MADISON, Wis. -- The temptation is to call Graham Mertz a pioneer. Top-shelf quarterback recruits like him simply don't wind up at Wisconsin.
In the past 15 years, Wisconsin has signed some notable quarterbacks -- Bart Houston, D.J. Gillins, Austin Kafentzis, Curt Phillips -- but none who ranked in the ESPN 300 or its predecessor, the ESPN 150. Even Russell Wilson, the quarterback to whom Wisconsin fans compare all others, didn't approach Mertz's accolades as a high school prospect. (Wilson transferred to Wisconsin from NC State in the summer of 2011.)
Mertz, meanwhile, is ranked as ESPN's No. 1 pocket passer and No. 21 overall recruit in the 2019 class. He was an Elite 11 finalist, threw 96 touchdown passes in his final two high school seasons, and won Gatorade Player of the Year honors in Kansas and MVP honors at the All-American Bowl in January. His scholarship offer list included Ohio State, Georgia, Clemson, Alabama, Texas A&M, Notre Dame and many others.
But pioneers are, by definition, the first to explore new territories. Graham Mertz is not a stranger in a strange land. Wisconsin was in his blood long before he became a Badger.
There's the weather: "I love the cold," said Mertz, born to a Minnesotan father and a Sconnie mother. "I hate the heat, which makes me like the cold."
There's the league: "I grew up watching Big Ten football, so I knew I was going to end up in the Big Ten. I loved how Big Ten people play. I don't know what it is. The way I fit into that was like the perfect thing."
There's also the state of Wisconsin, which Mertz has visited his entire life because his mother is from Green Bay. Despite not being a huge NFL fan, he owns three Brett Favre jerseys (two Packers, one Vikings).
"We'd always go up to Door County," Mertz said. "My grandpa had a cottage right on Lake Michigan, so growing up, I fell in love with the state."
All of those natural ties, combined with Mertz's instant connection with the Badgers football program -- especially its homegrown coaches -- led him to pick Wisconsin. His recruitment spiked with national interest, but he took a sensible and scientific approach to his choice, and stuck with it despite bigger-name suitors.
"He has that Midwest state of mind," said Mertz's mother, Amy. "That's what drew him to Wisconsin."
Since 2009, Wisconsin is 102-33 with seven seasons of 10 or more wins, three Big Ten championships and five New Year's Six bowl appearances, despite no recruiting classes that placed in the Top 25 of ESPN's national class rankings. Wisconsin wins with recruits who fit, who develop and who want to be there.
Mertz, who enrolled early at Wisconsin this winter, might just be a more advanced version, at the most important position. For a program that has practically trademarked the very good season, he could be the missing piece to the College Football Playoff puzzle.
"One thing Graham recognized is the success Wisconsin has had, maybe even without that elite quarterback play," said private QB coach Justin Hoover, who has trained Mertz since Mertz was in sixth grade. "For him, it was recognizing, 'What if they did have that? If I am truly that, what kind of stamp can I put on that program?'"
JON BUDMAYR'S PHONE buzzed throughout the winter and spring of 2018. Budmayr, Wisconsin's 28-year-old quarterbacks coach, knew what each call meant: another scholarship offer. Perhaps it was Georgia. Or Clemson. Or LSU. Or Notre Dame. Choose a blue blood. They all wanted Mertz, who had committed to the Badgers the previous fall.
But Budmayr didn't pick up the phone with trembling hands, or answer with trepidation in his voice. He didn't know who had offered Mertz, but he knew how the conversation would go.
"[Graham] would call and say, 'Coach, just giving you a heads up. So-and-so called and I'm not going there,'" Budmayr recalled. "And I'd say, 'I know you're not going there, I appreciate the call.' And then we'd talk for 20 minutes about something completely beyond football."
Those secondary conversations ranged from Mertz's basketball-playing sisters -- Lauren played a season at Kansas State before knee injuries ended her career, and Mya is a junior on Drake's team -- to Mertz's roots in Wisconsin and Minnesota, to Mertz's buddies back home in Overland Park, Kansas, just outside Kansas City. Sometimes the conversations went deep, debating topics like the correct pronunciation of the soft drink Fanta (Budmayr is adamant it should be Faun-ta).
"It wasn't ever forced, it wasn't ever uncomfortable," Budmayr said. "It was just natural."
Until that wild winter and spring of 2018, Mertz's recruitment had been fairly typical for a Wisconsin target. The UW coaches had seen him at a camp early in his high school career and liked him, then offered him immediately after seeing his junior game film early in the fall of 2017. At that point, only Kansas and Minnesota had offered.
In September 2017, shortly after that offer from the Badgers, Mertz visited Wisconsin's campus with his mother. Amy, whose brother graduated from Wisconsin, remembers going to games at Camp Randall Stadium when students would crowd-surf up the stands.
Graham and Amy saw Wisconsin beat Northwestern and spent time with the coaching staff, including Budmayr and head coach Paul Chryst, two former Badgers quarterbacks (Chryst was born in Madison and grew up in the state in Madison and Platteville).
