Ex-Wisconsin QB Graham Mertz finding his footing at Florida

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

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.”

Georgia extends contract for AD Josh Brooks, plans two new football practice fields

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ATHENS, Ga. – On the heels of a second straight national football championship, Georgia has rewarded athletic director Josh Brooks a contract extension that ties him to the Bulldogs through at least 2029.

The athletic association board, wrapping up its annual spring meeting Friday at a resort on Lake Oconee, also announced plans for a new track and field facility that will free up space for two more football practice fields.

Brooks’ new contract will increase his salary to $1.025 million a year, with annual raises of $100,000.

The 42-year-old Brooks, who took over the athletic department in 2021 after Greg McGarity retired, called the Georgia job “a dream for me” and said he hopes to spend the rest of his career in Athens.

“I am extremely grateful,” Brooks said. “I got into this business 20-plus years ago as a student equipment manager. My first job at Louisiana-Monroe was making $20,000 a year in football operations.”

The Georgia board approved a fiscal 2024 budget of $175.2 million, a nearly 8% increase from the most recent budget of $162.2 million and the sign of a prosperous program that is flush with money after its success on the gridiron.

The school received approval to move forward with its preliminary plans for a new track and field facility, which will be built across the street from the complex hosting the soccer and and softball teams.

The current track stadium is located adjacent to the Butts-Mehre athletic facility, which hosts the practice fields and training facilities for the football program.

Georgia lost a chunk of its outdoor fields when it built a new indoor practice facility. After the new track and field stadium is completed, the current space will be converted to two full-length, grass football practice fields at the request of coach Kirby Smart.

“He wants to find efficient ways to practice, and there is a lot of truth to the issues we’ve had with our current practice fields,” Brooks said. “There is a lot of strain on our turf facilities staff to keep that field in great shape when half the day it is getting shade, so that has been a challenge as well. For our football program, it is better to practice on grass fields than (artificial) turf, so to be able to have two side-by-side grass fields is huge. It makes for a much more efficient practice.”

The new track and field complex, which will continue to be named Spec Towns Track, will also include an indoor facility, the first of its kind in the state of Georgia.

Iowa AD Gary Barta announces retirement after 17 years at Big Ten school

Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK

IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa athletic director Gary Barta will retire on August 1 after 17 years at the university, the school announced Friday.

Barta, 59, is one of the longest-tenured athletic directors in a Power Five conference. He was hired by Iowa in 2006 after being the AD at Wyoming.

An interim director will be announced next week, Iowa said.

In September, Iowa hired former Ball State athletic director Beth Goetz to be deputy director of athletics and chief operating officer, putting her in position to possibly succeed Barta.

“It has been an absolute privilege and honor to serve in this role the past 17 years,” Barta said in a statement. “This decision didn’t come suddenly, nor did it come without significant thought, discussion, and prayer.”

“That said, I’m confident this is the right time for me and for my family.”

Iowa won four NCAA national team titles and 27 Big Ten team titles during Barta’s tenure. The women’s basketball team is coming off an appearance in the national championship game and the wrestling team is coming off a second-place finish at the NCAA championships.

Barta served as the chairman of the College Football Playoff committee in 2020 and 2021.

He faced heavy criticism over more than $11 million in settlements for lawsuits in recent years alleging racial and sexual discrimination within the athletic department.

Lawsuits filed by former field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum and associate athletics director Jane Meyer led to a $6.5 million payout.

Iowa had to pay $400,000 as part of a Title IX lawsuit brought by athletes after it cut four sports in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of the agreement, Iowa reinstated the women’s swimming and diving program and add another women’s sport.

Iowa added women’s wrestling, the first among Power Five schools to compete this year.

A lawsuit brought by former football players alleging racial discrimination within the program was settled for $4.2 million last March, which prompted state auditor Rob Sand to call for Barta’s ouster.

“Gary Barta’s departure is a long time coming given the four different lawsuits for discrimination that cost Iowa more than $11 million,” Sand posted on Twitter.

The university did not allow taxpayer money to be used for the settlement with the former players.

Barta led Iowa through $380 million of facility upgrades, including renovation of Kinnick Stadium, the construction of a new football facility, a basketball practice facility and a training center for the wrestling teams.

Under Barta, Iowa has had just one head football coach (Kirk Ferentz), women’s basketball coach (Lisa Bluder) and wrestling coach (Tom Brands). All were in place when he arrived.

Barta has also come under scrutiny for allowing Ferentz to employee his son, Brian Ferentz, as offensive coordinator. To comply with the university’s nepotism policy, Brian Ferentz reports to Barta.