Why the Florida Gators wanted Wisconsin transfer Graham Mertz

Billy Napier’s army evaluated two dozen transfer quarterbacks before signing the former top-100 national recruit.
Graham Mertz started 32 games at Wisconsin before transferring to the Florida Gators.
Graham Mertz started 32 games at Wisconsin before transferring to the Florida Gators. [ KAYLA WOLF | AP (2022) ]
Published Feb. 2, 2023

GAINESVILLE — When the Florida Gators needed to grab a quarterback from the transfer portal this cycle, Billy Napier’s army went to work.

The Gators deployed eight people (including Napier) to individually scout two dozen prospects. They picked Wisconsin’s Graham Mertz.

“When you go back all the way to his high school recruitment, he was one of the top quarterbacks in the country,” Napier said Wednesday during his national signing day news conference.

Related: Billy Napier: ‘We’re playing a game that’s never been played before’

The fanfare around Florida would have been larger if the Gators had signed Mertz back in high school. He was the No. 5 quarterback in the 2019 class, according to the 247Sports composite, and ranked ahead of Sam Howell (who became North Carolina’s all-time leading passer) and Max Duggan (who took TCU to the national championship game).

The buzz would have been bigger if UF could have nabbed Mertz after his unbelievable college debut: 20-of-21 for 248 yards and five touchdowns in the Badgers’ 2020 rout of Illinois.

But Mertz’s numbers fell off from there. His passing efficiency (135.01) was 63rd nationally last season with 19 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. His completion percentage (57.3) ranked 94th.

So why did the Gators feel Mertz was their best option? Start with his experience — a word Napier used three times Wednesday. Florida’s quarterback room will enter spring practice with 33 career starts. Mertz is responsible for 32 of them from his time at Wisconsin.

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It helped that former Badgers coach Paul Chryst spoke highly of Mertz when Napier called for his input.

“I think we’re getting an experienced player that’s got arm talent, that can process, and wanted to be at Florida,” Napier said.

Billy Napier spoke with former Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst as he recruited quarterback Graham Mertz.
Billy Napier spoke with former Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst as he recruited quarterback Graham Mertz. [ MORRY GASH | Associated Press (2019) ]

The question Napier will have to figure out this spring is who else wants to be at Florida. Napier likes to have four scholarship quarterbacks on his roster, but the loss of blue-chip recruit Jaden Rashada (who signed with Arizona State late Wednesday) leaves UF with three: Mertz, Jack Miller and Max Brown. That’s why Napier said the Gators will look to add another arm when the portal reopens after spring practice if “there’s a player that passes evaluation.”

Because the NCAA’s transfer windows are new this academic year, we don’t have a good gauge of what the market will look like. Many top quarterbacks found new destinations in the first transfer window, which closed two weeks ago.

But there are some recent examples of teams finding good, ready quarterbacks after spring ball. When Dwayne Haskins became the presumptive starter at Ohio State, Joe Burrow transferred to LSU. He won the Heisman Trophy and led the Tigers to the national title. Gerry Bohanon won the starting job at USF last season after leaving Baylor, and former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson had a respectable 2015 season at Florida State. All three were May transfers.

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It’s unclear what the Gators will be able to offer their next quarterback or whether they think they’ll need someone to challenge for the starting job or merely depth. That depends on what happens with Mertz and the rest of the room when spring practice starts next month. But so far, Napier is encouraged by what he has seen from his newest quarterback.

Related: Florida Gators’ Anthony Richardson a top-10 pick in ESPN’s new mock draft

“He has been fantastic,” Napier said. “I think he has proven his work ethic, just observing him and hearing other players talk about him — the work he’s done with our staff, not only strength and conditioning, but also every part of training, nutrition and film study.”

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