With one of the most impressive QB classes ever, the Pac-12 is going out passing
Written by Kyle Bonagura, Adam Rittenberg, Paolo Uggetti
The Pac-12 has been reduced to embers after college sports’ latest round of realignment, and there is a natural temptation to assign blame. There’s a lot to go around: terrible leadership, bad timing, regional apathy and a lengthy list of poor, pivotal decisions. The conference’s consistent lack of relevance in the College Football Playoff picture exacerbated things and its reputation suffered as a result.
Just don’t blame the quarterbacks.
Through all that went wrong, there is one problem the Pac-12 has never been credibly accused of having, and that is an inability to deliver a fantastically entertaining product on a game-by-game basis. In an era that rewards conferences for competitive inequity, the Pac-12 delivered parity. An unforgivable sin, as it turned out.
There are no good reasons to believe this won’t be the final season of Pac-12 football. If by some stretch of luck the conference finds a way to exist, it will be unrecognizable.
The cruel irony is that while the Pac-12 is a business failure more than anything else, the product it has going into 2023 should be as valuable as any in college football. There are good teams — five are ranked in the top 18 of the preseason AP poll — but the uniqueness is in the talented collection of quarterbacks.
The group features the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, last year’s NCAA FBS leading passer (yards per game), a two-time Pac-12 champion, a Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award finalist, a former Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year, a former No. 1 overall QB recruit and two former Walter Payton Award finalists.
“It will make you pull your hair out,” Washington defensive coordinator William Inge said.
Not only does it project as the best group of signal-callers, few — if any — conferences in college football history have ever had a group as accomplished as this one going into a season.
For half a century, the conference has been a standard bearer for quarterback play. It helped launch the careers for a long list of future NFL stars, including John Elway, Aaron Rodgers, Troy Aikman, Warren Moon, Andrew Luck, Carson Palmer, Drew Bledsoe and many others.
So, like it has for so long, the Conference of Champions is going out passing.
The stats behind an impressive 2023 class
During Williams’ incredible 2022 season, he led the nation in QBR and was second among Power 5 quarterbacks with 4,537 passing yards. No. 1? Washington’s Michael Penix Jr., who threw for 4,641 yards in one fewer game.
Penix tossed 31 touchdown passes — second in the Pac-12 last season behind Williams — but his 60 career touchdown passes rank just fifth among ESPN’s projected Pac-12 starters. Two of those players — Colorado’s Shedeur Sanders (70) and Washington State‘s Cameron Ward (94) — started their careers in the FCS before moving up a level. The other two are Williams (63) and Oregon‘s Bo Nix (68).
In all, nine quarterbacks have at least 20 career touchdown passes with Arizona‘s Jayden de Laura (53), Oregon State‘s DJ Uiagalelei (36) and Arizona State‘s Drew Pyne (24) all having previous stretches of success.
Collectively, and accounting for glaring inexperience at Cal, Stanford and UCLA, the conference averages 43.1 passing career touchdowns per projected starting quarterback to begin the season. That is, by far, the highest number of a single conference since 2005, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Only three other groups came into a season averaging at least 33: the 2015 Pac-12, the 2008 Big 12 and the 2014 Pac-12.
“The thing I like about it is it’s not just a group of guys that threw for a bunch of yards and touchdowns,” USC coach Lincoln Riley said. “Most of these guys have won and a lot of them won double-digit games. So it’s success in terms of winning games too, not just statistical. You had a couple guys that came back that could have went to the NFL.”
Last year, Williams, Nix, Rising and Penix — along with since-departed UCLA QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson — made for one of the best top-five quarterback groups in recent years. Their average QBR of 84.1 ranks fifth among any single conference’s best five quarterbacks since 2005, and for four of them to return is unprecedented.
“They’re super talented and they’ve been coached by really good offensive minds,” first-year ASU coach Kenny Dillingham said. “So the combination of having really good offensive coordinators in this league attracts really good quarterbacks.
“I don’t think it’s by accident that you have all this talent.”
Added up, it comes close to warranting a hyperbolic question: Can this be the best collection of quarterbacks, ever? We’ll see.
A star-studded history
The Pac-12’s past is filled with quarterbacks who either produced historic college careers or went on to have storied seasons in the NFL. Or, in the case of several of them, both.
Allow Chip Kelly to give you a history lesson.