"Paul Chryst is amazing," Amy said. "He feels like family to us, just his personality. Graham's a Midwest kid. When we would look at any other school, it was like, 'No, you're not a Southern-school kid, you're Midwest.' And he's a nice kid. That's just how he fit in there."
After that weekend, Graham told himself, "This is where I've got to be." He committed about a week later.
"Not saying Wisconsin isn't a big brand, but there were probably brands that were flashier that he could have picked," Budmayr said. "It speaks to Graham's confidence in himself."
Wisconsin's formula of identifying, evaluating and securing strong prospects relatively early had worked. But the recruitment wasn't over, even if both sides wanted it to be.
"I feel like Wisconsin's going to push for a national championship with Graham at quarterback." Blue Valley North coach Andy Sims
In his first season at Blue Valley North High School in the fall of 2017, Mertz led the team to a state championship, passing for 3,684 yards and 45 touchdowns, while adding five rushing scores. After excelling at the U.S. Army National Combine in January 2018, Mertz's offer list grew with instantly recognizable programs. "It started cascading," said Mertz's father, Ron, who played offensive line for Minnesota in the late 1980s and met Amy at the school. "In the elite quarterback world, there's four or five [players] every year, that's where it gets crazy. They all tend to follow. Once the first one tips, their boosters are pissed if you don't pursue a kid at that level. It can be overwhelming. He was in that place. He was having a hard time saying no.
"Dabo [Swinney] calls, [Nick] Saban calls, Urban Meyer calls. He's a polite kid, he's going to talk to all of them."
Although Ron had played in the Big Ten -- Lou Holtz recruited him to Minnesota -- and both of Graham's sisters played Division I basketball, the family couldn't anticipate the recruiting frenzy.
"Definitely stressful," Graham said. "You get 30 calls a day, people trying to pull you in different ways."
Eventually, Ron stepped in by bringing "some science" to the selection process.
During a three-hour airport layover -- Graham thinks they were in Madison, Wisconsin, but Ron said it might have been Columbus, Ohio -- Ron created a spreadsheet, which he still has somewhere. They put all of Graham's possible schools across the top and categories down the side: education, proximity, coaching staff, longevity, locker room, quarterback growth potential. Then they ranked each category on a five-point scale.
Each time an offer came in, Ron and Graham updated the file. They ran the numbers for months.
"No matter what way we did it," Graham said, "Wisconsin always came out No. 1."
ON JUNE 14, 2018, Mertz posted a message on Twitter under the heading "Clear mind..." He thanked coaches and schools for their interest but reaffirmed his pledge to Wisconsin. "I am completely shutting down my recruitment," he ended the message in bold type.
Six months later, after throwing a state-record 51 touchdown passes and taking Blue Valley North back to the state title game, Mertz signed with Wisconsin.
"From the very beginning when he committed, he knew it was right," Amy said. "I never, ever, ever once questioned his loyalty. We're a very loyal family. I knew he was a perfect fit for Wisconsin."
That Mertz kept his word when so many in his situation flip isn't a surprise. But he had to break another commitment along the way. The reason Mertz didn't draw much interest until his junior year is because he didn't see the field at his first school, Bishop Miege. Mertz shined at several major college camps, but he backed up Carter Putz, the Kansas Gatorade Player of the Year who led Bishop Miege to three state championships and was one year ahead of Mertz. (Putz now plays baseball at Notre Dame.)
"He felt a little bit caged," Ron said. "We got a lot of, 'Really love him, need to see film' responses (from college coaches). Everyone was whispering that [Graham was] the Division I kid, high caliber, high potential, and yet he couldn't get on the field. He was stuck."
The Mertzes spoke with Bishop Miege coach Jon Holmes, who understood the situation and supported Graham's next step. Blue Valley North was ascending under coach Andy Sims and used a quarterback-friendly offense that suited Graham.
"I'm always leery of guys transferring out at the high school level," Hoover said. "Most of the time it's because they're not good enough. In this case, it wasn't necessarily that. To get to be a top guy in America, it's pretty important that you play your junior year. The transition, I don't know most of them work out that way. Most of them aren't Graham.
"Graham walks onto a new field, and it doesn't take very long to realize why he's there."
Sims saw Mertz as unproven and unknown -- a taller version of your typical high school junior. Led by a 35-member senior class, Blue Valley North was poised for big things in 2017, regardless of how its new quarterback panned out. But Sims watched how Mertz interacted with others during those early weeks. He remembers telling an assistant coach, "There's something about this kid."
Mertz's teammates saw it too. They elected him a captain before the season.
"It solidified everything," Sims said. "It put the stamp on everything. It's the quarterback position, so don't you have to check all the boxes? When you line up 100 of these guys, aren't they all 6-whatever, 200-whatever? What separates those guys? To me, it goes back to those intangibles. A quarterback is a leadership position. When those players choose, they're telling you who they think the leader is.
"It ended up being a perfect fit."
