Quarterbacks were a popular topic on the Pac-12 spring football teleconference — and with good reason.
It’s a position of great strength.
Early NFL mock drafts for 2018 have USC’s Sam Darnold and UCLA’s Josh Rosen possibly going No. 1 and No. 2 overall. Washington State’s Luke Falk is also predicted to go in the first round.
Then there’s Jake Browning of Washington, who finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy vote last season.
Oregon’s Justin Herbert is among other Pac-12 quarterbacks capable of drawing national attention. The conference appears to be loaded with talent once again.
“This is a league that produces a lot of really good quarterbacks, and this year is going to be no different,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, who acknowledged there are a lot of draft-eligible players in the conference this fall. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there is two or three taken in the first round.”
Whittingham noted that they’re all not seniors. Case in point, Rosen will be a junior and Darnold is a sophomore.
Stanford coach David Shaw said much of the Pac-12 quarterback group is young and just coming into their own.
“They are really good, and the scary part is they’re all getting better,” he added.
Here is a quick team-by-team look at the quarterback position for all 12 programs in the conference.
In filling out his first staff as head coach of the Golden Bears, Justin Wilcox tabbed Eastern Washington’s Beau Baldwin to run the offense. Baldwin was head coach of a squad that averaged 529.6 yards and 42 points per game last season.
“It was a great fit, I know, for us. We’re fortunate to have him,” Wilcox said. “He’s just a high-quality person and an excellent coach.”
Baldwin’s first offense at Cal, though, lacks experience at quarterback, with junior Chase Forrest or sophomore Ross Bowers likely to be the starter this fall.
Wilcox was pleased with the progress he saw in spring camp.
“We’re excited about getting them competing again in fall,” he said.
New coach Willie Taggart liked what he saw in spring ball.
“I thought all of our quarterbacks got better,” he said. “I think it was really good watching those guys compete each and every day.”
The leader of the pack is Herbert. The sophomore, who started seven games last season and passed for 1,936 yards and 19 touchdowns, was the star of the spring game — throwing for 327 yards and three scores.
Although Herbert was the first true freshman to start at quarterback for the Ducks since 1983, he’s being pushed for the job this season by sophomore Travis Jonsen and freshman Braxton Burmeister.
Taggart said each of the candidates is growing and learning.
The Beavers, perhaps fittingly, have a bit of a logjam at quarterback. Senior Darell Garretson, junior Marcus McMaryion and junior college transfer Jake Luton are expected to compete for the starting job, or perhaps another role.
Head coach Gary Andersen identified throwing the ball and scoring points as the biggest areas of emphasis this season.
“We want to be able to get ourselves in a spot to be able to find a quarterback that can make the game-changing plays,” Andersen said.
It’s a work in progress, he added.
“I’m not afraid to walk in and say we have some tweaks in our scheme that will allow us to play two quarterbacks in certain situations — to use the athleticism of a Marcus and a Darrell,” Andersen said."
Senior Keller Chryst suffered a knee injury in the Cardinal’s Sun Bowl win over North Carolina. It required surgery and is expected to sideline him for at least six months.
“Towards the end of the year Keller really made a push to be more of a vocal leader,” Shaw said. “And it’ll be interesting to see him when he comes back in training camp, ready to be around the guys more and practice more.”
Senior Ryan Burns, who opened 2016 as the starter, is back after losing the job to Chryst midway through the season.
Burns passed for 1,151 yards with five touchdowns and seven interceptions. Chryst threw for 905 yards with 10 scores and two picks.
Things weren’t all sunshine and rainbows for Browning last season. Although he passed for 3,430 yards with 43 touchdowns in leading the Huskies to the Pac-12 championship and a trip to the College Football Playoff, he played with an injured shoulder over the final three games.
The junior made it back late in spring camp.
“He’s doing really good. By the end of spring there were no restrictions whatsoever and so he was throwing full-go the last week,” said Washington coach Chris Petersen. “So it was really, exactly, how we had hoped it would go. That’s what the trainers and doctors had projected.”
