Rob Malara

2014 Pac-12 Preview: Quarterback (Part I)

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The upcoming Pac-12 Media Day narrative engulfing observers is that this season’s quarterback group is among the best the league has seen in recent memory.  One can look at the quarterback class of 2011 as the gold standard of current gen Pac-12 football passers.  Who could forget the likes of Andrew Luck (Stanford), Matt Barkley (USC), Nick Foles (Arizona), and Taylor Kelly’s predecessor Brock Osweiler.

No conference in the nation is as well represented on the Davey O’Brien Award watch list with eight players,  not to mention Mel Kiper’s 2015 Big Board as is the Pac-12, which snagged five of the 11 spots. The SEC and Big Ten have two on the list, while the ACC and Big 12 each have one QB represented. Of the five Pac-12 quarterbacks, two are seniors and three are underclassmen.  It should also be noted that this group has made 198 career starts recorded by a staggering 10 returning starters.

1. Marcus Mariota, Oregon (Junior)

2013 Passing Stats: 245/385, 63.5% COMP, 3665 YDs, 31 TDs, 4 INTs, ESPN ADJ QBR-89.5

Career Starts: 26

Opposing Pac-12 defensive coordinators had to have felt cheated when Mariota announced he would be coming back for another year in Eugene.  He was looking like a Heisman finalist during his sophomore season until the Stanford game, and is seen by many as the best returning player in the conference going into 2014.

For years it had been argued that it was the system and not the quarterback that controlled the fate of the Ducks offense.  While much of last year’s failures in Eugene late in the season can be pointed at first year head coach Mark Helfrich, the injury to Mariota was just as damaging.  When you look at the performance of this potential first overall pick against Stanford, where he sustained a knee injury he dealt with for the remainder of the season,  it came back to bite the team not just against the Cardinal but two weeks later down in Tucson, the Ducks just weren’t built to win without his talents.

Fast forward to 2014 and Mariota will once again be looking to give Florida State’s Jameis Winston a run for his money on landing back-to-back Heisman trophies.  His streak of games without throwing an interception came to an end last season but border lined on the ridiculous, not to mention his grand total of 3 losses in 26 career starts.  At 6’4 he has the prototypical height for an NFL quarterback but needs to work on his footwork before he goes on to conquer on Sundays, that and his slightly frail build are really his only negatives.  Luckily both can be fixed before May 2015, the next NFL Draft.

He plays in an explosive offense but is very careful with the football, just 10 interceptions after starting nearly 30 games with the Ducks.  That’s six touchdown passes on average for every interception he has thrown over the course of two years as a starter.  But critics will point to the production in his game when his mobility was limited and his poise as a pocket passer.  The smart observer would argue however that you’d see a similar drop in most if not all signal callers in a similar position, with all four of his interceptions being thrown after he sustained the injury.  He’s currently projected as Mel Kiper’s second best draft eligible quarterback behind only Winston and should further cement his chances of being selected among the first ten picks once he gets his career starts well over the 35 mark.

2. Brett Hundley, UCLA (Junior)

2013 Passing Stats: 248/369, 67.2% COMP, 3071 YDs, 24 TDs, 9 INTs, ESPN ADJ QBR-84.8

Career Starts: 27

Hundley has always fed on the underdog role.  In many other years with his combination of physical skills and statistical production he might have been the best rated player at the position heading into the season.  But many pundits feel the former Chandler High star has yet to put it all together like the man above him on the list has.  With premium grade arm strength and the legs to get him out of trouble or excel on designed runs the ceiling seems just as high as Mariota.

Much like Taylor Kelly, the comfort level can’t be underestimated as he’ll be going into his third year working under his current offensive coordinator, Noel Mazzone in this case, and looks to have much more depth around him than he has had during his freshman and sophomore seasons.  And like Kelly the needle is pointing up on his progression as he sits at the precipous of becoming an elite level NCAA quarterback.  Should he lead his team to regain the Pac-12 South in 2014 Hundley could become the first signal caller from UCLA selected in the first round since Cade McNown in the last century.

Forced to battle through much of the Bruins conference schedule in 2013 without a healthy offensive line or impact players at the running back position outside of linebacker Myles Jack, he had to make due.  As a result Mazzone took the good (3,071 yards through the air and 24 TDs, while adding 748 rushing yards and 11 more trips to the end zone) with the bad (in losses to both Stanford and Oregon he threw a combined 37-of-58 with only 248 passing yards, two touchdowns and four interceptions) as he took the team on his shoulders and tried to win games on his own.  As a result UCLA finished with 10 wins for the first time in nearly a decade.

