How are we going to get through the summer? Well I'm going to immerse myself in comparing the conference's positions and trying to project the next season from what I can see at this point. QB is tough because the Pac-12 has so many new QBs this year. I'm going to rate the teams from 12 (Best) to 1 (Worst) for each position and at the end maybe have some coherent way of seeing who will be the best team in the conference. Enjoy.
Despite the wide open nature of the quarter back competition in Tucson, all signs point to BJ Denker taking over for the NFL bound Matt Scott. Last season, Scott threw for over 3600 yards and his absence will be missed in coach Rich Rodriguez's offense this next year. Denker filled in, in spot duty, playing in only 6 of Arizona's games. Denker has good height at 6'3" and Duck fans may remember him as he came in after the ‘Cats had waved the white flag in Autzen. Denker's most extensive time on the field came against Colorado where he was efficient completing 12 of 14 for 136 yards and two scores. In Denker's spring game performance, he tossed 4 TD and 246 yards on 65% completion. Arizona will also be without the graduating Dan Buckner who reeled in 61 catches for 773 yards and was a nice compliment to Austin Hill, the ‘Cats leading receiver.
Arizona State Sun Devils
Taylor Kelly came on the scene with big shoes to fill after Brock Osweiler left. What he did as a first year starter was set a school record for completion percentage while throwing for 3309 yards and 29 scores. Kelly has the ability to extend plays with his legs and has good strength in his arm. Kelly didn't have a lot of weapons in the passing game last season which makes his yards all that much more impressive. It will be interesting to see what will happen when the Devils add Jaelen Strong, a JC transfer to the fold this season. Kelly also saw a stiff challenge from Mike Bercovici who has dropped some weight and played well in the spring. However, I don't see a reason why Bercovici would supplant Kelly as the Sun Devil signal caller for the 2013 season. Kelly will benefit from having a balanced attack, having a solid running game to help avoid a possible second year slump.
California Golden Bears
Last season saw the end of an era in Berkley. I'm not speaking only on the departure of Jeff Tedford, but also the departure of the most dynamic set of brothers in the Pac-12. Zach Maynard and Keenan Allen both have left Cal, leaving Sonny Dykes without the biggest home run threat from last season. It was a hard luck season for the Bears, who saw both Allen and Maynard go down with injuries, making way for Allen Bridgeford to close the season amidst a 5 game losing streak to end the year. Bridgeford completed less than 50% of his passes in the final 3 games of the season, not eclipsing the 150 yard mark and throwing 3 interceptions to just 1 touchdown as a starter. Losing Allen will also strike a blow to the passing game as Cal had only one receiver other than Allen who had more than 1 TD reception. It's difficult to know what coach Dykes will bring to the table, but in his last season with Louisiana Tech, led the WAC in passing yards averaging 350 yards per game.
Life has been difficult for the conference neophyte and their quarterback play has been a key element in their inability to compete in the Pac-12. Connor Wood will be taking over for an injured Jordan Webb. It appeared that there was going to be a battle between Wood and Nick Hirschman who has since transferred from Colorado. Coach MacIntyre is optimistic that Webb will be able to return to pilot his pistol offense in either September or October. In the mean time, the Buffs will look to Wood who had one game of starting experience last year against Washington. Colorado only managed 3 points and 51 passing yards. Colorado hasn't ranked higher than 9th in the conference in passing, and with the lack of experience at the position, there isn't much reason to believe they can crack the top half of the Pac-12. The cupboard isn't bare at WR as Wood will have Paul Richardson returning to the lineup after a knee injury derailed his 2012 season.
The good news for the Pac-12 is that Stepfan Taylor is gone from Stanford. The bad news is that Kevin Hogan is stil there. Hogan took over part of the way through the season and proved up to the task as he led the Cardinal to their first Rose Bowl win in more than 40 years. The Cardinal's running game made the quarter back position especially deadly off of play action and reducing pressure on Hogan. Hogan's numbers didn't blow the conference away but he proved himself to be a weapon in David Shaw's offense. Hogan isn't a huge rushing threat from the QB position but did average nearly 5 yards a carry last season, being effective enough to keep defenses honest. Kevin Hogan isn't a world beater at this point but he has the tools to become a force in the Pac-12. It will be interesting to see what he can do if the Cardinal run game isn't as dominant as it has been in recent years and Hogan is thrust into situations where he has to win the game week in, week out.
What a difference a year makes. At the beginning of the 2012 campaign there was much hand wringing about first year starter Marcus Mariota. After leading the Ducks to a BCS win, Mariota is now seen as one of the conference leaders at his position. It's difficult sometimes to get through coach speak but all reports from spring camp are that Mariota has improved over last season and looks to make a bigger impact, not only in the pass game but also running the ball. The Pac-12 is typically a conference with stellar QB play but the ability for him to take off on either a designed QB run or a scramble sets Mariota apart from his peers. It will be interesting to see how he reacts to the loss of Kenjon Barner to the NFL and how it affects his performance. Without any major departures in the passing game, and young receivers coming of age, it could prove to make an easy transition for new head coach Mark Helfrich.
