Nobody really knew what to expect from Quintez Cephus.
The junior wide receiver on the University of Wisconsin football team had sat out all of the 2018 season. He hadn’t played in a game since November 2017. When he finally was allowed to rejoin the team, he’d missed more than two weeks of training camp.
Cephus’ coaches and teammates were confident he’d make a big impact at some point this season, but it would have been understandable if it took some time to regain his form.
The No. 17 Badgers were downright giddy after witnessing Cephus’ triumphant return to Camp Randall Stadium, a six-catch, 130-yard, two-touchdown performance in a 61-0 victory over Central Michigan Saturday afternoon.
“He’s even better than the Quintez he was before,” UW junior tailback Jonathan Taylor said. “That just shows the type of work ethic he has. The entire time, he was working. He came in and didn’t miss a beat at all.”
Cephus had three catches for 39 yards in the opener against South Florida. Those numbers would have been better had junior quarterback Jack Coan not missed Cephus on two deep throws in the first half.
The two were on the same page against the Chippewas, connecting on scoring plays of 36 and 46 yards late in the second quarter. Cephus made a great over-the-shoulder catch on the second one.
“It’s just amazing how un-rusty he is, if that makes sense,” Coan said. “You’d think a person that sat out that long wouldn’t be as good right away coming back, but I feel like he hasn’t missed a beat. It’s been awesome to have him.”
Cephus was suspended last season and later expelled from UW after being charged with sexually assaulting two female students at his apartment. A Dane County jury took less than an hour to find Cephus not guilty of those charges last month and UW-Madison reinstated him to the university on Aug. 19.
Cephus’ teammates, who advocated for his return to the team, seemed as excited as he was after the touchdowns.
“Very, very special,” Cephus said of the support he’s received. “I have gone through a lot and just taking it all in can be overwhelming sometimes, but my teammates helped me a lot with that.”
UW coach Paul Chryst said he wasn’t surprised by Cephus’ performance.
“But I am impressed,” Chryst said. “He certainly gives us a great energy. … He missed a year playing with a group that he loves and in a game that he loves. When you get it back — there is a spirit about him that we would all be crazy not to see and appreciate and learn from.”
UW sophomore safety Scott Nelson announced on Twitter after the game that his season is over.
Nelson injured his left knee late in the third quarter of UW’s win over South Florida in the opener. He was replaced in the Badgers’ base defense Saturday by junior Eric Burrell.
“While I am disappointed to receive the news that my season is over because of an injury, I will not be deterred,” Nelson tweeted. “My plan is to be back on the field and better than ever when we kick off in 2020.”
True freshman quarterback Graham Mertz made his debut, completing 4 of 5 passes for 35 yards and leading a scoring drive during his only series.
“It was great,” Mertz said. “I couldn’t ask for a better experience. I was just glad to get my first snaps at home, too. It was a blast.”
Mertz acknowledged that he’ll likely redshirt this season. He’s allowed to play in four games without losing a season of eligibility.
“They said that really to use those four would be pretty sweet,” Mertz said. “I am redshirting. It’s more just getting my opportunity in those four games.”
Later, Mertz said he hasn’t had a formal discussion with the coaching staff about redshirting. Still, that seems like a likely scenario considering how well Coan has played through the first two weeks of the season.
“If the circumstances were right, we wanted to get him in, and fortunately they were,” Chryst said. “First snaps, first pass, all those things are good to get, and I thought he did some good stuff with it, and it's important.”
Chryst called a pass on Mertz’s first play and the highly touted prospect nearly tripped before underthrowing intended receiver Jack Dunn. But Mertz bounced back two plays later by finding Aron Cruikshank over the middle for 19 yards to convert on third-and-13.
By the time his lone series was over, Mertz had helped UW go 75 yards in 14 plays.
“Honestly, I thought I was going to be (nervous), but it just felt like another ballgame,” Mertz said. “It was fun. I feel like you have fun with it, there’s no need to get nervous.”
Redshirt freshman Chase Wolf finished off the game for the Badgers. He also played last week at South Florida.
“I think it’s more of just a dual backup thing,” Mertz said. “It’s more getting us experience.”
Junior wide receiver Kendric Pryor, who had two catches for 32 yards, left the game with an upper-body injury. But Pryor was on the sidelines in the second half and was seen joining in on the “Jump Around” between the third and fourth quarters. … Senior right tackle David Moorman made his first career start in place of injured sophomore Logan Bruss. UW made two other changes on the offensive line from last week, with sophomore Kayden Lyles starting at left guard and senior Jason Erdmann moving over to right guard. … Freshman nose tackle Keeanu Benton, a former Janesville Craig standout, and junior outside linebacker Noah Burks each made his first career start. Benton filled in for injured sophomore Bryson Williams and Burks for injured sophomore Izayah Green-May.