The upcoming season is full of promise for Hundley as he sits in many top-10 lists for the Heisman trophy with a supporting cast that includes an offensive line that comes back with tons of experience and a much deeper group of weapons at the skill positions.  Key games against the Sun Devils at Sun Devil Stadium in late September and the final two games of the season in the Rose Bowl against the Cardinal and the Trojans will really show what he is made of.

3. Taylor Kelly, Arizona State (Senior)

2013 Passing Stats: 302/484, 62.4% COMP, 3635 YDs, 28 TDs, 12 INTs, ESPN ADJ QBR-74.2

Career Starts: 27

A classic overachiever who still doesn’t get the respect he deserves for a player who hasn’t missed a start since being declared the starter at the beginning of Todd Graham’s first season in Tempe.  Few modern day Sun Devils at the position have averaged nine wins over the course of two seasons, not to mention put in back-to-back seasons of over 3,000 yards passing.  Eye popping numbers all behind an average offensive line so far in his career while also being a key contributor in the Devils read-option scheme.

The dual-threat quarterback has run offensive coordinator Mike Norvell’s offense as efficiently as asked through the majority of his career as a starter with only a few hiccups along the way (Oregon in 2012 and both contest against Stanford last season).  Name one other quarterback in Sun Devil history that combined for 4,200 yards between his arm and his legs?  Not to mention his 259 average passing yards a game that fell just short of Andrew Walter’s 2002 season with the Devils.  All of this has translated to Kelly sitting fourth in Mel Kiper’s rankings of senior quarterbacks going into the summer break.

While some will question his deep ball accuracy and ability to win games on his own, you can’t deny the fact that the Taylor Kelly to Jaelen Strong back shoulder fade route was one of the most effective weapons in any passing offense around the country in 2013.  He passed for at least 300 yards in each of the first five games of the season, but struggled noticeably in games when top receiver Jaelen strong battled nagging injuries and blanket coverages.

Fast forward a year and Kelly will have to have his best season yet for Arizona State to continue their upward trend, as the offense will be forced to hold serve while a young defense finds its sea legs.  He may not have the physical abilities like Mariota and Hundley to take over a game by himself in 2014, but arguably has a better all-around established supporting cast than either of the two players above him.

If his statistical output climaxes and Norvell can scheme a 4,000 yard / 30 touchdown passes out of him, Kelly would own the Sun Devil record books and have to be considered in the Top Five best quarterbacks to play at the school.  Stop for a moment to contemplate the career milestone numbers in reach for Kelly: 10,000 yards passing, 90 total touchdowns, and 1,500 yards rushing. Not many players in the Pac-12 have put up those type of all-around totals, but a miracle run to the Rose Bowl would be just as sweet if not more impressive.

Kelly’s work with quarterback guru George Whitfield in the off-season will hopefully aim to improve his footwork when delivering the ball downfield, not to mention his ball placement to get up to par with his touch on intermediate throws.  If he can improve those attributes Kelly just might raise his draft stock which now sees him remarkably as a backup.

4. Sean Mannion, Oregon State (Senior)

2013 Passing Stats: 400/603, 66.3% COMP, 4662 YDs, 37 TDs, 15 INTs, ESPN ADJ QBR-71.9

Career starts: 31

If new Beavers offensive coordinator John Garrett had a choice, Mannion, the most experienced starting quarterback in the country, would not lead the Pac-12 once again in passing yards with some of the load being handed over to the Oregon State run game.  A running game that was non-existent last year really limited the effectiveness of the offense as defenses figured out how to minimize the damage of Mannion-to-Brandin Cooks.

He finished his junior year fourth nationally with 37 touchdown passes and second with 4,662 yards, both totals that blew away the Pac-12 leaderboard.  As a result Mannion flirted  with the idea of declaring for the NFL Draft where he was reportedly given a third round grade.

Proponents of Mannion’s cealing point to the two month span early in 2013 where few teams could figure out how to slow down the Beavers passing offense as the six foot five signal caller caught fire leading his team on a six game winning streak.  But much like another member of this list, Washington State’s Connor Halliday, Mannion posted huge numbers a year ago but those totals came with some struggles as well. Namely he struggled down the stretch as the Beavers continued the recent trend of Mike Riley roller coaster seasons losing its final five conference games limping into bowl season.

