Pac-12 Preview: Ranking The Quarterbacks

UCLA QB Brett Hundley (17) put himself on the periphery of the 2013 Heisman Trophy discussion with a sensational freshman season. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

New starters and quarterback competitions are prevalent in the Pac-12 this season, though the league should still feature some of the nation’s top performers. Last year started a youth movement for the conference, which saw several top triggermen excel as freshmen. In a league growing further wide open in terms of competition, quarterback play will undoubtedly dictate who is a legit contender.

Here is our countdown of the top QBs in the Pac-12:

1.      Brett Hundley – UCLA

Hundley started every game last year as a freshman, often playing well above his experience level. He threw for 3,745 yards and 29 TDs while also rushing for nine more scores in 2012. As a sophomore, Hundley enters as a Heisman Trophy contender. What makes that idea more impressive is the fact that he accomplished as much as he did while getting sacked a nation-high 52 times. That happens with running quarterbacks, but the Bruins didn’t exactly do a great job in pass protection. Hundley’s emergence as a premier quarterback in the Pac-12 propelled the Bruins into the Pac-12 Championship Game. He would love to guide UCLA to the next level in 2013.

2.      Marcus Mariota – Oregon

Like Hundley, Mariota showed in 2012 that youth at the quarterback position can serve Pac-12 teams quite nicely. Mariota, another freshman, posted silly numbers – accounting for 3,429 yards of total offense and 37 TDs. As is customary in now former coach Chip Kelly’s offenses, Mariota can challenge defenses with his legs just as easily as he does with his arm. Having the luxury to hand the ball off to two of the nation’s most explosive tailbacks – and throwing to one of them – certainly didn’t hurt. The engine of Oregon’s offense will typically post huge numbers. Expect nothing different when former offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich takes over as head coach.

3.      Kevin Hogan – Stanford

Though it would not be a huge surprise if Hogan ranks at the top of this list by season’s end, he starts here because of his relative inexperience compared to that of Hundley and Mariota. The huge prospect took over seven games into the season and guided the Cardinal to a 6-0 record that included a road upset of then-No. 1 Oregon, a Pac-12 Championship Game win over UCLA and a Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin. Oh, and Hogan accomplished all that as a true freshman. So what does he do for an encore? Well, with so much returning on defense, a national championship isn’t out of the question. Hogan isn’t asked to post staggering numbers. Thus his performance won’t be measured by 300-yard-5-TD games, but rather by moving the chains and avoiding turnovers. He has already proven perfectly capable of both.

4.      Taylor Kelly – Arizona State

Quietly, Kelly became one of the steadiest, most productive quarterbacks in the Pac-12 last season. He finished the season with 3,039 yards passing with 29 TDs and 9 INTs, though cutting down on his 31 sacks from a year ago would be nice. Kelly was reasonably accurate in 2012, completing more than two-thirds of his passes. He also showed a propensity to move the chains with his feet. Interestingly, all nine of Kelly’s interceptions came in losses – the Sun Devils went 7-0 in games in which the rising junior avoided them.

5.      Keith Price – Washington

Price opened the season with many expecting a breakout season with aspirations of the Huskies, at the very least, contending for a Pac-12 North title. The year instead ended with a disappointing total of six losses. Price’s ability or failure to take the next step could play a huge role in head coach and noted quarterback whisperer Steve Sarkisian keeping his job at Washington. Despite his struggles in 2012, Price has already shown he’s capable of plenty more, playing consistently better the previous year – his first as a starter. This year marks Price’s final chance to fulfill his potential. Washington needs him to do so to challenge divisional foes Oregon and Stanford.

6.      Sean Mannion/Cody Vaz – Oregon State

If coach Mike Riley knows what he’s doing at the quarterback position this fall, he isn’t letting anyone in on the secret. It’s totally believable that Riley doesn’t have the answer, though, considering he spent all of 2012 by flipping back and forth between the duo. Mannion started the first four games before undergoing knee surgery after struggling in a 19-6 win over Washington State. He proved a mixed bag – seemingly equally capable of throwing for 300 yards (four times in 2012) as he is of tossing three INTs in a game (three times in 2012). Vaz is the steadier option. He threw for 11 TDs while getting picked off just three times. While Vaz doesn’t make the crippling mistake, he can hold onto the ball too long. He took 22 sacks in seven games in comparison to Mannion, who was sacked 12 times in eight games. Mannion and Vaz shared the starting quarterback position last year and it’s conceivable that will continue.