“That’s the one thing that’s always intriguing about this league is it’s always been great quarterbacks,” Kelly, now the head coach at UCLA, said at Pac-12 media day. “Going back to [UCLA’s] Gary Beban, [Oregon State’s] Terry Baker winning the Heisman trophies in the ’60s, and you go on to all the great quarterbacks USC had, and then Troy Aikman is the No. 1 pick of the draft. The Stanford quarterbacks from [Jim] Plunkett to [Andrew] Luck to the [Oregon QBs] Joey Harrington, Marcus Mariota, the list goes on and on.”
From 2007 to 2012, Kelly patrolled the sidelines at Autzen Stadium as an offensive coordinator and then as head coach at Oregon, watching some of the best quarterbacks in the sport face the Ducks. There was, of course, Luck, who was one of the most prolific and efficient quarterbacks the conference had ever seen on his way to being the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft.
Down at USC, there was Mark Sanchez, who would go on to be the fifth pick in the 2009 draft, and Matt Barkley, who both followed in the footsteps of other USC elites like Matt Leinart, the 10th overall pick in the 2006 NFL draft and Heisman winner that year. And there was Carson Palmer, who took home the Heisman in 2002. The Trojans’ history extends well past those names, back to when Rodney Peete put up prolific numbers in the ’80s on his way to a Johnny Unitas award and All-American honors.
Across town and over the years, UCLA countered with not just Beban and Aikman, but with Cade McNown in the ’90s and Brett Hundley in the 2010s. Hundley held the record for most touchdowns by a UCLA quarterback until last year, when Thompson-Robinson broke the record.
At Oregon, Dan Fouts was a star for the Ducks in the 1970s (All-Pac-8 in 1972). He went on to lead the NFL in passing four times and was on the NFL’s All-Decade team for the 1980s. Kelly eventually got his own elite quarterback, too, at Oregon. In his last year, his recruiting prowess paid off as the quarterback he brought in to Eugene from Honolulu burst onto the scene as a star. Mariota led the Ducks to a 12-1 record that season as well as a Fiesta Bowl win and a No. 2 overall ranking in the country. Mariota won the bowl game’s MVP award to cap off a remarkable freshman season that put him on the path toward being the Heisman winner in 2014 and the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft.
If Kelly’s first time coaching in the conference represented a peak in talented quarterback play, we’re now seeing it again, but the history books display an even deeper showcase of how much the conference and its teams have produced greatness at the position.
“The best indicator of the future is the past,” Oregon head coach Dan Lanning said.
For several Pac-12 quarterbacks, the success has continued as they have transitioned to the NFL, or in some cases, their success has come once they left college. After winning the Heisman in 1970 and being at the forefront of the pro-style offense revolution in what was then the Pac-8, Stanford’s Plunkett went on to win two Super Bowls with the the Raiders. Meanwhile, his fellow Cardinal John Elway won the Super Bowl twice with the Broncos after a largely unremarkable college career that is perhaps best known for “The Play” which Elway was on the losing end of in 1982.
UCLA’s Aikman won three rings with the Cowboys, Washington State’s Mark Rypien won his Super Bowl in 1992 while Cal’s Aaron Rodgers won his lone Super Bowl with the Packers in 2011. Even Nick Foles, who spent a year at Arizona, went on to get a ring of his own in 2018.
For a program like Washington, they may not boast a Super Bowl winner, but its pedigree may be just as good with quarterbacks like Warren Moon, Mark Brunell, Jake Locker and Brock Huard leading the Huskies at various times over the years.
“Every school has had [a great crop of QBs],” Kelly said. “It’s always been that way.”
Quarterback performances have also marked some of the conference’s greatest moments. The Pac-12’s After Dark affairs almost always were high-scoring, back-and-forth games where a quarterback has an out-of-body performance.
Take Connor Halliday for example. The Washington State QB may have peaked in Pullman on an October night in 2014 where he threw for a single-game record 734 passing yards on 70 passing attempts. Somehow his output and six touchdowns were not enough to get the Cougars the win because, on the other side, Cal’s Jared Goff threw for over 500 passing yards and five touchdowns himself, giving his team a 60-59 win. Five years later, Wazzu’s Anthony Gordon and UCLA’s Thompson-Robinson would combine for 1,077 passing yards and 14 touchdowns on their way to a historic 67-63 Bruins win in Pullman.