With the new addition of Garrett calling the plays, he has a chance to join an exclusive group within Pac-12 quarterbacks with another 3,000-yard season.   Only three quarterbacks in the tradition rich conference have recorded three 3,000-yard passing seasons with Arizona State’s Walter being one of the trio.

To get to that magic number and to hopefully fend off the curse of losing on the Beavers opening day, Mannion got off on the right foot this summer winning the 2014 Manning Passing Academy Air-It-Out Challenge, a contest built around passing accuracy with many of the nation’s most talented college quarterbacks attending.

5. Kevin Hogan, Stanford (Junior)

2013 Passing Stats: 180/295, 61.0% COMP, 2630 YDs, 20 TDs, 10 INTs, ESPN ADJ QBR-79.5

Career starts: 19

Hogan achieved much success as a freshman in 2012 behind a standout offensive line, a veteran workhorse running back, and an impact defense.  And as such, he was expected to take the next step in 2013, his first full season as a starter.  While he led the Cardinal to a second straight Pac-12 championship and Rose Bowl berth his metrics at the position took a nose dive compared to his freshman season with his completion percentage dropping by more than ten percent.

Consistency was his biggest rival.  And when you have a philosophy like Stanford’s where you don’t need your quarterback to win games more than a handful of times in a season, consistency is everything.  After failing to throw a touchdown in four of his team’s games in 2013, he still has the potential to be on top of this list in 2015 should Hundley and Mariota inevitably leave after their junior years.

Much like Kelly, he doesn’t have the biggest arm or fastest legs among this talented group, but has a fair mix of each, knows how to convert consistently on third down (to the tune of 50% success in ‘13), not to mention the fact he has shown the ability to not get in his teams way of winning games, and lots of them over the past two seasons.  He’s also shown the ability to make big plays when his team is looking to put away an opponent be it through a timely scramble or a deep ball to one of his underrated playmakers (just ask ASU in two contests in which he did all of the above in 2013).

With improvements at tight end and more skill players ready to take the stress off of receiver Ty Montgomery, Hogan really has a chance to forget last year’s statistics.  But he’ll need to show patience with a new starter at running back for the third year in a row and an offensive line that replaces four of five starters (having one of the best left tackles in the country won’t hurt though).

6. Cody Kessler, USC (Junior)

2013 Passing Stats: 236/361, 65.4% COMP, 2968 YDs, 20 TDs, 7 INTs, ESPN ADJ QBR-66.7

Career starts: 14

Outside of Ed Orgeron and Buck Allen, no one saw their stock rise more after the firing of Lane Kiffin after being annihilated by the Sun Devils last September than Kessler.  He would go on to lead the team down the stretch winning seven of their final nine games including a big win in the Coliseum against Stanford.

After being forced to endure a quarterback controversy going into the first game of the 2013 season, Kessler now knows that he will run a fast-paced proven offense under former Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian.  In 2014 he’ll have the luxury of a loaded backfield that will provide a more than ample running game to compliment the bevy of talented receivers he has to throw to, none better than Nelson Agholor.

He’ll also once again be receiving play calls from offensive  coordinator Clay Helton (one of three head coaches he played for in 2013), one of the main reasons Kessler’s stock took off after Lane Kiffen was fired in late September.  Helton’s offense seemed to unlock the potential of the talented Trojans receiving corps, let alone Kessler.

Kessler, while recruited as a pro-style quarterback, has to be drooling to operate Sarkisian’s new age spread philosophy, teamed with his comfort level with Helton.  While spring practices proven that the Trojans will subscribe to a run first philosophy seen in the second half of last season, its hurry-up approach will mean more passing attempts and higher counting stats for Kessler.  That means one of the best races to track this season will see how he competes with Kelly and Strong to see which team possesses the best QB/WR combo in the Pac-12.

 

** Film breakdown provided by www.draftbreakdown.com **

About Rob Malara

Rob Malara

Rob Malara is a 2002 Sun Devil grad having spent the majority of his time in Tempe as a football, basketball, and baseball season ticket holder and front row inhabitant. A member of the Football Writers Association of America, he hosted the ASU Devils podcast and was its sub-optimal technical producer through its lifespan. Currently the president of the ASU Alumni Association's Northern Colorado Club, he is part of a family of maroon and gold residing in Fort Collins with his Sun Devil wife and nearby Sun Devil sister.

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