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Why has Chase Wolf stayed at Wisconsin behind Graham Mertz? ‘This is my dream spot’

MADISON, Wis. — Chase Wolf was just a few months away from enrolling at Wisconsin to be its next scholarship quarterback when his father relayed a story in the spring of 2018 that would prove instructive as Wolf’s Badgers career has unfolded.

It went like this: Wolf was an FBS-caliber quarterback entering his junior season at St. Xavier High School, an Ohio football powerhouse, but needed an opportunity to prove himself on the field to generate more college interest. As it happened, he was one grade behind St. Xavier starter Sean Clifford, a four-star quarterback who was committed to Penn State.

It would have been easy for Wolf to scout out other programs across the Cincinnati area, transfer and take over with a fresh start. But Wolf was resolute in his responses every time a new query from friends or family members came his way. I’m not leaving. I love the school. I love the coaches. I love my teammates. I’ll get my chance, and I’ll be ready.

Wolf would go on to start seven games that season after Clifford suffered a foot injury. Wolf threw 16 touchdowns, split time with Clifford after he returned and helped St. Xavier win a state championship, which paved the way for the scholarship offers Wolf wanted and a chance to play at Wisconsin.

Back then, the Wolfs recognized staying could be a risky move for Chase’s college football future given how valuable a junior season is in quarterback recruiting. Ultimately, the decision came down to a basic philosophical belief within the Wolf family.

“You don’t change schools,” Steve Wolf said then. “I don’t care if the guy in front of you is projected to be a five-star or player of the year in the state or in the nation. You stay. And you learn. And you compete.”

Some people may wonder why Chase Wolf — a career college backup who was passed on the Badgers’ depth chart by the younger Graham Mertz three years ago — hasn’t pursued greener pastures, particularly during an era in which the transfer portal makes it easier than ever to leave. But Wolf, now a fifth-year senior in Wisconsin’s program as preseason practices commence, has lived by that code ever since. Stay. Learn. Compete.

“It crossed my mind maybe a couple times,” Wolf said of transferring. “But in reality, this is the place where I want to be. I didn’t have a dream school when I grew up. It was mostly Xavier basketball because I was a basketball guy. Xavier didn’t have a football team, so I didn’t have a football team to cheer for besides maybe Cincinnati just because my quarterback coach played there.

“But once I came here and I kind of got familiar with the place and the tradition and the coaches, this is my dream spot. Regardless of what happens, I wouldn’t want to leave it.”

Chase Wolf has thrown 25 passes since arriving at Wisconsin in 2018. (Jeff Hanisch / USA Today)

Wolf values loyalty and relationships while understanding the big-picture outlook. In four seasons at Wisconsin, he has appeared in 10 games for a total of 120 snaps. Yet teammates say they have yet to see Wolf outwardly complain about his playing status. If anything, his experiences have given him more of a sage-like quality in the room.

Quarterback Deacon Hill, a redshirt freshman who didn’t play last season, said Wolf offered advice that helped him look at the situation from a fresh perspective.

“Obviously, you know as a player it’s frustrating,” Hill said. “But he doesn’t let you see it. He goes out every day and competes. The only time you see him really frustrated is when he’s mad at himself for doing something. Like say he makes a little mistake, he’s really hard on himself. He strives for perfection. But he’s really level-headed, and he gets after it every day. It’s fun to be around him because he brings up everybody else’s game as well by bringing that competitiveness to the quarterback room.”

Running back Brady Schipper, who has lived in the same apartment building as Wolf for the past two years, said he was amazed at the way Wolf constantly prepared as though he was going to be the starter, even though Mertz has started the past 20 games.

“I’m around him a lot,” Schipper said. “Dude’s always in the iPad watching film, studying the playbook. When you see a guy prepare like that, as a starter even though he might not be, that just kind of gives you the energy like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to keep grinding like that, too.’

“Maybe he’ll get his opportunity. You never know. That’s all football is about. You’ve just got to keep working with your head down until you get that opportunity to make something happen.”

Mertz, a former four-star prospect and the highest-rated prep quarterback ever to sign with Wisconsin, is set to enter his third season as the starter. But the value of having a capable backup quarterback is immense. Since Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst was hired before the 2015 season, the Badgers have required a backup quarterback to replace an injured starter at some point in five different seasons. Chryst said Wolf and Mertz “have got to be able to push each other” to make the two quarterbacks better.

