Changes were sure to come to the University of Wisconsin quarterback room when coach Paul Chryst took control of leading that position.
An offseason shuffle of assistants put Chryst in a familiar position of coaching the quarterbacks and calling plays, tasks he handled for the Badgers from 2006-11 and at the start of his head coaching tenure with the program. His current crop of quarterbacks told reporters Friday that Chryst has much of the same verbiage as former quarterbacks coach Jon Budmayr, but their approaches are different.
Chryst has pulled back the layers of the offense and has quarterbacks examining each element of plays, both in the run and pass game, as spring practices unfold.
“The emphasis on the little things and like being able to get up on the board and draw a play up and explain it and truly have complete, full confidence in that play and knowing every single part of it, even in the run game,” sophomore quarterback Graham Mertz said in response to a question on the differences with Chryst leading the room.
“Really, it’s the attention to detail in that aspect that coach Chryst really has been emphasizing (in) the eight weeks of winter conditioning and then up to this point. So it’s been great.”
The quarterbacks who spoke Friday expressed well-wishes for Budmayr, who became Colorado State’s offensive coordinator in January.
But they said Chryst’s conversational style in the meeting room has helped them take a different level of ownership over the offense.
“I think I’ve developed a bigger grasp of the game with this (change),” junior Chase Wolf said. “It’s more of a dialogue between us, the quarterbacks and coach. So we pick his brain, he picks our brain, what we think fits.
“We’re not doing a lot of technical stuff like, ‘This is where this person’s supposed to be,’ we’re drawing formations, the plays, the check downs. I think that has helped me to understand not only what is supposed to happen, but why, and I think that has absolutely helped me in practice so far. There’s only been two practices, but I’ve already noticed a difference.”
Mertz started each of the Badgers’ seven games last season, leading the team to a 4-3 record. Wolf appeared in three games, including finishing the win over Minnesota in the regular-season finale and multiple drives in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl win against Wake Forest. Both of them spoke Friday about the game slowing down for them toward the end of the year, and the detailed work they’re doing with Chryst this winter and spring is aiding that effort even further.
Fifth-year senior Danny Vanden Boom, the oldest player in the quarterback room, said the group having experience — both in terms of playing and time in the program — allows Chryst to push them beyond the basics.
“For the most part, we understand base progressions,” Vanden Boom said.
“There are always new plays that are being added, there’s always more stuff to study. But this is just kind of like the next level. This is the next step in understanding an offense, not just understanding the pass game, things like that. But spending more time on protections and knowing when we’re hot. Knowing how to get us out of a run play into a different play, or maybe even like pointing a ‘Mike’ (middle linebacker) if we get a rotation from the defense, re-pointing a ‘Mike’ so that we can get our runs better blocked, or so we’re protected up.”
Vanden Boom’s description makes it sound as if Chryst is preparing the group for more pre-snap adjustments to be made at the line of scrimmage. With Mertz making the first starts of his collegiate career last season, checks at the line weren’t used often. Associate head coach Joe Rudolph said in December there were some opportunities for Mertz to make those adjustments, but they didn’t come up often.
However that looks come the fall, Mertz said he already sees signs of the offense making significant steps forward after a down year in 2020.
“We’ve only had two to two practices of spring ball, but it’s going to be a completely different team,” he said.
“Guys are playing with confidence, trusting the installs we got in and flying around, making plays. So this spring ball will mean a lot. Where we were last year, where we’re going to be this year, completely different. I’ve got complete confidence in that.”
A game-by-game look at the Badgers’ schedule
A game-by-game look at the Badgers' 2021 football schedule
WEEK 1: vs. Penn StateUpdated
Date: Sept. 4
All-time series: UW trails 9-10
Last meeting: UW lost 22-10 in 2018
Key returner: WR Jahan Dotson posted five games of over 100 yards receiving and was a catalyst of the team’s four-game winning streak to end last season.
Note: The Nittany Lions’ losing season last year was their first under coach James Franklin and the program’s second since 2004.
WEEK 2: vs. Eastern MichiganUpdated
Date: Sept. 11
All-time series: UW leads 3-0
Last meeting: UW won 24-3 in 1996
Key returner: QB Preston Hutchinson averaged 277 yards per game last season.
Note: The Eagles have had two winning seasons since 2010.
