Even as a true freshman, Graham Mertz deserves a fair shot at starting for Wisconsin Football in 2019.
If there were ever a universal truth about Wisconsin Football, it’s that quarterback play needs to take a significant step forward next year.
There’s no better time to make this argument than now, right after a true freshman quarterback led the Clemson Tigers to a national championship over the monstrosity that is the Alabama Crimson Tide. Trevor Lawrence was given snaps here and there in the early part of the season but eventually named the full-time starter. It proved to be the right choice.
Starting a true freshman at any position in college football is a risk. Usually, that risk evolves around talent. If Mertz has shown anything, it’s that he’s talented enough to at least compete for the starting quarterback job, so we aren’t focusing on that. Depending on who you ask, the bigger risk is because of the precedent it sets.
There are great programs in college football built on the precedent that underclassmen will eventually get their shot if they just cut their teeth as a redshirt, on the scout team, and as a reserve coming off the bench. It’s the best way to build depth with the current college football recruiting model. When those underclassmen are finally upperclassmen, it’s their time. And if their time gets cut short because an underclassman jumps them on the depth chart, you break that precedent.
Place yourself in the shoes of Kelly Bryant, for example. The upperclassmen that Lawrence overtook on the depth chart and forced an eventual transfer. He stayed at Clemson behind Deshaun Watson and waited to become the starting quarterback for the Clemson Tigers. Bryant was good enough to play elsewhere, but he wanted to be the quarterback for Clemson. When he got his chance two years ago, he led Clemson to the College Football Playoff. He was proving himself in front of the whole country. Then, a true freshman came along and took his job.
If you look at the situation only based on talent, the move was a no-brainer. Lawrence is and was better than Bryant. So why was it such a difficult and talked about change to make for Dabo Swinney? Because it goes against the grain of what college football is. Seniority reigns supreme in this sport. Except when it doesn’t.
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So that’s where the issue lies. I believe the culture is strong enough at a place like Wisconsin where if Mertz did get to start as a true freshman there wouldn’t be hurt feelings throughout the program. The problem is a culture as strong as Wisconsin’s is usually built on principles that mean a true freshman is going to start, especially with an established starter and fifth-year senior already at the position.
The difference is Alex Hornibrook, the current starter, hasn’t sat behind somebody else for years, and he didn’t just prove to the entire country that he’s good enough to be a starter by leading his team to the College Football Playoff. Hornibrook isn’t really a good quarterback. That’s putting it lightly. But this isn’t about talent, remember.
There are no guarantees that Mertz is going to work out or be better than Hornibrook, but I propose that Mertz at least gets the chance to prove he’s better. And if he is, he deserves the chance to play right away.
Herm Edwards once famously said, “You play to win the game.” And if Mertz is the best quarterback on the roster in 2019 and not starting for the Badgers, then Paul Chryst isn’t playing to win the game. Avoiding the problem of starting a true freshman at quarterback creates an entirely different problem for Chryst and the Badgers.
The Wisconsin football program must evolve and do something it hasn’t done in years. Allow a true freshman a fair chance, keyword being ‘fair’ here, to earn the starting quarterback position.