Wolf said he has learned, not simply from his time in high school behind Clifford but also in his time behind Mertz, that he could be “one shoestring away from playing and being the guy.” During the 2020 season in a critical game against border rival Minnesota, Mertz sustained a second-half head injury and Wolf entered the game. Wolf threw a touchdown pass to give Wisconsin a third-quarter lead and played the rest of the way to help the Badgers squeeze out a 20-17 overtime victory. Last season, Mertz suffered a chest injury against Michigan, which thrust Wolf into action again.

Wolf certainly has had his moments to showcase his talent, displaying a knack for making something out of nothing with his speed and a willingness to escape pocket pressure. But he also has made significant strides as a passer.

During spring practices, Wolf delivered a handful of impressive deep throws right on target for touchdowns while guiding the second-team offense. He dropped in a 55-yard play-action touchdown to Dean Engram and a 50-yard touchdown to receiver Keontez Lewis. On the final day of the spring, he lasered a 49-yard touchdown to Skyler Bell and later found Markus Allen for a 45-yard score. The more Wolf has excelled, the more confidence he has built in teammates.

“If anything did happen to Graham, with Chase in the game, I wouldn’t bat an eye,” Bell said. “We’re in the huddle and we’re ready to go like nothing happened.”

The types of plays Wolf made in the spring haven’t come by accident. Wolf, the only quarterback on the roster other than Mertz who has played in a college game, said he’s been intentional in his approach. He worked this offseason on his core to more quickly get his hips through and create more passing zip with Craig Buckley, who was hired as the assistant director of Wisconsin’s football strength and conditioning program. He spent time with Keller Chryst, a graduate assistant who works with the quarterbacks, on changing how he bent his arm while throwing to create a higher trajectory, as well as getting his foot on the ground quicker on his five-step drops.

“He has some arm talent,” Wisconsin offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Bobby Engram said. “You saw him throw some big deep balls this spring and hit guys down the field. I think when he really is in rhythm, he has a strong arm and he’s pretty accurate. So he has some tools in terms of quarterback position. He’s not just an athlete playing quarterback. He can throw the football and he’s really smart with his reads. I think he throws the ball well on the run. So now the key is just to keep Chase ready and keep him competing.”

Wolf’s competitiveness stems from growing up in a family full of athletes. His father played basketball at North Carolina State and Xavier. His older sister, Sabrina, played volleyball at Cincinnati. His grandfather, Charley, played football, basketball and baseball at Notre Dame, went on to a pro baseball career with the Cincinnati Reds and wound up as an NBA coach of the Cincinnati Royals and Detroit Pistons.

Chase’s cousin, J.J. Wolf, competed in the main draw for doubles at the U.S. Open men’s tennis tournament before he even went to college at Ohio State and is currently a top-100 player on the ATP Tour. In total, 11 of Wolf’s relatives have played college sports.

Perhaps the most significant challenge Wolf faces is demonstrating his ability to take care of the ball. He has thrown 24 passes over the previous two seasons and been intercepted four times, all in different games. During the only two games in which he has thrown a touchdown pass, against Minnesota in 2020 and Michigan in 2021, he also threw an interception.

“I think I’ve got to build trust in this camp to show that I’ll just take what the defense gives me,” Wolf said. “I’m not going to force anything that I don’t need to, like the Minnesota game, like the Michigan game. I was trying to make the big play. I was trying to win the game. I was trying to come back. But that’s not going to happen all in one play.

“I’ve got to treat every single play in practice as if it’s a game situation where regardless of the score, I’m going to take what the defense gives me just because forcing anything is not going to result in something good.”

Even as Wisconsin has implemented new plays and terminology under Bobby Engram this offseason, Wolf said he understands the playbook more than at any point before. He knows the reasoning behind why each play is being called and intricate details such as what each offensive lineman’s responsibilities are on a given run play, which he acknowledges he didn’t always fully recognize.

All the work Wolf has put in means he expects to be ready as ever if coaches call his name.

“I want what’s best for the team,” Wolf said. “I’m mature now. I’m a veteran. I know what reps I need and what reps I don’t need. I would like to get starter reps, but that’s just not how it worked out so far.

“Graham, he’s a guy that is fun to compete with. He brings the best out of you and I think I bring the best out of him. I feel like I thrive in a competition setting with a little chip on my shoulder so I can kind of use that to my advantage to play. Yeah, it’s not my ideal spot, what I thought about. But at this point, I’m trying to make the team as best as it can be. So if I’m taking the second-team reps, I want to push Graham to being the best he can be, too.”

(Top photo: Jim Dedmon / USA Today)

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