LOS ANGELES -- Kyle Whittingham is a dying breed, and he knows it.
A defensive-minded guy who takes pride in being able to slow blistering offenses, the 10th-year Utah coach has been a member of the Pac-12 for three seasons. He knows defensive guys are fewer and farther between, and he loves to teach the less glamorous side of football. He has a background rooted in bottling up quarterbacks, and this year there is no shortage of good ones to stop.
“It’s a quarterback-driven game, and there can’t be any conference in the country that’s as loaded as us at quarterback,” said Whittingham, who spent 10 seasons as the Utes defensive coordinator before being promoted to the top job in 2004. “It’s a new era, and it’s here to stay. We’re not going backward.”
This week during Pac-12 media days at Paramount Studios, there were multiple references to what this group likes to call “the conference of champions.” That’s still to be determined, with the inaugural College Football Playoff on the 2014 horizon. But this is certainly the conference of quarterbacks.
Headlined by Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and UCLA’s Brett Hundley, a staggering 10 starting signal-callers return this fall, garnering national attention and causing weekly headaches for defensive coordinators up and down the West Coast. Both Mariota and Hundley are preseason Heisman Trophy candidates, though when the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Mariota is healthy he’s arguably the best player in college football. In a league loaded with talent at what USC coach Steve Sarkisian calls “the most important position in sports,” the Pac-12 has something for everyone.
Want deft escape artists who can burn opponents with their arms and their feet? Look no further than Mariota (3,665 passing yards, 31 touchdowns and 715 rushing yards, nine touchdowns in 2013), Hundley (has thrown or run for a touchdown in each of his 27 career games) and Arizona State
’s Taylor Kelly
(3,635 passing yards, 28 touchdowns and 608 rushing yards, nine scores last year), three of the premier dual-threat quarterbacks in the country.
How about big, strong NFL-prototype arms? Head to the Northwest, where Oregon State’s Sean Mannion is the reigning conference record-holder for passing yards (4,662 in 2013) and Washington State’s Connor Halliday threw an NCAA-record 89 attempts in one game. (Nick Aliotti would probably not approve of this trip.)
“I mean, I’m not going to run by anyone,” Mannion said this week. “We all bring something different.”
Searching for a big, thick body that can hold its own against linebackers at the goal line? Meet Washington’s Cyler Miles (6-foot-4, 217 pounds) and Utah’s Travis Wilson (6-7, 240).
And that’s only seven of them.
As for who is best, Halliday says it depends on how someone is evaluating. “If you want to know who’s the most pro ready, I’d say Sean,” he said. “You want to talk about the most talent, I’d say Marcus. If you want to talk about the most upside, Brett is up there.”
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Stanford coach David Shaw, who boasts maybe the most proven quarterback (Kevin Hogan) when it comes to winning on the big stage. “You have multiple guys in the conference that could be All-Americans and could lead the nation in quarterback rating, or lead in the nation in yards and yards per attempt, or touchdown passes.
“I can’t wait for some of these guys to get out of our conference.”
Oregon coach Mark Helfrich, on the other hand, encouraged the media to remind Mariota that he is just a junior, and would be welcome back in Eugene in 2015, too.
After jumping from Washington (back) to USC, Sarkisian admits he is pretty spoiled in the quarterback department. He left a good one in Miles and gained a quality one in junior Cody Kessler. The Trojans star saved his best for last in 2013, completing 22-of-30 attempts for a career-best 345 yards in a 45-20 win over Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl.
“I recruit the position hard,” Sarkisian said. “You have to recruit a good quarterback if you want to coach other good players.”
Sarkisian and Oregon State coach Mike Riley, who have coached in the conference a combined 26 years, speak proudly of the Pac-12’s deep quarterbacking tradition, harking back to the days of John Elway and going forward to Ryan Leaf, Carson Palmer, Joey Harrington, Matt Leinart and Andrew Luck. But to find another year that a league’s quarterback crop dominated defenses and conversations, one has to go east -- and back six seasons.
The 2008 Big 12 quarterback class was one of the best in modern college football memory, with the likes of Colt McCoy (Texas), Sam Bradford (Oklahoma), Graham Harrell (Texas Tech), Robert Griffin III (Baylor), Todd Reesing (Kansas), Chase Daniel (Missouri) and Josh Freeman (Kansas State).
“I don’t know that I’ve been around 10 [returning starting quarterbacks],” said Washington State coach Mike Leach, who coached at Texas Tech from 2000-09. “That being the core position, I think it helps maintain the identity of these teams so they can build on it. From top to bottom, [the Pac-12] was probably the strongest conference, but the quarterbacks add even more to it.”
Of course, most of those guys in 2008 were traditional, pro-style pocket passers; college football in '14 is infatuated with the dual threat. While Riley understands the intoxication, he also thinks we’re missing some of the point.
“The dominating thing that people talk about is what they see,” Riley said. “But how the quarterback got to that and understood what play to make is just as important. They can’t even get there to make the throw if they’re not smart enough to dissect what the defense is doing. And you don’t have the benefit of looking at who’s going to hit you. You just have to hang in there and make a throw, and they’re coming at you and it’s hard. Having savvy, it’s so important.
Two of the least discussed and most crucial characteristics of good quarterback play are brains and toughness, Riley says. And above all else, regardless of how well someone can run, he better be able to throw the ball.
“The reason Mariota is at such a high level, I don’t think it’s about his legs,” Riley said. “He can throw the ball. He’s a beautiful passer, and it’s so underrated about his game. The balance is always the key, and Marcus brings that. He is a terrific passer. I love his arm.”
For all the talk about quarterbacks, there’s an argument to be made that a few remain underrated. Case in point: California’s Jared Goff. Oregon State linebacker Michael Doctor says he enjoys watching Goff play and admires that he stepped in as a freshman and took over, the Bears’ 1-11 record notwithstanding.
Doctor likes to trade texts with other defensive players around the league, comparing notes on this quarterback collection and occasionally talking trash. Doctor and UCLA linebacker Eric Kendricks say defense is taught a little differently now than it was a few years ago. Besides the fact that defensive schemes are more complex, defenders must understand how to stop a runner, a passer and a quarterback who can do both. Riley stresses to his assistants that they need to recruit more hybrid types, guys who track down and tackle ballcarriers like linebackers, but can also see the field and anticipate like defensive backs.
Last season after a foot injury sidelined him for the final 11 games, Doctor got a good look at all those deadly quarterbacks.
“The game has evolved, and these quarterbacks add an exciting element to our game,” Doctor said. “This will be a huge year for defense, to see if they can step up and face that challenge and evolve, too.”
Evolution will be key. Otherwise, defense could become the biggest casualty in the Pac-12 arms race.