7.      Connor Halliday – Washington State

Playing in a Mike Leach offense carries a tremendous weight of expectation – from both fans and the quirky coach himself. Halliday already knows and understands falling short of said expectations leads to a quick hook. Leach’s quick hook – combined with injuries – led to Halliday getting on-again-off-again action as the Cougars starter. He showed potential to post huge numbers, throwing for 300-plus yards in three of four starts and four-plus TDs in two of four. He also threw for 330 yards and 5 TDs in a relief appearance against UCLA. However, Halliday lacked consistency and – sometimes – good judgment. He completed just 52 percent of his passes, was intercepted 13 times and took 22 sacks. Leach’s offense keeps Halliday higher than he would otherwise be. That’s a blessing and a curse.

8.      Jesse Scroggins/B.J. Denker/Anu Solomon – Arizona

This trio will combine for among the most intriguing summer quarterback competitions. Denker, a senior, has the experience in the system, having served as QB2 behind Matt Scott last year and having started in a 56-31 win over hapless Colorado. In that win, Denker completed 12 of 14 passes for 136 yards and 2 TDs. He also rushed for 44 yards and another TD. Scroggins, a junior-college transfer who initially signed with USC, underwent toe surgery during the spring and missed most of spring camp until making a surprise appearance in the spring game. He understandably struggled, completing just 6 of 17 passes, though he did manage a pair of TD tosses. Many believe Solomon to be coach Rich Rodriguez’ hand-picked QB of the future. That mantle has, in Rodriguez’ past, meant immediately playing time – as was the case with Pat White at West Virginia, who started as a freshman, and Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson at Michigan, both of whom played as true freshmen. Highly touted JUCO transfers such as Scroggins don’t typically choose a school unless there are some assurances of playing time, so he seems like a logical leader in this battle. But this one is far too close to call right now.

9.      Travis Wilson – Utah

A talented freshman a year ago, Wilson all-too-frequently played to that label. That means he showed plenty of potential while suffering through – at times – massive growing pains. How massive, you ask? Eight-of-23, 55 yards, one INT massive. That was Wilson’s final stat line in a 34-15 loss at Washington in November. However, Wilson chased that woeful outing with a 311-yard, 70-percent-passing, 2-TD, 0-INT performance in a loss to Arizona. QB1 Jordan Wynn’s career-ending shoulder injury suffered in Week 2 opened the door for Wilson, who took over as starter for the final seven games. Forget the future. Wilson is the Utes’ quarterback of the present. We will find out how consistent he can be now that he is Kyle Whittingham’s guy.

10.  Max Wittek/Cody Kessler/Max Browne – USC

Wittek has the (largely forgettable) experience, having started the final two games of the season after Matt Barkley went down with a separated shoulder. He hardly inspired confidence, leading USC coach Lane Kiffin to run spring practice as an open competition for the starting spot. Kessler answered the challenge and outperformed Wittek (dramatically) during the spring game. Did the exhibition elevate Kessler to top-dog? Only Kiffin and his staff know the answer – and they ain’t tellin’. USC ended spring camp listing the position as the dreaded three-way “OR” on the depth chart. Browne was Rivals.com’s top-rated quarterback this year and enrolled early to contend for the starting position – only he never made a move. It’s questionable whether he is truly in the competition when August comes around. Wittek obviously had an edge over Kessler last season and it would make sense for him to have retained it – disastrous spring game performances notwithstanding.

11.  Zach Kline/Jared Goff – California

Kline seems to be the leader coming out of spring practice, but first-year coach Sonny Dykes isn’t ready to show his cards just yet. The reason California’s quarterbacks rank above some other unproven commodities is offensive coordinator Tony Franklin, who runs a high-octane system and has posted strong results at Kentucky, Troy and Louisiana Tech. Whoever takes snaps in Franklin’s offense has the added benefit of a system that has worked wherever head coaches have bought in entirely (read: not at Auburn under Tommy Tuberville).

12.  Connor Wood – Colorado

Wood will seemingly take over as QB1 by being the last man standing. That’s as big a compliment as the 12th-best QB situation in a 12-team league can expect right now. (Prove me wrong, Mike MacIntyre.) Wood played sparingly as a backup last year, playing exclusively during garbage time. Jordan Webb could return sometime in October after getting injured during a non-contact drill during spring practice. His return would improve the Buffaloes at the QB position, though. There is also a legal matter for Webb to work out after having been arrested from allegations stemming from an offseason fight.

Topics: Arizona State Sun Devils, Arizona Wildcats, Cal Golden Bears, Colorado Buffaloes, Oregon Ducks, Oregon State Beavers, PAC-12, Stanford Cardinal, UCLA Bruins, USC Trojans, Utah Utes, Washington Huskies, Washington State Cougars

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