Badgers’ Graham Mertz remains upbeat after offseason speculation

Mike De Sisti/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/USA TODAY NETWORK
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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.

Air Force football sanctioned for recruiting violations

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AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. — The Air Force football program received two years of probation from the NCAA and had its squad size reduced by 10 for four years as part of its sanctions for recruiting violations.

The penalties were announced Thursday after Air Force and four individuals reached an agreement with NCAA enforcement staff on recruiting violations. A fifth individual in the case has contested their role and will be heard by the committee on infractions.

The sanctions also include a fine and a reduction of 46 total official visits for the football program in the 2022-23 and `23-24 academic years. In addition, there’s a prohibition on unofficial visits in football from Sept. 1 through Oct. 12, 2022, and a reduced number of evaluation days this fall.

Air Force has around 115 players on its varsity roster, plus a JV team that all count as NCAA athletes and its roster size.

“The (committee) appreciates the parties’ efforts in working collaboratively together to reach agreement on the violations, levels, classifications, and significant and meaningful penalties,” Gary Miller, the chief hearing officer for the panel and president at Akron, said in a statement. “The panel also recognizes that Air Force has gone above and beyond in its overall approach to this case.”

In a joint statement, Air Force Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Richard Clark and director of athletics Nathan Pine said: “The U.S. Air Force Academy is pleased that our case has progressed to the point of the NCAA accepting our negotiated resolution. We will continue working with the NCAA on this ongoing self-reported case from the COVID dead period, as it’s our responsibility to ensure integrity of the institution, athletics department, cadet-athletes and staff.”

The Falcons are off to a 3-1 start and host Navy on Saturday to begin the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy competition. The trophy is presented to the service academy with the best record in the round-robin format.

Florida shakes up secondary after dismal game at Tennessee

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida coach Billy Napier is shaking up his secondary after the Gators allowed 349 yards passing – including 247 of those on eight plays – in a loss at Tennessee.

Safety Trey Dean, a fifth-year senior who has started 32 games and played in 54, is out with what Florida is calling a “lower leg injury.” But no one would be surprised if Napier was quietly benching Dean after he made two mental errors against the Volunteers that resulted in 70- and 45-yard gains and set up touchdowns.

Freshman Kamari Wilson will replace Dean and make his first college start Sunday against Eastern Washington.

Cornerback Jaydon Hill will join Wilson in the starting lineup. Hill, a third-year sophomore, will make his first start since 2020. He missed the 2021 season with a torn knee ligament. He impressed Napier and his new staff in the spring but sat out preseason camp with another knee injury.

Hill will replace sophomore Avery Helm, who also struggled against the Vols.

“You talk about what he’s been through from an injury perspective,” Napier said following practice Wednesday. “Jaydon was one of the better players that we had on our team in spring practice. I was very impressed . It’s no surprise to me. He showed pretty quickly here that he’s very capable. I’m excited to watch him play.”

Georgia transfer Jalen Kimber, a former five-star recruit, is now listed as a third-team cornerback. Kimber played just 11 snaps in Knoxville a week after he returned an interception for a touchdown in a 31-28 win against South Florida.

“I like to say we try to eliminate the bad football,” Napier said. “Talking about mental errors, misalignments, poor communication, bad fundamentals and techniques, bad decision-making within the play. … We have a laundry list of things that we need to eliminate each week.

“Last week’s game, I thought we were really close, but there’s 12 or 15 plays in the game where Florida is beating Florida. We’ve got a smart group here. I think they’re very aware of what the issues are, and I think they’re working hard to address those issues.”