GAINESVILLE — Florida Gators quarterback Graham Mertz doesn’t look back on his tenure at Wisconsin as a disappointment, let alone a failure.
The record (19-13 in his 32 starts) wasn’t what he wanted. Neither were the results (zero top-25 finishes). His completion percentage fell each season.
But Mertz looks beyond the onfield results and sees the invisible transformation that will go a long way in shaping Florida’s 2023 season.
“I learned who I am as a young man, who I want to be as a father, all that stuff,” Mertz said Tuesday, four days after earning the Gators’ starting job. “You learn about yourself to where it frees you up to go play.”
Mertz acts as if he’s fully focused on playing. His brown hair is flowing; he has needed a haircut for a month now but has put it off as Florida grinds through preseason camp before the Aug. 31 opener at No. 14 Utah.
Mertz made headlines two years ago when he unveiled a preseason hype video with one of the first personal name, image and likeness logos. His last post on X (formerly called Twitter) was on July 21.
Mertz not only beat out Jack Miller and Max Brown to become the Gators’ starter; he has earned the right to control music in the locker room.
“You’ve got to know the room,” Mertz said.
Mertz, apparently, does. Consider it a sign of how he’s making the most of the fresh start Florida gave him.
When Mertz joined the Badgers in 2019, he was a top-100 recruit and one of the most hyped quarterbacks in program history. He added to the hype with a dazzling debut — 20-of-21 for five touchdowns against Illinois in 2020.
He had nowhere to go but down.
Mertz wasn’t bad in his three years as the Badgers’ starter, but he wasn’t great, either. He never topped 2,200 single-season passing yards and finished his Wisconsin career with 38 touchdown passes and 26 interceptions. His job, admittedly, was to be more of a game manager for the rushing attack than to be a gunslinger.
In that sense, his job at Florida is similar. The Gators have arguably the SEC’s top backfield tandem in Montrell Johnson and Trevor Etienne, and second-year coach Billy Napier generally prefers a stout run game to a wide-open passing attack. But Napier also puts more on his quarterbacks than many of his peers.
“All the ins and outs of this, all the checks — you really need to know what you’re doing and what you’re seeing,” Mertz said. “It frees you up to just go play the game.”
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And that’s where Mertz finds himself midway through camp. Free with the chance to thrive.
Mertz gushes about Napier’s system and how every play includes every answer. It’s his job to find the right one and execute.
Mertz won’t have to be great for Florida to outplay its modest preseason expectations. Napier’s usual goal is a 145 passing efficiency. Last year, that would have ranked around 40th nationally. Mertz hit that mark 11 times in 32 starts; Anthony Richardson did so in three of his 13 career starts at UF.
Therein lies the Gators’ blueprint for success. Mertz won’t be able to run like Richardson, but he can make up for it with more unspectacular plays that eventually set up big ones.
“I think that comes down to decision making,” Mertz said.
And Mertz appears comfortable there thanks to his up-and-down time at Wisconsin. He has learned enough about himself to be ready for whatever comes next.
“It doesn’t feel like a job,” Mertz said. “It doesn’t feel like work. You genuinely love it. I think I can comfortably say with every ounce of my being that I love it.”
The Gators announced Tuesday that they will wear all black uniforms for the first time in program history during their Nov. 4 game against Arkansas. As part of their salute to veterans and first responders, players’ names will be replaced on the jerseys with one of five terms: Commitment, Courage, Excellence, Honor or Integrity.
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