Two years later, Sims feels similarly about Mertz at Wisconsin. Sims witnessed the recruiting arsenal, hosted a parade of coaches, and even FaceTimed with Mertz and Urban Meyer in his office. Mertz kept telling him: I really feel at home at Wisconsin.
"I feel like Wisconsin's going to push for a national championship with Graham at quarterback," Sims said. "You've got a future NFL draft pick, and Wisconsin's had one before. Just look at Russell Wilson."
AH, RUSSELL WILSON, the player who redefined so much: what transfer quarterbacks can do in college, what short quarterbacks can do in the NFL, and what the right quarterback can do for Wisconsin.
In Wilson's lone season as a Badger, he completed a team-record 72.8 percent of his passes for 3,175 yards with 33 touchdowns, only four interceptions and six rushing touchdowns. The Maxwell Award semifinalist posted the highest quarterback rating in team history (191.8), leading Wisconsin to the Big Ten championship and the Rose Bowl.
Wisconsin fans are accustomed to elite running backs, linemen, tight ends and linebackers, but Wilson changed how they view the quarterback position in a typically ground-and-pound offense. They see Mertz in a similar light.
"Fans made a lot of hype, especially after the All-American [Bowl]," said Badgers linebacker Spencer Lytle, who enrolled early with Mertz and rooms with the quarterback. "People are like, 'We can't wait for this guy to come in.' Sometimes we'll see people looking at him like, 'Ooh, that's Graham.' It's funny to see. If someone asks to take a picture, he'll say, 'Yeah, sure,' but he's not one of those guys who will walk around looking for attention.
"He's handled it really well."
Mertz's celebrity extends away from campus. During a recent trip to Green Bay, Graham and his mom shopped in the Wisconsin section of a Dick's Sporting Goods. When they went to pay and Amy mentioned Graham's name, the cashier said, "I thought you were Graham Mertz. Have a great season."
Mertz is used to the attention after his high-profile recruitment. He has seen the progression of a top quarterback with Drew Lock, who also trained with Hoover. Although Lock was older, Hoover used to schedule Mertz's training sessions right after Lock's.
Lock became a record-setting quarterback at Missouri, a three-time captain and, in April, a Denver Broncos second-round draft pick.
"Not a lot of people from Kansas went through things that Drew and I did, so being able to call him and talk to him, that made our relationship grow even more," Mertz said. "He hasn't changed as a person, and hopefully, in a couple years, I'll be able to do the same thing and not change up on anyone I've known my whole life. He's just a great role model for me. I've always been like, 'That's the type of man I'd like to be, right next to my dad.'"
"He has that Midwest state of mind. That's what drew him to Wisconsin." Graham Mertz's mother, Amy
The 6-foot-3, 216-pound Mertz knows his own journey is just beginning. Spring practice was instructive, humbling and enjoyable. He dived into the mental side of quarterbacking: how to spot disguised defenses and rolling coverages. Although the Badgers rushed the ball 65 percent of the time in 2018 and return a Heisman Trophy contender in running back Jonathan Taylor, Mertz said downfield passing became a major emphasis this spring.
Wisconsin hasn't named a starting quarterback, but junior Jack Coan, who started four games in 2018, looks like the man to beat.
"I'm a freshman now, I've just got to work my way up," Mertz said. "All that four-star, All-American bull, it's over with. You're a college ballplayer now, so you've got to prove yourself with your new team."
That mindset is common within arguably college football's premier developmental program. While Mertz isn't the typical Badgers freshman, he too can improve. Sims puts it this way: "Right now at Wisconsin, this is as bad as he's going to be." How the Badgers coaches mold Mertz could shape the program for the next few years.
"With a program like Wisconsin, everyone [says], 'Oh, you take lesser athletes and you develop them,'" defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said. "We develop all our athletes. We can develop five-star players as well."
Whenever Mertz becomes Wisconsin's starter, he will play before a fan base that recalls Wilson's greatness and has been tough on those who followed him. Joel Stave and Alex Hornibrook combined to go 57-16 as Badgers starters. Both won bowl MVP honors. But neither was truly embraced around here.
Most fans attributed the team's success to other reasons.
"They're really strong fans at Wisconsin," Ron Mertz said. "That can turn dark. His first pick-six against Michigan, they're going to be booing him. To date, he's been the most popular kid in the world in the state of Wisconsin. There's the, 'He's the greatest thing since Russell.' But the other side will come too.
"He knows that's coming, and I'm proud of how mature he is in seeing that."
Not much has surprised Graham Mertz about his Wisconsin experience. He survived the polar vortex in January, when temperatures dropped to minus-26 degrees. He has adjusted to tougher classes and student housing.
"I did a lot of research before I came," he said. "I knew what I was getting into."
He has, after all, been visiting the state his entire life. Usually, the Mertzes spent every Fourth of July in Green Bay, or at the Sturgeon Bay cottage owned by Amy's father, Sherwood "Shark" VanderWoude.
Sometimes, friends would ask Graham why he kept going there.
"I love Wisconsin. I don't know what you're talking about," he would tell them. "I've always loved it."