Are Pac-12 quarterbacks conference’s best class ever?
From Marcus Mariota to UCLA’s Brett Hundley and WSU’s Connor Halliday, Pac-12 includes QBs with Heisman potential, NFL possibilities and gaudy numbers.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Picking the best year for quarterbacks in Pac-12 history is like going into a bakery on the Champs Elysees and trying to narrow it down to one pastry. After a lot of deliberation, my stab at the top five years of the position since the league expanded to 10 teams in 1978 — with the verdict still out on 2014:
(1) 2011: Start with Stanford’s Andrew Luck, the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft and considered the best pro prospect in a generation. Add Matt Barkley, who threw for 39 touchdowns for USC. Now factor in Oregon’s Darron Thomas, who was good for 33 TD passes, as was Washington’s Keith Price, who had his best year as a sophomore; Arizona’s Nick Foles, whose 4,429 yards are No. 4 on the league’s season passing list; and Arizona State’s Brock Osweiler, No. 6 on that list with 4,036 yards.
(2) 2004: You could win with these guys, too, led by California’s Aaron Rodgers, who completed 66 percent, and USC’s Matt Leinart, who had a 33-6 touchdown-interception ratio the year before he won the Heisman. Throw in ASU’s Andrew Walter (30-9 TD-pick ratio), Oregon’s Kellen Clemens, OSU’s Derek Anderson and even Stanford’s Trent Edwards as a sophomore, and you have six quarterbacks who played in the NFL.
(3) 1988: A quarter-century ago, the stats were more modest, the offenses not as quarterback-friendly and the pre-college preparation far less prevalent. Nevertheless, you could do worse than UCLA’s Troy Aikman, who completed 64 percent and was first choice in the ’89 draft; Timm Rosenbach, No. 1 on Washington State’s season percentage list (64.5); USC’s Rodney Peete, OSU’s Erik Wilhelm, UW’s Cary Conklin and Cal’s Troy Taylor. All six would play on Sunday.
(4) 2002: Another primo group headed by Heisman winner Carson Palmer (USC) and Washington State’s Jason Gesser, who shared league offensive MVP honors. But there was also Cal’s Kyle Boller, who became a first-round NFL pick; ASU’s Andrew Walter as a sophomore (28 TD passes) and Washington’s Cody Pickett, No. 3 on the Pac-12 season list with 4,458 yards.
(5) 1994: The roster included seniors Rob Johnson of USC and Steve Stenstrom of Stanford; Danny O’Neil of Oregon, who led his team to the Rose Bowl; Jake Plummer of ASU as a sophomore; and Washington’s Damon Huard as a junior.
Rating the Pac-12 quarterbacks
The Times consulted CBSSports.com draft analyst Rob Rang for his thoughts on the pro potential of several veteran Pac-12 quarterbacks:
“Because he’s the top-rated prospect, people assume he’s kind of flawless. I don’t believe he’s Andrew Luck all over again. (But) the upside is so much, the athleticism so high, the way the NFL is turning to these dual-threat quarterbacks, how do you not gamble on that type of upside? He does have good instincts in the pocket. I wouldn’t say he has great accuracy, but it’s good. He’s the odds-on favorite to be the No. 1 overall pick.”
“He’s probably the most intriguing of all the Pac-12 quarterbacks, including Mariota. But when he gets a pass rush, he drops his eyes, rather than keeping his eyes downfield. I compare him to a young Randall Cunningham. He’s a gazelle, he moves so fluidly. I have him going late first round, but he’d be the one that’d scare me. He’s very much a boom-or-bust prospect.”
“Very much a traditional, pro-style quarterback. Very intelligent with a very clean setup and delivery. He throws the ball with a really nice trajectory, a beautiful, classic rainbow. The only thing that concerns me, I don’t see him drive the ball on a line. I have him as second- or third-round, the top senior quarterback (nationally).”
“He’s an interesting player. He’ll make NFL throws, but he’ll make the boneheaded throw sometime that will drive you crazy. He believes in his arm as much as any quarterback in the country. There’s no question he has the talent, there’s no question in his confidence or his toughness. I absolutely would be considering him with a late-round selection.”
