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Pac 12 Conference leads the way in quarterback talent

With 10 returning starters, the West might be the best

Posted: July 26, 2014 8:27 p.m.
Updated: July 26, 2014 8:27 p.m.

Southern California quarterback Cody Kessler, left, and defensive end Leonard Williams pose for photos at Pac-12 media days at Paramount Studios in Los Angeles on Wednesday.

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It’s no secret the Pac-12 conference will be highlighted by quarterback play this season.

But just how good are the signal callers out West?

That was a major topic of discussion at this year’s Pac-12 Media Days, held Wednesday and Thursday at Paramount Studios in Hollywood.

And the overwhelming response among the conferences’ players and coaches is that this season, no conference in the country is better under center.

“This conference is without a doubt, at least in my opinion, the top conference in the country at the quarterback position,” said Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham. “You’re going to be hard pressed to tell me there’s a conference that has more talent, and as much talent, both quantity and quality, as this conference.”

Eight of the 12 teams were represented by a returning quarterback at Media Days — including UCLA with Brett Hundley and USC with Cody Kessler — and 10 of the conference’s schools return a starting quarterback this season.

The talent is spread throughout, with Heisman hopefuls Hundley and Oregon’s Marcus Mariota leading the way.

But they’re far from the only two expected to lead their teams to success in 2014.

Last season’s conference passing leader Sean Mannion returns to Oregon State after throwing for 4,662 yards last year.

Connor Halliday, who was right behind Mannion with 4,597 yards is back at Washington State. Sophomore Jared Goff returns to Cal, Taylor Kelly is back for Arizona State, Sefo Liufau will lead Colorado, Travis Wilson is back for Utah and Kevin Hogan will be under center again for Stanford.

Put that all together and you have arguably the best crop of signal callers in the nation.

“I think we have the best talent at quarterback in the country,” Hundley said. “The Pac-12 has so many quarterbacks and amazing talent, I think it’s the best conference for quarterbacks in the country.”

The conference features both spread (see: Mariota, Kelly and Halliday) and traditional, under-center quarterbacks, like Hogan and Mannion.

Absent from the latter category is Kessler, who was a drop-back quarterback last year, but is expected to adapt his game to the more up-tempo system new head coach Steve Sarkisian brings with him.

Of course, strong quarterback play is nothing new for the Pac-12.

“When you look at our conference, there is a lot of strength at the quarterback position,” Mannion said. “I don’t know if I’m in a position to put it against other conferences, but I do think the Pac-12 has a history of good quarterbacks. I know that was something when I was coming out of high school I wanted to be a quarterback in the Pac-12, because you think of all the other guys. Even at Oregon State — Matt Moore, Derek Anderson, Jonathan Smith, Terry Baker won the Heisman. I think the history of quarterbacks continues even to this day.”

As much fun as the quarterbacks provide to fans of the Pac-12, though, they cause nightmares for opposing defenses.

“I’ve been saying (Mannion’s) name so much today that he probably thinks I have a crush on him,” said Washington State junior linebacker Darryl Monroe. “He doesn’t affect me as much because of all the deep balls he throws, but when he does throw it near me it’s nearly impossible (to defend). I remember one play I’m covering this big tight end, excellent coverage, and he throws it about 5 yards past where I’m at and I’m thinking no one’s catching this ball. The tight end one-hand catches it. I was pretty impressed. Sean Mannion’s a great pocket passer, great accuracy.”

With the crop of quarterbacks leading this year’s Pac-12 arm’s race, Monroe’s experience could be replicated week after week.

For example, Monroe, who has his own top flight quarterback in teammate Halliday, will face Goff and Hogan in consecutive weeks, before a three-game stretch late in the season that will have him trying to defend Kessler, Mannion and Kelly.

It’s a challenge every defensive player in the conference will be faced with in 2014.

“I’ve never seen anything like this” said Stanford head coach David Shaw. “I can’t wait for some of these guys to get out of our conference, which I thought a couple would last year and they disappointed me and came back. But I think it’s going to make for exciting football. I think the defensive coordinators will have their hands full all year accounting for the combination of these schemes and they’re intricate and difficult and different.”

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