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Wisconsin’s long been elite on the field. It’s becoming elite on the trail, too.

The longtime overachievers might sign their best class ever in 2018-19.

NCAA Football: Purdue at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Did you notice that Wisconsin — Wisconsin — has a verbal commitment from the country’s No. 4 pro-style quarterback? That shouldn’t be surprising, given how great the Badgers have been.

But it sort of is, because of how much their success has had to do with player development and how little it’s had to do with recruiting nationally renowned talent.

Graham Mertz is the highest-rated QB commit in Badgers’ history, according to the 247Sports Composite. And he’s leading what might be Wisconsin’s best class ever.

In Mertz, the Badgers’ QB development has paid off on the trail.

Playing in real NFL games in 2017, the Badgers produced one star who did a lot of his developing at another school (Russell Wilson) and one backup (Scott Tolzien). A couple others have been on rosters in the last year. One (Tanner McEvoy) has managed in the league as a receiver. Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst and OC Joe Rudolph had another at Pitt (Tom Savage) who’s a decent NFL backup.

That’s not an eye-popping QB record, and the notion of a Wisconsin quarterback in general will excite nobody, though it’s solid for a team that didn’t recruit much elite talent at the position. Wilson was a former walk-on, though he was in demand by the time Wisconsin landed him. Tolzien and McEvoy were three-stars, and Stave was a two-star.

Mertz throwing at the Elite 11 Finals in California in June.
SB Nation

For a four-star like Mertz, who’s been a rare impressive talent in a bad QB recruiting year nationally, the Badgers’ NFL track record was appealing.

If they can consistently turn short guys and three-stars into fringy pros who competed for Big Ten championships, what might Chryst and his staff do with blue-chip talent?

“I guess their past eight or nine quarterbacks are all in the league and still in the league, so that shows that they know how to develop. They know how to put guys in the league. That’s my goal, and I picked the best school for that, so I’m pumped for it,” he said.

That’s a slight overstatement of Wisconsin’s record, but point made.

Mertz is going to be UW’s second straight pretty good QB. Two in a row!

Alex Hornibrook enters 2018 as the most proven non-Trace McSorley quarterback in the Big Ten. He led Wisconsin to a one-loss, Orange Bowl season in 2017 and then won the Manning Passing Academy’s skills competition. Here’s Bill Connelly:

Hornibrook is not a good quarterback for Wisconsin — he’s just good. Maybe not Heisman good, but the Badgers ranked seventh in both Passing and Passing Downs S&P+ and first in the nation in Third Down S&P+. They were one of the best at creating third-and-manageable situations, but when they didn’t, Hornibrook caught them up.

He couldn’t pierce the Ohio State secondary in the Big Ten Championship, going just 19-for-40 with two picks. Perhaps that clinched his Wisconsin-ness in the eyes of many fans. But he was 18-for-19 against BYU and 15-for-19 against Minnesota, and against Miami, Indiana, and Utah State (three defenses that ranked 31st or better in Passing S&P+), he had a 66 percent completion rate, a 9-to-1 TD-to-INT ratio, and a 174.2 passer rating.

Hornibrook’s also a burgeoning country musician, if that interests you. He’s a junior by eligibility. Mertz could see the field by 2020, when he’ll be either a sophomore or redshirt freshman.

The lines are blurring between college and NFL offenses, but Wisconsin falls on the traditional pro-style end of the spectrum.

The Badgers have recruited athletic quarterbacks, and Wilson had great success in his year there. But Madison is one of the best destinations for quarterbacks who want to stand back and fire.

“That’s what’s definitely appealing,” Mertz said. “I know that I can get in there and do anything they need me to do, whenever they need me to do it — under center, seven-step drop ... anything, I can get it done.”

That’s not the way most QB recruits talk about scheme nowadays. But some still do, and there’s not as much competition for prototypical drop-back passers as there used to be, to Wisconsin’s advantage.

It goes beyond Mertz. Wisconsin’s recruiting better now than ever, period.

The Badgers’ 2019 class currently ranks 27th on the Composite, and that’s with just 12 commits. Last year’s finished 44th. The Badgers are 35th in the country in five-year recruiting ranking, well behind the Big Ten East’s giants. In two-year rank, they’re even behind Maryland.

Wisconsin’s not suddenly recruiting like Ohio State, but this class should finish in the top 25, conservatively. If the Badgers have a great season, as expected, they should sign their best class in the rankings era. They’ve never matched their No. 22 finish in 2001.

In ‘19, five-star offensive tackle Logan Brown might finish as the program’s highest-rated signee ever. Mertz is the other headliner, but then the class is loaded with the kinds of high three-stars that development-savvy staffs like UW’s can turn into monsters.

The Badgers lost the last couple of Big Ten title games by a little, when they faced Penn State and Ohio State teams that had a lot more talent.

They’re recruiting like a team that’s tired of losing big games on the margins.