At the start of the season, it appeared as though USC senior Matt Barkley would be the face of the Pac-12’s quarterbacks this year. But an emerging crop of youngsters is stealing some of the attention in a league famous for its QBs.
The group is led by redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota, who has taken over No. 2 Oregon this season and leads an explosive offense that is averaging 53 points and 571 yards per game.
Up the road at Oregon State, the Beavers feature Sean Mannion, a sophomore who was thrown into the fire last season but has emerged to lead No. 18 OSU to consecutive victories over ranked opponents this year.
UCLA redshirt freshman Brett Hundley became the Bruins’ quarterback after outperforming two former starters, Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut, in training camp before going on to score on his first-ever collegiate snap.
Arizona State sophomore Taylor Kelly has won over skeptics by guiding the Sun Devils to a 3-1 start. And Washington State sophomore Connor Halliday, who has been starting in place of injured senior Jeff Tuel, has averaged 285 yards passing in three games.
Kelly, Mariota, Hundley and Mannion rank atop the Pac-12, in that order, in pass efficiency. Barkley, a preseason favorite for the Heisman Trophy, is fifth.
The Pac-12’s kid QBs have even spurred debate over the race for the league’s first-team quarterback, although the season is still young. Barkley has fallen off some Heisman watch lists after the Trojans (3-1, 1-1) lost their conference opener to Stanford.
“It really is interesting, isn’t it?" Beavers coach Mike Riley said about the league’s young guns. “It bodes well for a lot of good football down the years here with these guys playing."
Said Utah’s Kyle Whittingham: “It’s been impressive what they’ve done. I haven’t seen all the quarterbacks in the league yet. But, I mentioned it last year, this league is full of great quarterbacks, and it appears that all the guys coming up through the ranks and through the system are going to be every bit as good as the guys that graduated last year."
That class included Andrew Luck (Stanford), Brock Osweiler (Arizona State) and Nick Foles (Arizona).
Two of the Pac-12’s newcomers face off tonight.
Halliday will most likely get the start when Washington State (2-2, 0-1) hosts Oregon at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field. The quarterback position is obviously key in new Cougar coach Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense, which is averaging 313.75 yards passing this season (18th nationally) and just 59 yards on the ground (second-to-last nationally).
Halliday has passed for eight touchdowns, but he has also thrown for five interceptions — so he is still growing into the job.
“I think he’s emerging as a leader," Leach said. “At times (he is) great, at other times pressed trying to make too much happen."
Mariota became starter for the Ducks (4-0, 1-0) after a battle with sophomore Bryan Bennett in preseason camp. Bennett was the backup last season to Darron Thomas, who decided to leave Oregon and try for the NFL with a year of eligibility remaining.
Mariota has been a steadying force through the team’s first four games, passing for 10 touchdowns — second only to Barkley’s 12 — and two interceptions.
“There’s a lot of things that impress me about Marcus, that’s what makes him a good quarterback," Oregon coach Chip Kelly said. “He’s smart, he’s got a quick release, he’s got good feet, he’s got a great understanding of what we do, he’s got a good feel for the game ... there’s lots of things that stand out about Marcus."
Kelly noted that the Ducks had no choice but to join the Pac-12’s quarterback youth movement.
“Our oldest quarterback is a sophomore, so it was either going with a freshman or a sophomore. That’s just the way it worked for us from the recruiting process and who’s in our program," Kelly said. “Right now we have one sophomore and three freshmen at our quarterback spot, so that’s what we had to choose from."
Oregon State’s Mannion has appeared the most unflappable of the group, leading the Beavers to season-opening wins over then-No. 13 Wisconsin and then-No. 19 UCLA. Oregon State won only three games all of last season, when Mannion unexpectedly unseated Ryan Katz early on. But the experience helped make him better.
“I think the best thing is just his knowledge," Riley said. “He is a tremendously hard-working and diligent guy. He spent the whole offseason looking at film and working with the other players. I think he just loves to play football and to know about it, so he works hard at it."
Mannion is averaging 315 yards a game in total offense, ranking him in the top 20 nationally, while he is completing 26.5 passes per game, 11th in the nation.
Arizona State’s Kelly leads the Pac-12 and is ninth nationally with a 182.2 passing efficiency rating, while the Sun Devils (3-1, 1-0) average 41.2 points per game heading into today’s game at California.
With the departure of Osweiler to the NFL, Kelly was considered a long shot in a three-way competition with Michael Eubank and Mike Bercovici. While fans were wary of new coach Todd Graham’s selection, Kelly won them over by keeping cool under pressure.
“That guy is a winner. How he conducts himself, how he carries himself, he’s a winner," Graham said. “He’s just got that ‘it’ factor. You can look him in the eye on game day and see it."
After four games, UCLA’s Hundley is the nation’s seventh-leading passer with 299.8 yards per game, best among all freshmen. The Bruins (3-1, 0-1) visit Colorado today.
Two weeks after throwing four touchdown passes in an upset win over Nebraska, Hundley passed for a season-high 372 yards in the Bruins’ loss to Oregon State last weekend. He had 404 yards of total offense against the Beavers — the fifth-biggest single-game total in school history.
“Brett is the kind of player who makes everybody better, even off the field," Bruins tailback Johnathan Franklin said. “He’s a freshman, but it doesn’t seem like it when you’re working together. He lives for football, and that’s what motivates him to get better. He’s got that drive."