WEEK 3: vs. Notre Dame (Soldier Field, Chicago)Updated
Date: Sept. 26
All-time series: UW trails 6-8-2
Last meeting: UW lost 31-7 in 1964
Key returner: Safety Kyle Hamilton, who led the Irish in tackles, had six pass breakups last season.
Note: Former Badgers QB Jack Coan will be in the running to be the starting QB for the Irish after transferring this winter.
WEEK 4: vs. MichiganUpdated
Date: Oct. 2
All-time series: UW trails 17-51-1
Last meeting: UW won 49-11 on Nov. 14, 2020
Key returner: WR Ronnie Bell was a bright spot on an offense that struggled with inconsistent quarterback play.
Note: Despite the Wolverines’ 2-4 season, the program extended the contract of coach Jim Harbaugh and posted the second-best recruiting class in the conference.
WEEK 5: at IllinoisUpdated
Date: Oct. 9
All-time series: UW leads 43-37-7
Last meeting: UW won 45-7 on Oct. 23, 2020
Key returner: QB Brandon Peters, who gives the Illini some stability under center while they adjust to a new coaching staff. The Illini are looking to bounce back from a tough 2020 that included a COVID-19 diagnosis.
Note: First-year coach Bret Bielema, the former UW coach, has said he envisions a three-man front for the defense, a major shift that already has prompted the transfer of DE Owen Carney Jr.
WEEK 6: vs. ArmyUpdated
Date: Oct. 16
All-time series: First meeting
Last meeting: N/A
Key returner: QB Tyhier Tyler (above) led the Black Knights in rushing (578 yards) despite only playing in seven of their 12 games.
Note: This could be a difficult test for the Badgers, preparing for a triple-option attack in the middle of the conference season.
WEEK 7: at PurdueUpdated
Date: Oct. 23
All-time series: UW leads 50-29-8
Last meeting: UW won 45-24 in 2019
Key returner: DE George Karlaftis (above), who was sidelined by injuries last season, is a potential game-wrecker off the edge. He helped land his younger brother Yanni Karlaftis, a four-star OLB who is the highest-ranked player in Purdue’s class and was considering UW.
Note: Last season’s game was canceled due to UW’s COVID-19 outbreak, but the Badgers haven’t lost to Purdue since 2003.
WEEK 8: vs. IowaUpdated
Date: Oct. 30
All-time series: UW leads 48-44-2
Last meeting: UW lost 28-7 on Dec. 12, 2020
Key returner: QB Spencer Petras, made strides in first year as a starter, but with defense losing studs up front and the offense losing playmaker Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Petras will be asked to do more
Note: Iowa’s win over the Badgers at Kinnick Stadium was just their second in the rivalry since 2010
Week 9: at RutgersUpdated
Date: Nov. 6
All-time series: UW leads 3-0
Last meeting: UW won 31-17 in 2018
Key returner: WR/KR Aron Cruickshank (above) — who transferred from UW last season — provided a number of big plays in the return game en route to winning the league’s returner of the year award and was the team’s second-leading receiver.
Note: UW has only surrendered 27 points in three matchups against the Scarlet Knights
WEEK 10: vs. NorthwesternUpdated
Date: Nov. 13
All-time series: UW leads 60-37-5
Last meeting: UW lost 17-7 on Nov. 21, 2020
Key returner: Safety Brandon Joseph (above), earned All-American honors as a freshman after tallying six interceptions, eight pass breakups and 56 total tackles
Note: Longtime defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz — a former assistant coach at UW — retired after last season
WEEK 11: vs. NebraskaUpdated
Date: Nov. 20
All-time series: UW leads 10-4
Last meeting: UW won 37-21 in 2019
Key returner: QB Adrian Martinez (above), who battled for his position with Luke McCaffrey last season, comes into the season as the presumed starter after McCaffrey announced he was transferring
Note: UW has an 18-point average margin of victory over Nebraska in its seven-game win streak over the Huskers
WEEK 12: at MinnesotaUpdated
Date: Nov. 27
All-time series: UW leads 62-60-8
Last meeting: UW won 20-17 in OT on Dec. 19, 2020
Key returner: RB Mo Ibrahim (above), winner of the Big Ten’s running back of the year award last season, scored 15 touchdowns and set multiple program records last season
Note: The Gophers have attacked the transfer market hard, landing seven transfer players this winter