Pac-12 turns to understudies at QB
Two years ago, Pac-12 quarterbacks provided plenty of star power at the conference’s media days, which were held on a Hollywood movie studio lot.
Oregon’s eventual Heisman Trophy winner, Marcus Mariota, highlighted a group that also included California’s Jared Goff, UCLA’s Brett Hundley, USC’s Cody Kessler, Oregon State’s Sean Mannion, Arizona State’s Taylor Kelly and Washington State’s Connor Halliday.
This year only one quarterback, Colorado’s Sefo Liufau, was in Los Angeles as a team representative.
“Quarterback position is up for grabs,” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich noted during his opening remarks. “We had a three-man race early in the spring, and that will continue into fall camp.”
Many of Helfrich’s peers have also assembled impressive rosters but have not identified a starting quarterback. That includes David Shaw at Stanford, the defending champion and preseason favorite.
“I mean, Oregon is just like us,” Shaw said. “There are a lot of questions at the quarterback position, but really good players around the quarterback.”
Here’s a look at the QB situations in the Pac-12 entering the 2016 season:
THE RISING SUPERSTAR: UCLA’s Josh Rosen, a true sophomore, is considered to be the top NFL prospect for the 2018 draft.
The Bruins faded down the stretch last season, but Rosen finished his freshman year with 3,669 passing yards and 23 touchdowns.
Jim Mora’s team was picked to win the South Division in the media poll. If Rosen can lead UCLA to a season-opening victory at Texas A&M, a program that has experienced chaos at quarterback recently, the Bruins could contend for the College Football Playoff.
“Josh has a chance to be very special,” Mora said. “He’s a talented young man. He’s got tremendous arm talent, he’s very smart and he has a great feel for the game, both offensively and defensively. He can make all the throws. And it’s up to him how great he becomes.”
APPLE CUP RUNNETH OVER: Washington (Jake Browning) and Washington State (Luke Falk) return starting quarterbacks capable of keeping the Apple Cup rivals in North Division contention entering their Nov. 25 showdown in Pullman.
Browning will benefit from a productive running game and a stout defense after completing 63.3 percent of his passes for 2,955 yards and 16 touchdowns as a true freshman.
Falk was the nation’s leading passer in 2015 (380.1 yards per game), piling up 4,561 yards and 38 touchdowns in Mike Leach’s quarterback-friendly system. He shared all-Pac-12 honors with Goff, the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft.
“I guess one of his best qualities is he doesn’t have a glaring weakness,” Leach said of Falk. “But like anybody, he needs to improve. There’s nothing he can’t improve on, too.”
KINGS OF THE NORTH: Oregon has the Pac-12’s best collection of talent at the skill positions, and Stanford has a preseason Heisman favorite in Christian McCaffrey.
Now the North Division rivals need starting quarterbacks to emerge.
The Ducks will probably replace Vernon Adams Jr. with another Big Sky import, Montana State graduate transfer Dakota Prukop, but it’s not a slam dunk.
Freshmen Travis Jonsen and Terry Wilson will also be in the mix when fall camp opens on Aug. 8.
“This summer is pivotal for those guys as far as developing within our offense and executing at a high level,” Helfrich said. “And get it to Royce Freeman and the other talented backs.
“I’m very excited about our depth at wide receiver, our depth at tight end, our depth at tailback. Then quarterback and the remaining part of the offensive line is up for grabs.”
Stanford’s competition to replace Hogan, a four-year starter, is among Keller Chryst, Ryan Burns and K.J. Costello.
“You’ve got to let it play out,” Shaw said. “You can’t make it go the way you want it to go, and until it plays out, you don’t make a decision. Some people may have some anxiety in that, and I don’t.
“It’s not just about the quarterback, it’s about the other guys who help the quarterback be efficient. We need the ball in Christian McCaffrey’s hands.”
TRANSFER OF EXPERIENCE: Texas Tech graduate transfer Davis Webb will replace Cal’s Goff, who threw for 4,719 yards and 43 touchdowns in the “Bear Raid” offense last year.
During three seasons with the Red Raiders, Webb passed for 5,557 yards and 46 touchdowns.
“The most impressive thing about Davis has just been his work ethic,” Cal coach Sonny Dykes said. “Since he got on campus, he comes to work at 7 a.m. and leaves at 10 p.m. That’s what he does every day.”
Oregon State named Darell Garretson, a Utah State transfer, as its starter after spring practice. In two seasons with the Aggies, the junior threw for 2,586 yards and 18 touchdowns.
“How good a Pac-12 quarterback is he going to be? We’ll see,” second-year Beavers coach Gary Andersen said. “We’re not real interested in talking about a lot of things, we’re interested in getting out and executing and moving forward. But I like where Darell is.”
The front-runner at Utah is Troy Williams, a former Washington quarterback who is back in the Pac-12 after playing one season at Santa Monica College. He will have to beat out Brandon Cox and Tyler Huntley for the job.
“It’s going to be key, obviously, to our season how that position battle turns out,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said.
FORKS DOWN?: A year after talking about winning the national championship, Arizona State coach Todd Graham is dealing with more realistic expectations as he looks to replace Mike Bercovici with one of three young players.
Sophomore Manny Wilkins, redshirt freshman Brady White and redshirt freshman Bryce Perkins will all try to lead the Sun Devils, a team coming off a disappointing 6-7 season and picked to finish fifth in the South.
“Our players know coming out of spring. They’re there every day, so they kind of know how the battle is kind of playing out,” Graham said. “But we’ve got a lot left in that evaluation. I’m looking forward to fall camp getting started and getting after it, seeing where they’re at.”
UPPERCLASSMEN NEED TO STEP UP: Arizona’s Anu Solomon burst onto the season as a freshman, leading the Wildcats to an upset victory over Mariota’s Ducks at Autzen Stadium and a Pac-12 championship game appearance.
During an injury-plagued sophomore season, Solomon passed for 2,667 yards and 20 touchdowns, a severe decline from his 2014 numbers (3,793 yards, 28 touchdowns).
Now Solomon is fighting for playing time with sophomore Brandon Dawkins.
“We have, in my opinion, two returning starters,” Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said. “So I think we’re in a good situation where we have two guys competing for the starting job.”
Clay Helton will break in a new starting quarterback during his first full season as USC’s coach. Max Browne, a junior who was mentored by Kessler, is the favorite to edge out Sam Darnold for the spot.
“After the spring game, if we had to finish that day and played the next week, it probably would have been Max Browne,” Helton said of the former five-star recruit. “But the separation between Max and Sam Darnold was not great.”
Liufau also dealt with injuries, and Colorado had a verbal commitment from Webb before his late decision to finish his collegiate career in Berkeley instead of Boulder.
Entering his senior season, Liufau has already set or tied 75 school records. The only thing missing from his body of work with the Buffaloes is a winning season and bowl game appearance.
“We did bring the only quarterback here,” Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre said. “I think one year there might have been a million quarterbacks here. Everywhere you turned, there was a quarterback.”