It’s not just the Elways, the Aikmans and the Leinarts. The Pac-12 has been a hotbed for more than just quarterback stardom, it’s been a home for quarterback phenomena, be it one for a single season, a single game or even a single play. Ask every Arizona fan what they remember about Khalil Tate, and they’ll likely mention the 2017 night when he came off the bench, ran for an FBS-record 327 yards, passed for 142 yards and scored five touchdowns. It’s why USC fans may recognize the school’s iconic quarterback history and still have a greater affinity for a single-season performance like the one Sam Darnold had in 2016 when he went from backup to Rose Bowl-winning starter. Or it’s why an ASU fan can wax poetic about Jake Plummer’s 1996 run as he led the Sun Devils to their only Rose Bowl appearance in the past 26 years or Brock Osweiler’s 4,000-yard season in 2011, too.
Still, despite the conference’s star-studded history at the position or its plethora of signature moments involving quarterbacks, this year’s crew, on paper, is on another level. For those who return, their success is also indicative of the offensive explosion the conference has experienced in recent years. Last year, the Pac-12 had six of the top 25 offenses (per offensive EPA per game) in the country, continuing a trend that isn’t so much about having bad defenses as much as it is having to deal with explosive offenses.
“It makes games fun,” Williams said. “I’ve been in those moments where you try and dominate and play your best and when you got someone on the other side, you don’t dive into their game too much, but you do know that the other person is over there.”
Fun isn’t necessarily how a defensive coordinator would describe it.
“It’s exciting,” Oregon defensive coordinator Tosh Lupoi said. “We’re possibly going to line up every single week and be competing against an NFL quarterback in this conference. … I love it. Wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Kelly is part of the group that’s ushering the next crop of great Pac-12 (er, West Coast) quarterbacks again. The Bruins have one of the most intriguing freshman QBs not just in the conference, but in the entire country in Dante Moore.
The Michigan product has yet to play a snap in the college game, yet talk of him starting under center for the Bruins is rampant. UCLA is one of the few teams in the conference that doesn’t have an established quarterback, but is boasting a competition at the position that runs four quarterbacks deep who could all take the field come the opening game.
Whoever takes the field for Kelly’s team may not matter when people look back on this upcoming season of the Pac-12. It will likely be remembered for being the last full season of the conference’s 12-team constituents, but once things kick off in late August, what could transpire on the field in the next four months could be historic for quarterback play alone.
For a conference that’s been defined by that position, it would be a fitting finish.
Scouting this year’s QBs
This year’s Pac-12 quarterback class stands out not only for its overall production but its diversity in styles and strengths. The main connective tissue is the transfer portal, as eight of the league’s virtually guaranteed starters began their college careers elsewhere, including Williams (Oklahoma), Penix (Indiana), Bo Nix (Auburn) and Cameron Rising (Texas).
Several made their moves with familiar coaches in mind. Williams played for Riley at OU in 2021. Penix and Nix linked up with coaches who had previously been their offensive coordinators in Kalen DeBoer (Indiana) and Dillingham (Auburn). Sanders followed his father from Jackson State to Colorado. Ward went with Eric Morris from Incarnate Word to Washington State, where Morris served as OC for a year before becoming North Texas’ coach.
“They’re all a little different, of course, and the offenses all fit them well,” Cal coach Justin Wilcox said. “There’s no square peg into a round hole. Penix is so accurate, and Nix gives you a little bit of everything. He does a lot at the line of scrimmage. He can get out of trouble, he can run it and he can throw it. Caleb won the Heisman trophy. So, so calm in the pocket, got such command and he’s very good when things are on time. And then if he needs to extend the play, he can because he’s got the athleticism.”
If Williams has his way, however, it’ll be less running and more passing.
“I don’t want to run at all,” he said. “That’s what we went and got recruits for and more running backs and more wide receivers and more O-linemen. So I can do my job and just stand back there … my job is to get it to ’em. Their job is to make special things happen with it.”
The Pac-12’s biggest names need no introduction, but the league’s layers of quarterbacks — and how they approach the game — are worth reviewing as the season nears. Here are quick scouting reports of the projected starters for the league’s top teams, and a look at the best of the rest.
ESPN recruiting rating: No. 1 dual-threat QB, No. 16 overall recruit in 2021 class
Original school: Oklahoma
2022 stats/accolades: Heisman Trophy, Maxwell Award, AP Player of the Year, Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year; set USC single-season records for total offense (4,919 yards), passing yards (4,537), passing touchdowns (42), completions (333) and other categories.
