Anatomy of a Quarterback Prospect
Blue Valley North star Graham Mertz is headed to Wisconsin. Here’s what made major colleges chase him.
Just before the biggest decision he’s ever made, Graham Mertz had another typical Friday night at the office.
The junior quarterback at Blue Valley North, in his first year at the school, only needed one half of football against Blue Valley West to put up some serious numbers that reinforce his case as one of the best players in Kansas. Throwing for nearly 300 yards and four touchdowns, he played just a single series in the second half en route to an easy 49-14 win and he was then rewarded with the rest of the night off.
Mertz enjoyed homecoming with his friends the next day, which is news in and of itself. He figures he’s been out of town nearly every weekend for the last year and a half with campus visits and quarterback camps, so having a weekend to call your own almost seemed strange.
It was that Sunday morning after homecoming, and after a whirlwind of official visits and meeting coaches from Division I programs around the country, that he felt compelled to choose where he’d play at the next level. He always told himself he’d wait until after this season. But as the late Tom Petty once sang, the waiting is the hardest part. And he didn’t want to wait any longer.
Badger fans, rejoice: Mertz has committed to the University of Wisconsin Madison, a Top 10 program with a winning culture of Big Ten titles and Rose Bowls.
“It was a perfect spot for me,” he says. “And it’s not just the coaching staff. It’s a family up there. They preach that and you can actually feel it up there.”
His coach at BVN, Andy Sims, also thinks it’s a great fit. “They got to see in Graham things that are going to help them win a national championship,” he says.
It was a combination of three key people who were mentors in the recruitment process: Sims; Justin Hoover, his quarterback coach from Spin It Quarterback Academy in Kansas City; and Mertz’s dad, Ron, who played collegiately at Minnesota. Kansas made him a scholarship offer first, and Minnesota offered too, but Wisconsin is where Mertz felt the most at home the moment he set foot on campus.
Many components have to lock in place to get to this point, like a bevy of college coaches learning about and becoming dazzled by his ability — and another important change of school.
Mertz was the backup quarterback at Bishop Miege to Carter Putz, who won state championships each of the first two years he started. Putz wasn’t about to be demoted for his senior season, and Mertz wasn’t about to twiddle his thumbs either. So during winter break last year, he sat down and had a conversation with Miege coach Jon Holmes.
“We just thought the best decision for my future,” Mertz says, “was to go somewhere else and get an opportunity to start and be ‘the dude,’ because you can’t get that from just splitting [time with Putz] or playing JV.”
Enter Sims and Blue Valley North, whose offensive philosophy dovetails nicely with what Mertz can bring to the table at the quarterback position.
“When we talked, it was getting more of a sense of, hey, what are you doing with your program? How has the program changed? What are you doing to change it, and how is he going to fit into those changes?” Sims says. “It’s been awesome ever since. It’s like he’s been there since third grade with these guys. He’s a North kid already.”
Even as good as Mertz is, because he wasn’t seeing much playing time at Miege, there wasn’t much that college coaching staffs could work with to evaluate him.
“He was doing some traveling 7-on-7 and he had his name out there, and all the coaches were saying, ‘Hey, that is awesome. But where’s your game film?’” Sims says. “That’s the big difference of our sport. Track is simple: You run 11. I run 10.7. I’m faster than you. But in football, it’s a little more subjective. What kind of system are they doing? Who are they throwing it to? Or, how big did you say he was again?”
Mertz estimates he’s been to 14 or 15 quarterback camps across the country, and as helpful as they can be to development, it’s only a small part of the equation.
“In a camp setting, you can’t see leadership,” Mertz says. “You can’t see how hard you play. You can’t see how you react to your best plays, how you react to your worst plays. And I just think they can see that now on film to get a full glimpse of how I play.”
At Blue Valley North, he now has a body of work, and it’s already quite the highlight reel he’s compiled. For his opening act in a Mustang uniform, Mertz threw for 271 yards and had six touchdown passes as BVN beat rival Blue Valley Northwest 48-13, an exhibition right out of the gate to show everyone what he’s capable of doing.
“I waited a long time for that opportunity,” Mertz says, “so I’m glad I could take advantage of it.”
There’s a polish to his skill, a self-assurance in the pocket, that was sure to impress coaches once they had him on video. And the offers from Power 5 schools followed accordingly. He’s got the arm strength, the footwork, the body, and the mobility to be the major college quarterback that Wisconsin wants him to be.
But the point that Mertz made about how he reacts to his worst plays is valid: Coaching staffs analyze those plays just as much as the successful ones.
“You’ve got the measurables, you can make those throws, but I want to see you get sacked. I want to see you mess up. I tell people it sounds weird, but I want to see you throw interceptions,” says Sims, in his fourth season at BVN. “The point of it is, they want to see your mistakes.
“I told the Wisconsin coaches that this is the worst he’s ever going to be. He’s only going to get better. And he’s already turned your head right now. Every college coach believes they can coach better than a high school coach. It’s only natural. You’d like to think you’re probably coaching better than who’s coaching him now. Well, if that’s true, and you already like the guy, how much better can you make him? And I think that makes the coaches step back and really reflect. ‘Yeah, I get that. That makes sense, if I can get a hold of him and I can see him in my system and I can work on him on these things.’ I think that’s where the quick offers came from. They just wanted to see it in person.”
College coaches have other things to consider on the recruiting trail besides game action and physical tools.
“What they want to know is, how is he in the weight room? What’s he like in the classroom? What’s he like walking the hallways? In high school, you see the best and worst part of kids without filter,” Sims says. “What’s the true character when nobody’s around? What’s he really like? I’ve been around him long enough that I was able to speak to that. He’s an awesome kid.”
In addition to wise-beyond-his-years attributes, Mertz says his grit and persistence are things that can’t be taught.
“I’ll never back down from anything that’s in front of me,” he says. “I always want to attack it head-on to the best of my ability and just power through it.”
Playing time: Check. Character: Check. Intangibles: Check. And academics? Again, check.
One of the appeals of North for Mertz and his family is the school’s academic reputation. (Blue Valley North has 24 students this year that are National Merit semifinalists. By comparison, the entire Shawnee Mission School District has 17.) Mertz, a gifted student who is graduating from North early in December 2018, plans on majoring in business when he arrives in Madison, and he can get an early jump in the weight room, with the playbook, and with the program itself.
Before he does that, though, he’s mastering BVN’s playbook steeped in West Coast principles, an offense that provides good preparation for Wisconsin’s pro-style system. There’s more to this than just throwing a football around, and he’s already learning quickly how to be “the dude.”
“I think he does a good job of understanding who he’s leading,” Sims says. “Okay, I know this personality, I know how to lead this person. Sometimes, kids desperately want to be leaders, but they just don’t have it. They either become screamers or yellers, or they don’t say anything. He just kind of has that ‘it’ factor to him. I think a lot of that comes through.
“You see it all the time with kids: The only things that really hold them back are character flaws. Kids shoot themselves in the foot more across the board than anything else. For him, he doesn’t have those. When you have that great character like he does, with great football, the sky’s the limit.”