Petersen added that it wasn’t super major surgery and that Browning will be fine.
Falk returns for his senior year with the Cougars armed with 10,888 career passing yards and 89 touchdown throws.
Washington State coach Mike Leach would like to see Falk just steadily improve.
“There’s no one big weakness he’s got to work on,” Leach said. “But I think just overall just be the best he can be at everything.”
Falk completed 70 percent of his passes in 2016. Over the past two seasons, he’s thrown 76 TD passes with 19 interceptions.
Leach acknowledged that it’s a constant process for how the team evolves around Falk. As such, he needs to stay focused on little routine things.
Now that Anu Solomon has transferred to Baylor, junior Brandon Dawkins and sophomore Khalil Tate are the most experienced quarterbacks in the fold. They’re battling several newcomers as well.
“It’s going to be a competition all the way up until the week of the first game unless somebody separates themselves,” said Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez, who noted that the Wildcats have seven quarterbacks in the program. “I really like what we have coming back, obviously with Brandon and Khalil. I like the couple of new guys we have coming in that can compete.”
Rodriguez added that the competition they want in the quarterback room may be better than anytime during his tenure in Tucson.
There’s a two-man battle brewing in Tempe. Junior Manny Wilkins, the 2016 starter, and sophomore Blake Barnett, a transfer from Alabama, are the front-runners at quarterback.
“We feel really good. I think both of those guys had really exceptional springs and both of them are getting better,” said Arizona State coach Todd Graham. “They’re making each other better.”
Having two really, really good players competing for the job, Graham continued, is a good problem to have.
Graham, though, noted that Wilkins (2,329 yards passing last season) is the returning starter and that Barnett would have to beat him out for the top spot.
Sophomore Steven Montez gave the Buffaloes a glimpse at the future with his performance in last season’s 41-38 win at Oregon. Montez passed for 333 yards and had 14 straight completions at one point. He also rushed for 135 yards.
The output came in one of three starts Montez made in place of the injured Sefo Liufau, who has graduated after leading the Buffs to the Pac-12 South title.
Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre noted that Montez came into spring ball with an even better grasp of the offense and in much better shape.
“He is moving well, and his arm is extremely strong and ever more accurate than it was last year,” MacIntyre said. “So I think he’s just kind of elevated everything a little bit.”
Although the Bruins are determined to improve a ground game that averaged only 84.2 yards per game last year, their aerial attack is also slated to get a boost. Former Michigan passing game coordinator Jedd Fisch is the new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for the Bruins.
“We have a nice scheme,” said UCLA coach Jim Mora. “And it’s well-coached and our players have embraced it.”
Rosen is back at the reins at quarterback after being limited to just six games because of injury in 2016. He has 5,585 career passing yards with 33 touchdown throws.
“He is 100 percent and he’s working very, very hard to be the best player that he can be,” Mora said.
NFL scouts are salivating over Darnold. He’s listed as the No. 1 overall pick in several mock drafts for 2018. Darnold led the Trojans to the Rose Bowl championship with 3,086 yards passing with 31 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
“Really nothing fazes the guy,” USC coach Clay Helton said. “No moment is too big.”
Besides the skill and talent level that Darnold possesses, Helton is appreciative of his approach to the offseason. He noted that the quarterback is developing his knowledge of the game in terms of identifying coverages and reading slide protections.
“I love the leadership that he’s taking,” Helton said.
The Utes hired a new offensive coordinator, bringing in quarterback guru Troy Taylor from Eastern Washington. He’ll have options to consider in his first season with the program with three signal callers expected to get reps when fall camp opens. Senior Troy Williams is the returning starter and Tyler Huntley is a promising sophomore. Alabama graduate transfer Cooper Bateman is also in the mix.
Whittingham said more effectiveness in the throw game is needed for the Utes to win the division outright for the first time.
“That is, in my estimation, the thing that has kept us from being able to get over that hump,” he said.
Whittingham added that the Utes haven’t been able to throw it good enough since joining the Pac-12.