Badgers’ Graham Mertz remains upbeat after offseason speculation

Mike De Sisti/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/USA TODAY NETWORK

MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz says his confidence hasn’t wavered even during an offseason in which Oklahoma transfer Caleb Williams‘ name got mentioned as his potential replacement.

Mertz is now working with a new receiving corps and new offensive coordinator as he attempts to gain consistency and live up to the lofty expectations that accompanied his arrival.

“My confidence never really has gotten tested to the point where I doubt myself,” Mertz said. “It’s a bad thing to ever doubt yourself or have that lack of confidence. For me, it’s how can I prove to myself every day that I’m evolving into the quarterback I want to be.”

Mertz is the highest-rated quarterback prospect to sign with Wisconsin during the era of recruiting websites. He went 20 of 21 and threw five touchdown passes – tying a school single-game record – while leading Wisconsin to a 45-7 victory over Illinois in his first career start back in 2020.

But he’s been up and down since, with Wisconsin’s fortunes often resting on how well he protects the football.

Mertz owns a 13-7 record as a starter. In the 13 wins, Mertz has thrown 16 touchdown passes with four interceptions. In the seven losses, he has thrown 12 interceptions and three touchdown passes.

Those so-so results might explain why Wisconsin was considered a potential destination when Williams entered the transfer portal after a stellar freshman season at Oklahoma. The connection got enough attention that Badgers fans chanted “We want Caleb” during a Wisconsin-Minnesota men’s basketball game in late January.

Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said he kept Mertz informed of the situation as Williams pondered a decision before eventually choosing Southern California. Chryst noted that he never had any personal discussions with Williams.

Mertz had no hard feelings and said he appreciated the way Chryst kept him updated.

“It’s a coach’s job to find the best player,” Mertz said. “What am I going to say? `Aww, no, I deserve this?’ I don’t deserve anything. I’ve got to prove it every day, prove it’s my job. And that’s what I’m going to do. That’s what I’ve always done.”

Mertz faces a couple of new challenges this year.

The departures of tight end Jake Ferguson and receivers Kendric Pryor and Danny Davis leave Mertz without his top three targets from last season. Chimere Dike, who had 19 receptions for 272 yards and a touchdown last season, is the only Wisconsin wideout who caught more than three passes a year ago.

Mertz is throwing to Dike as well as emerging receivers Markus Allen, Skyler Bell, UCLA transfer Keontez Lewis and converted cornerback Dean Engram, the son of new offensive coordinator Bobby Engram.

Bobby Engram, who spent last season as the Baltimore Ravens’ tight ends coach, is friendly with the Williams family. That’s part of the reason Wisconsin was linked to the former Oklahoma star. But Engram also knew Mertz well before taking this job and has praised his quarterback’s efforts during spring practice.

“Graham wants to be great in terms of his approach – professional approach – his work ethic and really trying to own the offense and own his leadership role in the offense,” Engram said.

Engram says one way Mertz could reduce his turnovers is by occasionally going to a checkdown rather than taking an unnecessary risk. Engram cited an instance from practice

“He has an aggressive mentality, which you like,” Engram said. “You want to make the big plays. But at the same time, let’s take the ones that they give to us. We had a third-and-3 on Saturday and he took a shot, a great throw, and didn’t come up with the play. But we had a first down on an underneath route right in front of us.”

Wisconsin also has experimented with having Mertz work under center more often this spring after he operated exclusively out of the shotgun in high school.

“It’s just to get a better sense of timing and truly just trusting the drop and being able to translate that into the gun,” Mertz said. “It makes complete sense. You go and look back at all the quarterbacks from the past, and they were all under center to start, and now they’re all in the gun and they have that sense of timing in their head.”

Mertz said he’s enjoying the fresh start with a new offensive staff and new collection of receivers. After a winter of uncertainty, he’s looking forward to having a productive autumn.

“If you’re not growing, not evolving, you’re just going to be left behind in the dust,” Mertz said.

Vick, Fitzgerald and Suggs among stars on College Football Hall of Fame ballot for 1st time

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Michael Vick, Larry Fitzgerald and Terrell Suggs are among the college football stars who will be considered for induction to the Hall of Fame for the first time this year.

The National Football Foundation released Monday a list of 78 players and nine coaches from major college football who are on the Hall of Fame ballot. There also are 101 players and 32 coaches from lower divisions of college football up for consideration.

Vick, who led Virginia Tech to the BCS championship game against Florida State as a redshirt freshman in 1999, is among the most notable players appearing on the ballot in his first year of eligibility.

Vick finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting in 1999. He played one season of college football before being drafted No. 1 overall by the Atlanta Falcons in 2001. Vick’s professional career was interrupted when he served 21 months in prison for his involvement in dog fighting.

Fitzgerald was the Heisman runner-up in 2003 to Oklahoma quarterback Jason White. He scored 34 touchdowns in just two seasons at Pitt.

Suggs led the nation in sacks with 24 in 2002 for Arizona State.

The 2024 Hall of Fame class will be chosen by the National Football Foundation’s Honors Court and announced in January. Induction into the Atlanta-based hall is the following December.

Alabama freshman DB Mitchell says he wasn’t sure he’d get to play again after arrest

Mickey Welsh / Advertiser / USA TODAY NETWORK
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Alabama defensive back Tony Mitchell said he feared his football career was over after his arrest on a drug charge.

The Crimson Tide freshman said in a video posted Sunday on social media that he knew “something much bigger could have happened.”

A judge in Holmes County, Florida, sentenced Mitchell to three years of probation with a fine and community service on May 24 after Mitchell pleaded guilty to a charge of possession of more than 20 grams of cannabis.

“I didn’t know if I’d be able to play football again, but I continued to work out and stay close with the Lord and those who love me unconditionally,” Mitchell said. “During those times, it helped me to keep my mind off it. But when I was by myself looking at social media, what everybody had to say about it, it just felt like it happened again.

“I didn’t sleep at night.”

He was suspended from the Alabama team following the arrest, but Mitchell’s father, Tony Sr., posted on Facebook last week that the defensive back had been reinstated. An Alabama spokesman declined to comment on Mitchell’s status.

Tony Mitchell Sr. shared his son’s video on Facebook, saying it was filmed during a talk to youth.

“I was doing things I knew I shouldn’t to try to fit in,” the younger Mitchell said, “but not everybody’s your friend.”

Mitchell, who is from Alabaster, Alabama, was a four-star prospect and the 15th-rated safety in the 247Composite rankings.

He had been charged in March with possession of a controlled substance with intent to sell after a traffic stop when authorities said he drove over 141 mph (227 kph) while trying to evade deputies in the Florida Panhandle. A deputy had spotted Mitchell’s black Dodge Challenger traveling 78 mph (125 kph) in a 55 mph (88 kph) zone on a rural highway north of Bonifay.

He also received 100 hours of community service and paid a fine of $1,560.

Mitchell and a passenger were both charged with possession of marijuana with the intent to sell or deliver, according to a Holmes County Sheriff’s Office arrest report. The other man also was charged with carrying a concealed gun without a permit.