When Graham Mertz committed to the University of Wisconsin in October of his junior year at Blue Valley North High, he expected interest from other programs to cease.
Quite the opposite happened in the following months, and by the time Mertz entered his senior season, the quarterback held scholarship offers from most of the top programs in the country. They included Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame, Georgia, Ohio State, Michigan and LSU, just to name a few.
With every new offer came more concern from Badgers fans that one of UW’s prized recruits would leave the 2019 class for a seemingly more appealing opportunity elsewhere.
“There’s a lot of fans out there that come back and tweet at me after every offer I had. It was kind of funny,” Mertz said. “But I knew where I wanted to be, and I knew it wasn’t going to change.
“It was definitely challenging just trying to deal with it and all the, ‘Come here, look at this. Come here, look at this.’ Telling you what you want to hear. But in the end I knew Wisconsin was the perfect fit for me and nothing was going to beat it.”
Mertz eased concerns by shutting down his recruitment in June, and the day has finally arrived where one of UW’s most anticipated recruits ever — the headliner in one of the program’s highest-rated classes of all time — solidifies his commitment with a signature.
The Mission, Kan., native is expected to sign his Letter of Intent on Wednesday, the first day of an early signing period that runs through Friday. The Badgers’ other 18 known scholarship commitments are also expected to sign during that time, rather than waiting until National Signing Day on Feb. 6.
UW’s 2019 class currently ranks in the top 30 nationally by all major recruiting sites, and its 26th-place ranking by 247sports’ composite would be its highest ever. And in a group perhaps more talented than any the Badgers have ever brought in, Mertz stands as the most hyped of them all.
“It’s a lot of pressure for him, but I know he’s going to handle it well,” said tight end commitment Hayden Rucci, who will room with Mertz at UW next year. “He’s had the spotlight on him for a while now, and as you can tell, he knows what he’s doing. He’s the quarterback type, so he’ll be fine.”
The expectations placed on Mertz aren’t even necessarily all about the future. The U.S. Army All-American and Elite 11 quarterback will enroll early next month to participate in spring practice, and many fans want to see him compete for the starting job right away.
Doing so would involve beating out a three-year starter in rising senior Alex Hornibrook, who’s experienced a difficult 2018 season in which he’s completed 59.5 percent of his passes for 1,532 yards with 13 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in nine games.
Mertz reportedly completed 61.1 percent of his passes for 3,886 yards with 51 touchdowns and 10 interceptions while leading Blue Valley North to a state title game appearance. There will certainly be a transition period at the next level. Mertz isn’t accustomed to taking snaps under center, and high school football in Kansas certainly isn’t known for being among the best in the country.
Enrolling early should help ease him into the college game, though, and Mertz said he’s already “been going to work a little bit” during recent visits with UW head coach Paul Chryst and quarterbacks coach Jon Budmayr.
“I think he’s handling (the high expectations) well. Everybody has set a bar for him to reach,” UW running back commit Julius Davis said. “I think he’s up for the challenge to try to get that spot, and I think he’s ready. … He probably takes pride in people believing in him, but he knows that there’s work that comes behind it. You can’t just get a spot from somebody. You’ve got to really work for it and prove yourself.”
Mertz said he doesn’t feel any pressure as his move to Madison nears. He knows he’ll need some time to adjust to the speed at the college level, but he’s ready to put in the work to catch on quickly.
“I matured a ton over the summer, physically and mentally,” Mertz said. “I want to be more of a student of the game and really break down defenses and know what’s going on more than just I’m throwing a ball every play.
“I always love to compete. Competition brings out the best in everyone. If my best isn’t the best, then that guy should be ahead of me. … I’m ready to compete.”
BADGERS’ 2019 RECRUITING CLASS
Notable: As one of the top-ranked recruits in UW history, Brown could compete for a starting spot sooner rather than later.
Notable: Mertz is arguably one of the most talented quarterback recruit the Badgers have ever brought in, although starting at that position as a true freshman is a big ask for anyone.
Notable: While Tippmann may not receive quite the attention of Brown, he could have the talent to ultimately become a multiple-year starter for UW.
Notable: Johnson committed last month and could give the Badgers more depth at nose guard after the departure of Olive Sagapolu.
Notable: Lytle comes from powerhouse St. John Bosco High and also held offers from Clemson, Notre Dame, Texas, Auburn and other big-time programs.
Notable: Rucci, whose father played offensive line at Penn State, garnered multiple Big Ten offers and already built a close relationship with Mertz.
Notable: A Menomonee Falls High standout and one of the long-time members of this class, Davis received offers from LSU, USC and others after his commitment to UW.
Notable: Njongmeta, from Lincolnshire, Ill., turned down a host of Ivy League offers to join the Badgers’ 2019 class.
Notable: Chenal, a Grantsburg native, became the first member of the Badgers’ class in September of 2017. His brother, fullback John Chenal, walked on at UW this year.
Notable: UW convinced Toler, a teammate of Lytle at St. John Bosco High, to flip his commitment from Colorado last week. USC also reportedly came in with a late offer.
Notable: Melvin, from powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas High, joins the long list of recent Badgers defensive backs from South Florida.
Notable: While not the highest-rated recruit in the class, Paez held offers from Texas A&M, Kentucky, Nebraska, Louisville and NC State.
Notable: Engram turned down a reported offer from Penn State, where father Bobby Engram played wide receiver, to join UW’s class in June.
Notable: Like Melvin, Williams is another cornerback from South Florida who opted to move north, despite reportedly holding an offer from the in-state Florida Gators.
Notable: Meyers flew under the radar until UW became the only Power Five program to extend a scholarship offer.
Notable: Benton, who committed back in May, is one of three defensive tackles in the class and was also a standout wrestler for Janesville Craig High.
Notable: Cundiff became the second tight end in the Badgers’ 2019 class when he flipped from Kansas in October.
Notable: A teammate of Brown at East Kentwood High in Grand Rapids, Mich., Bracey flipped from Western Michigan in November.
Notable: Easterling flipped from Akron on Dec. 9 and could fight for early playing time after the departure of senior fullback Alec Ingold.