Quarterback play has long defined the identity of the Pac-12, dating back well before the conference had 12 or even 10 members.
The 1960s had Heisman Trophy winners Terry Baker and Gary Beban; the ’70s produced Dan Fouts, Jim Plunkett, Sonny Sixkiller and Warren Moon. Troy Aikman, John Elway and Rodney Peete did their thing in the 1980s; Cade McNown, Jake Plummer and Drew Bledsoe helped shape the ’90s. USC added a couple of Heismans to its trophy case in the 2000s with Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart, Oregon could well have won its first in 2001 with Joey Harrington.
The current decade continued the trend, and the next chapter written in 2016 could only add to the illustrious quarterback history of this conference. But because quarterbacks have been so vital to molding the Pac-12 — arguably more so than any other conference — this season’s relatively light roster of marquee names might explain the national media’s tepid response to the league.
Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre thinks so.
“What you’re probably seeing is a year ago, everybody had those marquee quarterbacks,” he said. “When you have marquee quarterbacks, it gives the assumption everything is so much better.”
Sure, the Pac-12 still has already-established names at quarterback. UCLA’s Josh Rosen might be the most discussed quarterback in college football, save 2015 Heisman contenders Baker Mayfield and Deshaun Watson.
Washington State also returns Luke Falk, the nation’s No. 2 overall passer in 2015.
Missing is that ballyhooed quarterback from a preseason national championship favorite. While it didn’t work out for Cody Kessler and USC in 2015 — or Matt Barkley and the Trojans in 2012 — it went according to script for Marcus Mariota and Oregon in 2014.
Rosen and Falk are each stars in their own right, but their teams have glaring enough flaws that the championship buzz is mitigated. Rosen’s case also takes a hit from the unmet expectations ahead of Brett Hundley and the 2014 Bruins, while Falk’s a victim of the often-downplayed role quarterbacks fulfill in Mike Leach-coached offenses.
Over the next three days, a minimum of six Pac-12 teams will start different quarterbacks than appeared in 2015. Davis Webb’s debut for Cal last Friday in Australia made seven, and the hush-hush competition between Anu Solomon and Brandon Dawkins at Arizona could potentially make eight.
The Pac-12’s dearth of veteran quarterbacks stood out in July at media days, when Colorado’s Sefo Liufau was the league’s sole signal-caller at Loews Hollywood Hotel. Further irony there — Liufau returns from a Lisfranc injury that cast doubt on his timetable for much of the offseason.
MacIntyre said Liufau’s made a strong recovery, heading into his senior season with “more velocity” on passes and a greater command of the Buffs offense. With Colorado featuring the most veteran lineup in the Pac-12, perhaps Liufau’s primed to be the surprise quarterback to emerge.
It could Arizona’s Solomon, who, despite ongoing competition with Dawkins, guided the Wildcats to their best season since 1998. His return from an injury-plagued 2016 might well restore some of the national buzz that followed his freshman campaign.
Otherwise, the next marquee name from the Pac-12’s quarterback crop could come from one of the new, Week 1 starters. Below’s the scoop on the full contingent.
Max Browne, USC
A tightly contested competition between former 5-star prospect Max Browne and dual-threat play-maker Sam Darnold came down to the final day of fall camp. Browne, entering his third year in the program, makes his start Saturday against the Alabama juggernaut.
Browne’s prototype-quarterback size and big arm fit the mold of past USC quarterbacks like Leinart and Palmer. He’s also won the trust of wide receivers like JuJu Smith-Schuster. Of the Pac-12’s new quarterbacks, Browne might be the best equipped to break out as a superstar immediately — especially if he delivers a big game against Alabama.
I observed Browne in practices the past two seasons. By the end of 2014, he seemed to have command on the offense, and at a point in 2015, looked sharper than Kessler. His ability to go deep separates him from his predecessor at USC.