NFL draft outlook: Projected No. 1 overall pick
Scouting report: Williams came into the Pac-12 with plenty of buzz, following Riley from Oklahoma to USC after replacing starter Spencer Rattler with the Sooners as a true freshman in 2021. Although he put together the best statistical passing season in USC history, a program rich in elite quarterback play, Pac-12 coaches were especially impressed with his ability to extend plays. Williams finished second nationally in completions of 20 yards or longer (69). A Pac-12 defensive coordinator described Williams capitalizing on “non-normal plays,” where he would buy enough time for coverage to loosen than attack for big gains. Another Pac-12 defensive coordinator noted that USC’s offensive line could be better in 2023 than 2022, which would allow Williams to operate more in the pocket while maintaining his ability to create.
ESPN recruiting rating: Three stars, no national rating, No. 40 pocket passer in 2018 class
Original school: Indiana
2022 stats/accolades: AP Comeback Player of the Year, second-team All-Pac-12, Manning Award finalist; led the FBS in passing average (357 ypg) and ranked second in passing yards (4,641), while setting single-season team records for passing yards and total offense.
NFL draft outlook: Day 3 because of injury history while at Indiana
Scouting report: Penix’s breakout season at Washington wasn’t surprising to Big Ten coaches who watched him help Indiana to a No. 12 AP finish in 2020. He ultimately needed a system fit and got it with DeBoer, offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb and even tight ends coach Nick Sheridan, who followed DeBoer as OC at Indiana. Penix also needed protection because of his injury history. Washington defensive coordinator William Inge, who also was with Penix and DeBoer at Indiana, told ESPN that Penix reached out about coming to the Huskies with the plea: “Coach, all I need is some protection, with an offensive line.” Penix took only five sacks in 2022 despite 554 pass attempts, No. 4 nationally. He will have top tackles Troy Fautanu and Roger Rosengarten back this fall. Pac-12 coaches say Penix can destroy defenses with a clean pocket. “You need to get him uncomfortable,” a Pac-12 defensive coordinator said.
Bo Nix, Oregon
ESPN recruiting rating: No. 2 pocket passer, No. 23 overall recruit in 2019 class
Original school: Auburn
2022 stats/accolades: Maxwell Award semifinalist, honorable mention All-Pac-12, Johnny Unitas Golden Arm award finalist; set Oregon single-season record for completion percentage (71.9) while ranking second on the team chart in completions (294) and leading FBS quarterbacks with 14 rushing touchdowns.
NFL draft outlook: Day 2. Could work way into second round with strong 2023 season
Scouting report: Nix enters his second year as Oregon’s starter and fifth in the Power 5. He has played under three head coaches and will be on his fifth offensive coordinator in Will Stein, but he clearly thrives in the fast-paced, big-play-heavy system Oregon employed in 2022. Nix’s vast experience and knowledge gives him more freedom than most college quarterbacks. “There’s no limit to what Bo is able to check if he understands the situation,” Lanning told ESPN this spring. The subplot at Oregon could be how much control the coaches give to Nix, and how Stein incorporates his ideas without adding unnecessary complexities. “In the past, he just had to run what people wanted him to run,” a Power 5 coach said. “If he doesn’t like what’s going on offensively, he will go to the head coach and make sure it’s stuff he likes.”
ESPN Recruiting rating: No. 11 pocket passer, No. 215 overall player in 2018 class
Original school: Texas
2022 stats/accolades: Semifinalist for Davey O’Brien Award and Maxwell Award, and honorable mention All-Pac-12 (first team in 2021); had career highs in passing yards (3,034), touchdowns (26) and completions (249), while adding 465 rushing yards and six touchdowns; nine games with 200 pass yards or more and eight with multiple touchdown passes.
NFL draft outlook: Undrafted free agent (ACL injury doesn’t help his stock)
Scouting report: Rising has shined in the biggest moments during Utah’s back-to-back Pac-12 title runs, especially in two wins against USC last season (725 pass yards, no interceptions, 78 rushing yards, nine total touchdowns) and two against Oregon in 2021. His numbers and traits don’t jump out as much as some of the other returning quarterbacks, but coaches respect his toughness and efficiency. Rising isn’t a volume runner, but his ability to move stood out in wins over USC and Oregon State last season. The immediate concern is his response from a torn ACL sustained in Utah’s Rose Bowl loss to Penn State. The Utes have the league’s toughest opening schedule with Florida (home) and Baylor (road). Rising’s availability and performance will be watched in those games before league play begins.
