When Billy Napier arrived in Gainesville, he made his plans for Florida football clear: Tear everything down and rebuild the Gators from scratch.
If Napier’s transparency throughout his first offseason in charge wasn’t enough to convince UF fans of that reality, his last two months as the program’s head coach certainly should.
Since the second half of November 2022, Florida completed its first repeat losing season in the SEC since the 1950s, saw 22 scholarship players enter the transfer portal, welcomed ten FBS transfers into the university after acquiring six last offseason and signed Napier’s first complete high school recruiting class, a haul including two or more signees at six different positions.
Florida football is going to look different in Napier’s second year at the helm, undoubtedly. Whether it will be improved or not remains to be seen, but the incoming transfers — the majority of them, at least — will be expected to push the Gators in the right direction sooner rather than later.
All Gators is projecting roles for every Florida transfer acquisition ahead of the 2023 season. Who else would we start with other than quarterback Graham Mertz?
Mertz joined the Gators during the early signing period and was Florida’s second transfer addition this offseason, following Louisville defensive lineman Caleb Banks. After entering the portal on Dec. 5, Mertz was quickly identified as a starting-caliber reinforcement by Napier and his coaching staff after 2022 UF signal-caller Anthony Richardson declared for the upcoming NFL Draft.
At the time, Florida did not have a qualified replacement for Richardson in-house. The team had just dismissed backup passer Jalen Kitna following his November arrest, and reserve Jack Miller III — who made his debut college start for the Gators in the Las Vegas Bowl as a result of Richardson and Kitna’s departures — missed the entire 2022 campaign with an injury to his throwing hand.
To make matters worse, Florida would go on to lose prized 2023 quarterback signee Jaden Rashada, who was released from his National Letter of Intent this month and never enrolled at the university.
While the beginning of Napier’s offseason has induced a sustaining headache over the most important position in football, Mertz has been the program’s ibuprofen. At the very least, he can bridge the gap at quarterback while Napier awaits the enrollment and development of 2024 star passer DJ Lagway.
The question is, how strong a dosage of pain reliever can Mertz be?
Mertz will almost certainly trot out as Florida’s QB1 in 2023 thanks to his three seasons of starting experience at Wisconsin. He appeared in 34 games with the Badgers and started 32 after earning the No. 3 ranking among pro-style quarterbacks in the class of 2019, per the 247Sports composite.
However, his performance wasn’t always encouraging despite ample opportunity.
Simply looking at his box score, Mertz tossed 1.4 touchdowns to every one interception, his completion percentage regressed every season he started (from 61.1 to 59.5 to 57.3) and he topped 2,000 passing yards in a campaign just once (2,136 in 2022) during his time with the Badgers.
After a five-touchdown day in the first start of his career, against Illinois in 2020, Mertz posted more than two passing touchdowns in a game just thrice more before transferring. He had five games with two or more interceptions in the same span.
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The downfall wasn’t solely on Mertz, but Wisconsin football backslid during his tenure with the program. No longer were the Badgers the 10+ win team they had been in five of the six seasons prior to 2020, and a 2-3 start to 2022 led to eight-year head coach Paul Chryst’s firing.
Mertz left the program a week after Chryst’s replacement, Luke Fickell, was hired in November.
Now, it’s on Napier and Co. to salvage what has been a promising football career seemingly gone to waste in Madison, Wisc. What can the Gators squeeze out of Mertz that the Badgers failed to extract?
For one, the Gators can offer Mertz an offense that should elevate his play. A traditional pocket passer rather than an uber-athlete or individual playmaker, Mertz plays his best with a strong run game that can alleviate stress on a quarterback by opening up coverages.
Wisconsin, formerly a dynamic rushing squad, didn’t deliver on its end of the bargain on the ground while Mertz was behind center. After three seasons averaging five yards or better per carry as a team from 2017-19, peaking at 6.2 in 2018, the Badgers averaged 4.5 yards per carry from 2020-22, plummeting to 3.9 in Mertz’s first season as a starter.
Florida, meanwhile, managed 5.5 yards per carry and 200.2 rushing yards per game in 2022. Running backs Trevor Etienne (6.1) and Montrell Johnson Jr. (5.4), both returning in 2023, were two of the SEC’s top 13 running backs in yards per carry this past season.
The presence of a strong and consistent rushing attack should maximize Mertz’s abilities on play-action, an area of his game where he has rather consistently found success.
From 2021-22, Mertz completed 65.6 of his 119 play-action passing attempts for 1,227 yards (10.3 yards per attempt) for seven touchdowns and one interception, per Pro Football Focus. His completion percentage was 9.4 points higher on average on play-action concepts than his traditional dropbacks.
And, for comparison, Richardson more than doubled Mertz’s play-action passing attempts — 119 to 57 — on only 50 more dropbacks in 2022. One would think that Napier will recognize Mertz’s abilities with the concept and utilize them more than the quarterback’s prior system called for, as evidenced by his playcalling with Richardson.
It was noticeable that play-action was missing from Wisconsin’s offense under Chryst, so much so that the concept’s reintegration into the Badgers’ scheme was heavily praised within two weeks of the head coach’s firing after Mertz and Co. beat Northwestern in their next game by a score of 42-7.
These two qualities of Florida’s offense can do wonders for a quarterback’s development, so long as they are sustained as Napier enters year two in Gainesville. Mertz will have to enhance his decision-making as a passer in order to thrive, but elements of the Gators’ scheme should help him with that.
Florida’s quarterback position has been in a complete state of flux over the last two months. Its greatest hope for immediate improvement and stability will require not only improved play from Mertz, but also Napier and his staff to ensure the veteran’s potential can finally be met.
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