham considered that prospect when he made his college decision.
“Marcus is a loyal guy,” Washington said. “If you believe in him, he’s going to give you 110 percent of everything he has. He said, ‘Well, if other schools offer, I’m not sure if they did just offer because Wisconsin offered.’ You’re dealing with a smart kid that he’s able to look at those things. He said, ‘I love the campus, I love the facility. Distance isn’t an issue for me. So it’s a no-brainer. There’s nothing more to wait for.'”
Graham intends to make another campus visit this summer so his mother, Sandy, can see the school. Although she was unable to make the trip last week, she heard plenty of positive feedback from Marcus and David. She said neither her son nor her husband is easily impressed, but the two couldn’t stop talking about Wisconsin when they returned home.
They’ll have plenty more room for excited discussion on the next 14-hour drive.
“We felt like this is the best fit for us no matter what school was going to come afterward,” Graham said. “It really never was a factor to us about who’s coming next or playing that game. This is the place, we felt at home, so we were ready to make that decision.”