“He’s got a chance. The (foot) injury is now very much a concern. He reminds me a little bit of Chase Daniel, who played a spread at Missouri. He’s (Kelly’s) enough of a competitor and intelligent enough, has some arm strength and is an accurate passer. He’s not elite in any way. He has a chance to be a Day 3 pick and has a chance to stick.”
“He’s a big, strong kid who’s very athletic, much more athletic than he looks. He just has that ugly, elongated release that kind of allows defenders to see where the ball’s going. I would anticipate he’ll come back (for his senior year).”
Oregon football coach Mark Helfrich has lavished so many superlatives on his quarterback, Marcus Mariota, that a couple of weeks ago, he opted to trim the adulation back to a short version: “Marcus is Marcus, and we love him.”
No mystery there. Sports Illustrated recently suggested that Mariota might be the best dual-threat quarterback in college history, and he appears the front-runner to become the second player from the Northwest to win the Heisman Trophy (Terry Baker of Oregon State did it in 1962).
But Mariota, also projected as the likely No. 1 choice in the 2015 NFL draft, is only the meringue on a very rich dessert when it comes to Pac-12 quarterbacks. Six of them rank in the top 16 nationally this week in pass efficiency.
The league’s quarterbacks have been described as potentially constituting the best year at the position in Pac-12/10/8 Conference history, and indeed, it might prove to be.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Stanford coach David Shaw, who played at the school a generation ago.
“I don’t know if it’ll be like the 1983 draft, where you’ve got a bunch of Hall of Famers getting drafted, but I do think you’ll look and say, ‘Wait, all those guys in the NFL were in the same conference at the same time?’ ”
The group also includes UCLA’s Brett Hundley, whom CBSSports.com draft analyst Rob Rang called “probably the most intriguing of all the Pac-12 quarterbacks, including Mariota.”
As good as Mariota is with his feet, Hundley might be just as dangerous; he unspooled an 86-yard scoring run against Virginia Tech last year in the Sun Bowl.
“I can tell you unequivocally Brett’s a first-round draft pick,” said UCLA coach Jim Mora, who has spent most of his career in the NFL.
Prefer the old-time variety of quarterback? Then Sean Mannion of Oregon State is your man, a pocket-passing 6-foot-5 slinger who should break the league’s career record for passing yardage.
Arizona State is pining for the return from a foot injury of Taylor Kelly, who isn’t as prized by pro scouts but is a crafty technician running the option, and is also a capable thrower.
Then there’s Washington State’s Connor Halliday, who, triggering Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense, is gradually shedding a reputation for being interception-prone and has been turning heads with NFL-level throws.
Against Oregon, Halliday victimized the Ducks’ all-American cornerback, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, for two touchdowns, and dropped an exquisite fade pass over Ekpre-Olomu for a 24-yard completion down the right sideline.
“The quote-unquote fifth- and sixth-best quarterbacks in the conference are really, really good,” said Shaw.
That might include people like USC’s Cody Kessler (no interceptions in 132 throws), and California sophomore Jared Goff, No. 5 nationally in pass efficiency.
Stanford’s Kevin Hogan, while he has struggled to consummate drives in scoring range this year, quarterbacked his team to a 2013 Rose Bowl victory and is 10-2 when the Cardinal plays a Top 25 opponent.
The guys behind center are putting up dizzying numbers, partly because systems are more quarterback-friendly (and in some cases, defenses are more helpless).
Sefo Liufau, the Bellarmine Prep product at Colorado, threw for 449 yards at California, and Arizona’s Anu Solomon amassed 272 yards and four touchdowns against Cal — in the fourth quarter, yet — but they’re afterthoughts in this quarterback-centric season.
Said Shaw, “I do think that in a few years, we’ll look back and say, ‘Wow, that was kind of the golden age for quarterbacks in the Pac-12.’ ”
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org
About Bud Withers
Bud Withers gives his take on college sports, with the latest from the Huskies, Cougs, and the rest of the Pac-12.
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