The Pac-12 Conference is in a very unique situation in that you can clearly separate the haves from the have-nots in terms of possessing starting quarterbacks capable of winning football games. Previously, we broke down the upper echelon of QBs with the majority of that group possessing only a year of starting experience. The bottom half of the starting quarterback pool is a very interesting witch’s brew inhabited by inconsistency, injury, youth and tons of potential. But what makes this group so interesting – at least in my opinion – is the fact you have one guy with the most starting experience of all ten ranked sitting dead in the middle.
6. Keith Price, Washington, Sr.
2,728 Passing Yards, 19 TDs, 13 INTs, 60.9 Comp. %, 122.4 QB Rating
So much was expected of Price, whose play in practices during Jake Locker’s senior year back in 2010 really made expectations explode going into his sophomore season of 2011, his first as a starter for the Huskies. He put in a scintillating 33-touchdown effort, leading a team that just fell short to RG3 in a shoot-out bowl game. Those questions became cries for help last year as Price just tried to do too much after growing pains developing his receiving corps. But you could point out the fact that he lost key contributors at receiver, left tackle, and running back to graduation, each of whom were pivotal to Price’s early success.
Fast-forward to his senior year and the expectations for a rebound campaign from the 6’1” quarterback looking to follow the footsteps of Locker, a first round selection in 2011 by the Titans. All the offensive pieces seemed to have developed around him by the end of ’12 and now he looks to show NFL scouts and doubters alike that last year was a fluke. In order to do that he’ll have to show increased accuracy on both his deep and intermediate throws downfield. Price has thrown twice as many touchdowns as interceptions – regardless of his struggles last season – and if he sticks to that ratio, he and his team should meet some of the lofty expectations lobbed their way this pre-season.
7. Cody Kessler, USC, So.
9 Passing Yards, 0 TDs, 0 INTs, 100.0 Comp. %, 137.8 QB Rating
First things first: Kessler did not win the starting job for the Trojans this past spring in camp, but he did have a very solid Spring Game performance throwing for three touchdowns while completing 15/22 and throwing for 242 in what amounted to a soft practice.
When we ranked the coaches in the Pac-12, we discussed how this year was do-or-die for Trojans head football coach Lane Kiffin, but one thing is for sure: his quarterback is going to put up gaudy stats. One simply has to look at the player that Kessler is potentially stepping in for in 2013, Matt Barkley. Win or lose, the guy shredded the record books. And he did so throwing to a crop of receivers second to none. While Kessler doesn’t have the luxury of throwing to Robert Woods, he has one of the best wide receivers in the country in Marquise Lee, who has proven he can deliver consistently even when defenses know the ball is coming his way.
Kessler will be working with a new offensive coordinator, albeit his position coach a year ago, doing his best to fend off fellow sophomore Max Wittek, who possesses all the talent and physical abilities you look for in starting quarterback who calls the Coliseum his home. But if Kiffen wants to win and save his job he may take a page out of ASU head coach Todd Graham’s book in 2012 and start a player that shows all the intangibles and has a better feel for the offense, and has the ability to distribute the football efficiently, rather than the guy who throws the hardest and farthest. While neither quarterback has much experience, Wittek seemed unable to right the ship after Matt Barkley was lost to injury late last season.
8. Connor Halliday, Washington State, Jr.
1,878 Passing Yards, 15 TDs, 13 INTs, 52.2 Comp. %, 114.5 QB Rating
Sun Devil fans will find it hard to forget that one fateful day on a snowy field in November back in 2011, with the reigns slipping away quickly from Dennis Erickson’s grip in his final season as coach of the Sun Devils, Halliday stepped in to replace an injured starting quarterback Jeff Tuel and went on to play like a player with his hair on fire – completing 75% of his passes for 494 yards and four touchdowns. Just to make it sting a bit more, Halliday started the next week as well against a worndown Utah team and lost in overtime thanks to his four interceptions. And that would be a preview for Wazzou fans for his upcoming season, boom or bust.