Oregon State Beavers
The Beavers were fortunate to have two serviceable quarterbacks last season. They needed them both. Cody Vaz and Sean Mannion both went down at different times with injuries and both of them stood up to task well as Oregon State was the surprise of the conference. To this point, no clear starter has been named and the highest profile position battle on the team will likely burn deep into Fall camp. Markus Wheaton is no longer at OSU, but Brandin Cooks who garnered over 1100 yards receiving will be back as the passing game's best security blanket. Mannion and Vaz combined to have the second most prolific passing offense in the league but were only middle of the road when it came to passing touchdowns. Oregon State had several clean slates when it came to interceptions, but when they did come, they seemed to occur in bunches, featuring 3 games with 3 or more passes intercepted.
The future is bright for UCLA's biggest offensive weapon, Brett Hundley. Hundley would have been the story of the conference if a fellow freshman, Marcus Mariota wasn't stealing the spotlight on a weekly basis. Hundley took the Bruins to a conference championship game for the second consecutive year. Hundley showed a propensity for getting into the end zone whether through the air or he ran it in himself. Hundley led all QBs in the conference with 9 rushing touchdowns to compliment his 29 passing scores. Hundley will have Shaq Evans returning who was tops on the team in receiving yards, but he will be without the services of his next 3 leading receivers, including Joseph Fauria who caught 12 scoring passes. Competition will be stiff in the south half of the division and UCLA will be tested having to go to Stanford and then to Oregon in consecutive weeks. Hundley's performance in those games could change the tenor of the Bruins season dramatically.
"Unfinished Business" was the moniker Matt Barkley touted as he came back for his senior season with USC. After an inauspicious finish to the season Barkley and star receiver Robert Woods were off to the NFL. There is a lot of uncertainty under center as three student athletes will be competing for the position. Max Wittek, Max Browne and Cody Kessler all will be making the decision tough on coach Kiffin. Going off of the Trojan's spring game, Kessler may have the advantage having thrown for 3 TD and 236 yards. Those numbers are impressive but it's curious to learn how those numbers may change when a defense is allowed to tackle the ball carrier. Marquise Lee, and Nelson Agholar will be certain to make the transition easier for the incoming QB. USC seems to be able to make the transition for one QB to the next but after the departure of one who was to be one of the greatest Trojan QBs, filling Barkley's shoes is an unenviable task.
The big news coming out of SLC is the hiring of Dennis Erickson as co-offensive Coordinator of the Utes. As Erickson makes another stop in the Pac-12, it will be interesting to see how he changes the offenses abilities to get up and down the field. Travis Wilson had one of the weakest TD/INT ratios in the conference with only 7 scores compared to 6 picks. His passing yards weren't stellar either as he threw for only 1311 yards as Utah floundered in the 2012 season. Consistency under center could be the thing that helps Utah surprise the conference as they haven't had a quarter back make it from start to finish in a season since 2008. Last season the Utah offense was bad but they are young. Utah returns a pair of receivers who both found the end zone 3 times in Dres Anderson and Kenneth Scott. Erickson has worked magic in the past and it's not outlandish to think that the Utes could be competitive this season in the south.
The Huskies have a Jekyll and Hyde issue at quarter back. At times, Keith Price looks like a dominant player, able to find open receivers and make plays with his feet. Yet, at other times looks downright pedestrian. No returning QB in the conference threw more interceptions than Price, tying WSU's Halliday and OSU's Mannion at 13 INTs. Many wondered how Price would react to not having Chris Polk in the backfield and for the most part was able to step up. The Huskies schedule was brutal through the middle but they were able to get out with wins over Oregon State and conference champion Stanford. Price benefits from having one of the best TEs in the conference returning in Austin Sefarian-Jenkins. ASJ had the most receiving TDs. Another aerial threat Price will have at his disposal is Kasen Williams. The two sport athlete fell just short of 900 yards receiving to lead the team. If Price can make a leap in 2013, UW's passing game could be a real threat.
Washington State Cougars
The Cougars have no problem throwing the ball all over the field. Much of it comes from necessity as they find themselves trailing in most of the games they play in, but they have a bright spot in Connor Halliday. Halliday split time with Jeff Tuel last season but finished the season as the QB and will be the incumbent starter as Tuel has graduated. Also gone from a year ago was one of the best vertical threats in the league in Marquess Wilson. Wilson was well on his way to his third consecutive 1000 yard receiving season when he left the team late in the season. The Cougars threw for almost 4000 yards last year and having a single quarterback instead of splitting time can only help their consistency. The receiving corps is young but talented with their top three receivers all sophomores. Surprisingly, WSU could push for leading the conference in passing yards once again this season, if they can control their interception problem that seems to pop up.