Down by 10 points with 9 minutes left against South Carolina two weeks ago, a different figure emerged from the Florida bench. This one had no visible scars, only those left aching deep inside a psyche manhandled by social media and haunted by expectations. One hoping for a new football identity.
Turns out, it was same old Graham Mertz … just a new attitude. Florida’s quarterback knew of only one way out in that moment.
“There wasn’t a bone in my body that was telling me we weren’t going to win that game,” Mertz said.
So he passed along that feeling to his teammates, up and down the bench. And then he, well, passed. It wasn’t going to happen again. The Gators weren’t losing this opportunity against a beatable conference opponent. They weren’t losing this shootout when the guy making the call had the superior howitzer.
Never mind Florida possibly flaming out in its comeback attempt to be an SEC contender again, Mertz decided he wasn’t going to flame out.
“We always say, ‘Customer service,'” Mertz recalled after the Gators’ 41-39 win over the Gamecocks. “‘How do you want your food? You want left shoulder, right shoulder?’ It’s like customer service with my receivers.”
After those 9 minutes, Mertz had chucked on every down but one. During Florida’s final two possessions, there were 22 passes, 13 completions, 160 yards and two touchdowns — the eventual game-winner coming with 47 seconds left.
The result redefined the first half of Florida’s season and cleared Mertz’s psyche a bit.
The quarterback had not only thrown for career-high 423 yards, he was on a career high himself.
“For me, it’s the time of my life,” he said.
The emergence of Mertz this season changes plenty at Florida. It gives tangible evidence of a turnaround in Year 2 under coach Billy Napier. The Gators are suddenly 5-2 and just one spot out of the AP Top 25 heading into a showdown with No. 1 Georgia (3:30 p.m. ET on CBS).
And with a gunslinger in the pocket, there’s reason to think the Gators at least have a puncher’s chance against the Bulldogs. Out of nowhere, Mertz is the third-most accurate passer in the country (76.2%). This despite never completing more than 61% of his passes in a season since taking over as Wisconsin’s starter in 2020.
That’s where this story diverges. For Mertz, Wisconsin was … an experience. Two perspectives can be acknowledged from that experience.
- Mertz was the highest-rated quarterback recruit in program history, a four-star prospect out of suburban Kansas City rated as the No. 1 player in the state of Kansas and No. 3 pro-style prospect in 2019 as defined by the 247Sports Composite.
- An ultra-conservative offense based on pounding the ball never fit Mertz, and consequently, he never lived up to expectations.
That’s where the manhandling by social media comes in. It happens to everyone who doesn’t measure up to whoever is doing the measuring.
“Nobody can go through what Graham went through and not have some scar tissue,” said Justin Hoover, Mertz’s Overland Park, Kansas-based throwing coach. “He was definitely banged and bruised up mentally and physically when he got home.
“I just thought that — and he did too — there wasn’t any way to win that [Wisconsin] fan base over again. [It was good to] wash his hands of it. It damaged him, temporarily. The great thing for him, he never lost his passion for football.”
Mertz isn’t the type to talk about the past. That’s left to those who have observed him. He talks about rising fired up each morning.
“Going to that facility — the vibe, the people,” Mertz said of Florida, “the work doesn’t feel like work.”
Mertz can walk across campus in the sunshine as the Gators quarterback unbothered because there isn’t much walking across campus anymore.
“You’re not really going to class,” Mertz said. “It’s online.”
More intimidating are the statues of Florida’s three Heisman Trophy winners outside The Swamp — Steve Spurrier, Danny Wuerffel and Tim Tebow.
“I’ve been around football long enough to know this is a great spot to be. This is a great spot to develop. These are good people,” Mertz said. “[I thought], ‘That’s where I want to go. I want to be coached by these people.'”
And when fortune is involved these days, it grins. During that game-winning drive against South Carolina, fellow transfer Ricky Pearsall had to bend backwards to catch one of Mertz’s passes. The tipped ball went to freshman Eugene Wilson III, Napier’s prized, fresh-faced offensive talent.
“Not a good ball at all,” Mertz said. “Exactly how you draw it up, man.”
Seconds later, Mertz hit Pearsall with the game-winner.
How’s that for customer service?
“God smiled on the Gators,” Napier said after the game, borrowing Spurrier’s old line.
There isn’t much room in the current quarterback culture for signal callers who have the temerity to blossom in their fifth year at their second school. Joe Burrow did it, but there have only been a handful of Joe Burrows. Otherwise, everything has to be done now. The shelf life of those five-star prospects only stretches so far as the patience of those Twitter trolls.
“There is a reason it happened the way it happened,” Hoover said. “Graham loves ball, and to see him having fun again is a lot of fun. Toward the end of his career at Wisconsin, he was obviously under pressure.”
If there is any bitterness to the situation, it is not evident. Mertz prefers to speak about his new home. He transferred to Florida for all the right reasons — a new start, a new school, new teammates.
Oh, and there was a clear starting opportunity after Anthony Richardson matriculated to the NFL and the Gators saw their quarterbacking plans behind him unpredictably go up in smoke.
In his first career start at Wisconsin, Mertz threw five touchdown passes against Illinois. He threw four the rest of that COVID-19 season. There were four interceptions against Notre Dame in 2021. Turnovers snowballed. Mertz never stopped speaking glowingly about Badgers coach Paul Chryst. Then, two days into October last year, Chryst was fired after a loss to Illinois. He left the program with 72% winning rate.
Mertz eventually left the program, too, by his own choice. He developed a close relationship with Florida offensive analyst Ryan O’Hara, who works with the team’s quarterbacks. (Napier serves as the on-field position coach.) Mertz also became fast friends with Pearsall, who arrived out of the transfer portal from Arizona State one year earlier.
In the season opener, Florida lost a bewildering game at Utah. But Mertz threw for a then-career high 333 yards. It wasn’t a victory, but it was liberating. In the SEC opener, he threw for a score and ran for another against then-No. 11 Tennessee.
Something was changing.
“He came home back to the apartment, let it all out,” said Mertz’s father Ron. “We were having a father-son great moment. He said, ‘Best day of my life.'”
Mertz had thrown for just 166 yards that night, but maybe it was just being in control of something again that made him so emotional. Maybe it was just a change of scenery, but when Florida became a transfer option, Mertz’s eyes lit up.
“His exact words were, ‘It’s freakin’ Florida,'” Hoover recalled.
Mertz has been working with Hoover since sixth grade. There is a relationship beyond football. Hoover can track body language. he’s has taught the likes of future NFL quarterbacks Josh Freeman and Drew Lock. Heisman Trophy finalist Max Duggan (TCU) was his pupil, too. The quarterback whisperer says he has 42 high school varsity starters in seven states.
Mertz is great for business. Now, if he can just continue being great at Florida.
“Tennessee was one of those where he still got viewed as a [game] manager a little bit,” Hoover said. “Then, Saturday night.”
Yes, Saturday night (actually, two Saturday nights ago). That South Carolina game redefined Mertz to the point there was a bit of social media karma. Some of those trolls were now complaining about Mertz being “underutilized” at Wisconsin.
Forget them. What was once a slog is now bright with possibilities. We’ve already seen how the likes of Burrow (Ohio State to LSU), Michael Penix Jr. (Indiana to Washington) and Bo Nix (Auburn to Oregon) — among others — have thrived in new environments.
Consider the words of a father who wants the best for a son in his fifth year at his second school.
“If he goes big on Georgia, I think we’ve got something crazy going,” Ron said. “It could be a Burrow 2019 coming out party.”