Halliday helped Mike Leach record his first and one of only three wins in 2012, and then struggled with consistency thanks in part to Leach’s unwillingness to stick with one quarterback throughout the roller coaster that was the Pirate’s first season with the Cougs. The highs were his three games where he threw four touchdowns or more, including a home loss against UCLA where he nearly helped orchestrate a huge upset falling just short due to some special teams mishaps. Much like Kessler, the numbers will come, but will the wins follow?
Part of the beauty of the Air Raid offense is its simplicity for the quarterback. Similar to the West Coast offense in its hayday of the 1980s, the quarterback is in an enviable position of taking what the defense gives and either punishing on the deep route or – more often than not – looking to distribute to multiple wide receivers running coverage-busting routes. But Halliday got impatient throughout the 2012 season, and teamed with a horrendous offensive line, the story just got worse game after game until the oasis that was the UCLA game.
The defenses are just too good in the Pac-12 to think you can take risks downfield repetitively without getting burned. The sooner Halliday realizes this the better he will become with one of the best offensive minds in the last 20 years calling plays on the sidelines with sword at his side.
9. D.J. Denker, Arizona, Sr.
259 Passing Yards, 3 TDs, 1 INTs, 67.6 Comp. %, 147.7 QB Rating
Think back to this time last year when we wondered how Matt Scott would adjust to being the starting quarterback of a program that was trying to replace one of the better quarterbacks in its history while transitioning to a new offensive philosophy under new head coach Rich Rodriguez.
Scott answered all the critics, got the Cats to a bowl game, and finds himself invited to training camp with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Denker was no slouch himself when called upon to spell Scott in blow-outs or due to injury. In fact, he was forced into starting duty against lowly Colorado; you might remember that game as the one where Ka’Deem Carey set a new Pac-12 record with his 366 yard rushing performance. But Denker kept his end of the bargain, throwing for two touchdowns and missing just two passes during the game. The win helped get Arizona back on track and bowl-bound after an embarrassing blowout loss to UCLA the week prior.
Should Denker convince his head coach he is indeed the man for the job come the end of training camp, he’ll have to keep up what Scott started last year – lead as many scoring drives as possible against the opposing defense due to the inefficiencies of his own. He’ll have to fend-off USC transfer Jesse Scroggins and up-and-coming freshman Anu Soloman, and then make the best of it without stand-out wide receiver Austin Hill, who will miss the season with a knee injury sustained in the spring.
10. Travis Wilson, Utah, So.
1,311 Passing Yards, 7 TDs, 6 INTs, 62.7 Comp. %, 122.2 QB Rating
Who do you call to bring some pep to your lowly passing offense and help light a fire under the pants of your young offensive coordinator? Well Dennis Erickson, of course! That’s at least seems what Kyle Whittingham has planned for 2013. And the plan starts and ends with his young quarterback Wilson, who he threw into the fire last year partly because of injury and partly because of depth. He just didn’t have a better choice.
Wilson looks to have better direction going into his first full season as starting quarterback, but he will miss his security blanket in the backfield in John White IV. Plus, things get tougher when you realize that the Utes put up a mere seven wins in their first two years in the conference without having to face the likes of Oregon and Stanford.
But you can’t blame Whittingham for dreaming on Wilson. He’s got prototypical size for the position, a big arm, and surprisingly mobile. He completed over 65% of his passes in games against Cal, UCLA, Arizona and Washington State – not exactly defensive dynamos – but you take the positives where you can get them with true freshmen quarterbacks. And it all started with Wilson making his first start in the Rose Bowl and falling just short of a big-time upset of the Bruins where he completed 23 of 33 passes for 220 yards.
Wilson is now 19, with both a 66-year-old coordinator and a 26-year-old coordinator. Count me in as one of the guys following Wilson’s progress this season as he seems like an interesting specimen placed into the Pac-12 South petri dish. However, it won’t help that the Utes just learned that one of their prize recruits of the 2013 class, Xavier Shepherd, an impact wide receiver from the junior college ranks, was ruled academically ineligible for the upcoming season.