Ryan Burns, Stanford
Another extended competition to replace a long entrenched starter, Ryan Burns beating out Keller Chryst came as something of a surprise given Chryst’s lofty recruiting billing.
“He had a great approach the entire time, all the way back to spring ball through fall camp; just a very mature approach,” Stanford head coach David Shaw said. In his five years as Cardinal head coach, Shaw’s had to choose a starter heading into the season just once, having inherited Andrew Luck in 2011 and Kevin Hogan starting for four years.
Of course, Hogan did not become the starter his first season until about the midway point, when he replaced Josh Nunes. The Hogan-Nunes situation immediately comes to mind in relation to Burns-Chryst, for obvious reasons.
And indeed, Shaw will play both in the early part of the season. With Heisman Trophy runner-up Christian McCaffrey in the backfield, a stout offensive line upfront and arguably the most stable infrastructure in the Pac-12, however, either quarterback has a considerably more shallow learning curve than some of their conference counterparts.
Darrell Garretson, Oregon State
Utah State transfer Darrell Garretson was originally a Gary Andersen recruit, so it’s no wonder the second-year Oregon State head coach turned the reins over to him shortly upon his arrival in Corvallis.
“Darell has done a tremendous job since he walked in as a transfer, went through the transfer
year, did a great job of running the scout team,” Andersen said. “The best thing I could say is is he ready to go, I think he’s proved that on the field.”
Garretson’s mission is a big one, given the struggles Oregon State faced in 2015. The Beavers have to take baby steps, which in the quarterback’s case, start with establishing chemistry with pass-catchers.
“Darrell’s done a great job,” wide receiver Victor Bolden said. “As a receiver corps, just been trying to gain chemistry; run routes with him, catch the ball a little bit.”
Dakota Prukop, Oregon
After Oregon had so much success bringing in Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams for a year, Mark Helfrich goes back to the Big Sky well with Montana State product Dakota Prukop. Like Adams, Prukop comes from an FCS system that bears similarities to Oregon’s — and in Prukop’s case, it’s amplified by his having played for a Chip Kelly understudy, Tim Cramsey.
“It was kind of natural, and it took place in front of the team,” Helfrich said of Prukop winning the starting job. “Just efficiency, and realizing he doesn’t have to make spectacular plays…as camp went along, he was much more patient, but still aggressive.”
Manny Wilkins or Brady White, Arizona State
Something about the water in the Grand Canyon State prompts its head coaches to play quarterback decisions close to the vest. Todd Graham told reporters earlier this week he and the Sun Devils know who will start Saturday, but will not divulge that information to the media.
Northern Arizona, which has never beaten Arizona State, has one advantage: Lumberjacks quarterback Case Cookus won the Jerry Rice Award in 2015, given to the nation’s premier freshman. Neither Manny Wilkins nor Brady White have attempted a collegiate pass.
Nevertheless, Arizona State’s top wide receiver has faith in either to capably lead an offense that previously was entrusted to two Dennis Erickson recruits, Taylor Kelly and Mike Bercovici.
“They’re talented guys,” wide-out Tim White said. “Brady White’s more of a passer…Manny Wilkins is just a flat-out play-maker. He may not be the most athletic, but he’s competent and has a really strong arm.”
Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said Washington transfer Troy Williams had a sizable advantage in the three-man competition to replace Travis Wilson at Utah, but only relinquished the lead when he sustained an injury and lost time.
Thus, Williams winning the job relatively early into fall camp upon his return comes as no surprise.
“Two weeks into the fall camp, it became apparent that he had begun doing the same thing he’d done in spring,” Whittingham said. “He’s been everything he hoped he’d be so far. Obviously, he wasn’t played in a game for us yet, but from a physical standpoint — his arm-strength, his ability to extend plays, his decision-making, all that stuff — has been outstanding.”
Whittingham added Williams was voted a team captain “by quite a wide margin, and that speaks volumes about what his teammates think of him.”