By Christian Caple The News Tribune
No matter the conference’s annual perception or level of achievement, there are a handful of constants each year at Pac-12 media day.
Commissioner Larry Scott will tout the conference’s growing list of national championships while offering encouraging reviews of the growth of the Pac-12 Networks (still no DirecTV. Ask again next year). Every player and coach will confirm that, yes, they had a wonderful offseason. David Shaw will remind you that Stanford men are supposed to act and play a certain way.
But this year, back in late July at the Paramount Studios in Hollywood, California, there was a new theme to parse and different questions to ask.
Most of them followed some variation of this: “Just how good are the Pac-12’s quarterbacks this season?”
“Oh, I don’t think there is a conference that’s close in terms of the quality of quarterbacks,” UCLA coach Jim Mora said.
There are enough proven returning passers that they can be categorized into tiers based upon past success and expectations heading into 2014. Mora’s own guy, fourth-year junior Brett Hundley, seems to share the highest pedestal with Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, another fourth-year junior who chose to return to school instead of entering the NFL draft.
Mariota threw for 3,665 yards and 31 touchdowns with just four interceptions in 2013, and rushed for 715 yards and nine touchdowns on 96 attempts, his Heisman candidacy fading late in the season after a knee injury derailed the Ducks’ national championship hopes.
Hundley threw for 3,071 yards and 24 touchdowns with nine interceptions, rushing for 748 yards and 11 touchdowns on a team-high 160 carries — the same number he had in 2012, when he totaled just 355 yards (and was sacked 52 times).
Those two are the thoroughbreds, and it is not by coincidence that media predicted Oregon and UCLA to meet in the Pac-12 championship game. But Arizona State fifth-year senior Taylor Kelly (3,635 yards passing and 608 yards rushing in 2013), Oregon State fifth-year senior Sean Mannion (10,436 career passing yards and 68 touchdowns), and Washington State fifth-year senior Connor Halliday (4,597 yards passing in 2013, second-most in a season in Pac-12 history) can each reasonably expect to be considered among the conference’s best by season’s end.
Then there’s fourth-year Stanford junior Kevin Hogan, who isn’t considered a prolific passer or a can’t-miss NFL prospect, but has a record of 16-3 as a starting quarterback. California sophomore Jared Goff set a school record with 3,508 yards passing as a true freshman. USC fourth-year junior Cody Kessler threw for 2,968 yards and 20 touchdowns after settling down in 2013, and could take another step forward under first-year coach Steve Sarkisian in 2014.
Utah starter Travis Wilson is back from a concussion that ended his 2013 season, though his numbers in two years as a starter have been shaky. Bellarmine Prep product Sefo Liufau is back to lead Colorado as a sophomore, hoping to build off his seven starts as a freshman.
Many of the aforementioned quarterbacks spent time together as counselors during the summer at the Manning Passing Academy, and that must have gone well enough, because they all said nice things about each other when asked.
“We want to beat each other on Saturdays, but when you get a chance to know these guys, they are all great players, obviously, and it’s fun competing against your friends,” Mannion said. “That’s the way I look at it.”
Washington (which will start third-year sophomore Jeff Lindquist in its opener) and Arizona are the only teams without a returning starter at quarterback.
“What really strikes me is every one of them are good players,” UW coach Chris Petersen said at media day. “It’s not just they’ve got a guy coming back that’s OK. They’re all good players. There’s no question. And it’s scary when you don’t have one of those returning guys and every week you’re going to have to face someone like that.”