ESPN Recruiting rating: No. 1 pocket passer and No. 43 overall in 2020 class
Original school: Clemson
2022 stats/accolades: Recorded career highs in passing yards (2,521), passing touchdowns (22), rushing yards (545) and rushing touchdowns (7), while helping Clemson to an ACC title; eclipsed 200 passing yards in each of his first seven games.
NFL draft outlook: Day 3 or undrafted free agent depending on 2023 performance
Scouting report: After losing the starting job at Clemson, Uiagalelei saw Oregon State as a place to learn a more sophisticated offense in a less-pressurized environment, where he can better prepare himself for the NFL. Coaches have taken note of his size, arm strength and emergence as an effective runner at Clemson. But a defensive coordinator who faced Uiagalelei in the ACC questioned how he’ll absorb Oregon State’s pro-style scheme, telling ESPN, “Clemson has the easiest offensive system. If you can’t succeed there, you ain’t gonna succeed anywhere.”
Elsewhere in the Pac-12 quarterback ranks, Arizona brings back de Laura, and Ward returns to Washington State. De Laura, the Pac-12’s Offensive Freshman of the Year at Washington State in 2021, is one of the more captivating players in the league, displaying a fearlessness that leads to both big plays and mistakes.
Ward, who averaged 357.5 pass yards in 2021 for FCS Incarnate Word, tries to build on a solid but not spectacular first season at Washington State, where he completed 64.4% of his passes for 3,231 yards and 23 touchdowns. Pac-12 coaches think a second year at the FBS level will help, although he’s working with a new coordinator in Ben Arbuckle, who arrived from national passing leader Western Kentucky.
“The de Laura kid is a playmaker, the Ward kid has tools,” Grubb said. “Those are guys nobody’s talking about. You’ve still got to line up. I sat up in that box and called the Arizona game and I’m like, ‘Dang, this kid [de Laura] is slinging it. He’s running around and it’s amazing.'”
Similar things could be said about Sanders, who shined at FCS Jackson State the past two seasons, before following his father Deion to Colorado. Coaches expect Colorado’s high-tempo offense under coordinator Sean Lewis to help Sanders’ transition.
Dillingham has an intriguing quarterback room at ASU featuring a veteran holdover in Trenton Bourguet, Notre Dame transfer Drew Pyne (10 starts in 2022), BYU transfer Jacob Conover (ESPN’s No. 109 overall recruit in 2019) and freshman Jaden Rashada, ESPN’s No. 31 overall recruit.
ESPN’s top two recruits in the 2023 class are quarterbacks headed to Pac-12 schools (for now, at least). USC’s Malachi Nelson will wait behind Williams, but UCLA’s Moore, who initially committed to Oregon, could be a Day 1 starter. A true pocket passer, Moore isn’t the typical Kelly quarterback but boasts an arm a Power 5 coach described as “elite, elite.”
“Every team that you play, they have a quarterback who is dynamic, who is athletic, and who is premier,” Inge said. “When we were looking through the schedule, it’s like, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ There’s gonna be seven games where the quarterbacks, everybody knows who they are. It’s not, ‘Well, they run the ball all the time.’ No. The ballgame goes through the hands of the quarterback.”
Raising the caliber of QBs for all of college football
There is a giant game of musical chairs being played by quarterbacks in college football. Talented backups in the past were forced to wait their turn, now they are free to find an open seat, and even follow their former coaches who have found new gigs.
In theory, this relatively new dynamic should raise the caliber of quarterback play across the sport, as it has done for the Pac-12.
“You look at it from a defensive perspective and what we saw last year, and the jump that happened from even the 2021 season, it’s pretty obvious,” DeBoer said. “Even just looking at the statistics, of how many more passing yards there were, and the total offense. If you compare stats, I think there were six teams that were offensively at more yards per game than the top offense the year before. To me, that’s a big indicator of your quarterback play.”
From that standpoint, the Pac-12 is ahead of the national curve, and in an ordinary season, that would be a point of conference pride. A positive sign to show the conference is back on the ascend.
Instead, this season feels more like the start of a encore at the last concert before a band breaks up. It’s bittersweet. What’s about to come should be very special, but it represents the end.