GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Graham Mertz jogged into the Swamp with the first-team offense, wearing the No. 15 jersey made famous by Tim Tebow and harboring no regrets about leaving Wisconsin for Florida.
“Just grateful to see the sun every day, which is something stupid, but when you are in Wisconsin for a while, you kind of realize what the sun does,” Mertz said. “Really enjoyed the spring.”
It’s not clear whether he could honestly say the same about the spring game, a 10-7 effort that included countless bad snaps and even drew a veiled shot from Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin on Twitter.
Mertz completed 18 of 29 passes for 244 yards and a touchdown while playing the first half for the Orange and the second half for the Blue. He was “sacked” five times in the controlled scrimmage in front of an estimated 42,000 fans, and his lack of arm strength was evident with every deep ball.
Mertz is a short-term solution for a rebuilding Gators program that essentially lost six scholarship quarterbacks – and one potential NFL star – in the 12 months.
Blue-chip prospect and projected starter Jaden Rashada never made it to Gainesville after a name, image and likeness deal worth nearly $14 million fell through. That debacle followed standout Anthony Richardson, a projected top-10 pick, declaring for the NFL draft and backup Jalen Kitna being arrested on child pornography charges and being dismissed from the program.
Emory Jones (Arizona State) and Carlos Del Rio-Wilson (Syracuse) transferred last spring, and Florida withdrew a scholarship offer to four-start commitment Marcus Stokes (West Florida) in November after video emerged of him singing lyrics that contained a racial slur.
So Mertz, a fourth-year junior who landed at Florida in December after starting three seasons for the Badgers, is penciled in to replace Richardson and potentially help the Gators claw their way out of a rut that includes consecutive losing seasons for the first time since 1978-79.
He showed some flashes in the spring game, connecting on a 28-yard completion to Caleb Douglas that ended with a fumble and beating an all-out blitz and hitting Kahleil Jackson in stride for a 10-yard score.
“I think that personally I grew as a player and as a young man,” said Mertz, who threw for 5,405 yards, with 38 touchdowns and 26 interceptions at Wisconsin. “It’s been a great spring. I’ve put in a lot of work here, and it’s just the start. We have a lot of work to do, but I’m excited for it.”
The Gators are counting on Mertz’s accuracy, experience and decision-making ability to offset what he lacks in athleticism and arm talent.
Both Mertz and backup QB Jack Miller said coach Billy Napier’s plan for the nationally televised spring game was to be as vanilla as possible to prevent showing too much 4 1/2 months before opening the season at Utah.
“Probably Day 1 install,” Miller said when asked how much of the playbook was used.
Added Napier: “Offensively, small menu for both sides, and certainly the same on defense. You know, we are what we are, right? It’s going to be more about the execution of the call than the call. I think tonight was a good indication of that.”
The Gators remain a work in progress, with Napier trying to build a sustainable program in an ever-changing landscape. They moved into a new football facility less than a year and have revamped their NIL efforts.
Improving the on-field product tops Napier’s to-do list, but how soon will it happen? Highly touted QB commitment DJ Lagway, a 6-foot-2 Texan, is expected to enroll in January 2024 and be a plug-and-play starter. Lagway was in attendance Thursday night, along with Richardson.
“Overall, it could have been better on offense, and the quarterback play – I say this to you all the time – sometimes they get too much credit, sometimes it’s too much blame,” Napier said. “Ultimately for a quarterback to play well, the players around them have got to play well.”