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Pac-12 Spring Preview: Quarterbacks

John McKechnie

John is the 2016 FSWA College Writer of the Year winner. He is a Maryland native and graduate of the University of Georgia. He's been writing for RotoWire since early 2014.

SPRING PRACTICE PREVIEW: PAC-12 QUARTERBACKS


Spring practices are getting started all across the country, which means Rotowire will be kicking off a series of previews for some of the nation's top positional battles. For this article, we'll be looking at the quarterback picture for each PAC-12 team heading into spring and forecasting a starter for the 2018 season.The PAC-12 boasts an interesting landscape on the quarterback front with Heisman candidates such as Khalil Tate and Justin Herbert looking like some of the best signal callers in the nation. On the flip side, there are a couple spots where schools are looking to replace living legends. Of course, I'm talking about USC and UCLA, which have the tough task of moving on from Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen, respectively.
You can check out our other conference previews below:
ACC
Big Ten
SEC
Big 12


Arizona

The Incumbent: Khalil Tate (Jr.)

The Challenger(s): Rhett Rodriguez (So.). K’Hari Lane (R-Fr), Andrew Tovar (R-Fr.)

The Skinny: Well, Tate is a Heisman candidate so this one’s pretty settled. Tate exploded onto the scene for an injured Brandon Dawkins and delivered the Wildcats to four straight wins while rushing for 840 yards and nine touchdowns in that stretch. He finished the year rushing for 1,411 yards and 12 scores and throwing for 1,591 yards and 14 touchdowns and was arguably the most exciting player in the nation in the middle of the season. With Brandon Dawkins gone as a grad transfer, there’s really no competition standing in Tate’s way.


Arizona State

The Incumbent:Manny Wilkins (R-Sr.)

The Challenger(s): Blake Barnett (R-Jr.), Dillon Sterling-Cole (R-So.)

The Skinny: The intrigue isn’t so much in who will be starting for the Sun Devils, but rather how new coach Herm Edwards and his staff are able to implement a new system. The Sun Devils are transitioning to a pro-style system that’ll have Wilkins under center at times, which represents a radical change from the spread system under former offensive coordinator Billy Napier. Wilkins seems to approve of the new offense, saying “I’m very comfortable with it. I’m excited we’re doing a lot more of it...I think as a quarterback, it helps you quicken the process and just get better,” in an interview with Doug Haller of AZCentral.

The offense is also supposedly heading towards a more balanced philosophy with more runs than in years past, but I have my doubts about the rushing volume actually changing much considering Arizona State already ran it 55.24 percent of the time last year. The looks that they call run plays out of could look different, though.

Bottom line: This spring is about Wilkins and Co. getting acclimated to the new system.

CALIFORNIA

The Incumbent:Ross Bowers (R-Jr.)

The Challenger(s): Brandon McIlwain (R-So.)

The Skinny: Though Bowers didn’t exactly light the world on fire in his first year as the starter, it’s still tough to imagine him getting unseated -- at least during spring practice. He’s in his second year in the system and had the second-most passing yards (3,039) last year of any returning PAC-12 quarterback behind Manny Wilkins. McIlwain is an intriguing addition to the mix, however. He was a big-time recruit in the class of 2016 who started out at South Carolina before Jake Bentley emerged as the clear quarterback of the future. Now that McIlwain is eligible after sitting last year, he’ll at least put some heat on Bowers this spring. Still, barring a major shakeup, Bowers stands to remain atop the Cal depth chart heading into the summer.

COLORADO

The Incumbent: Steven Montez (R-Jr.)

The Challenger(s): Tyler Lytle (R-Fr.), Sam Noyer (R-So.)

The Skinny: The Buffs have already wrapped up spring ball and even though Montez was a bit shaky according to the Denver Post, this is still his team. The report refers to Montez as the “unquestioned starter,” which is hardly surprising considering he started all 12 games last season and was mostly impressive, completing 60.5 percent of his passes for 2,975 yards and 18 scores while adding 338 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. One hurdle for Montez heading into the year will be establishing a rapport with a new-look receiving corps that will have to replace Bryce Bobo, Shay Fields, and Devin Ross. Otherwise, Montez is the guy in Boulder and will be ready to lead the Buffs in Week 1 against Colorado State.

OREGON

The Incumbent: Justin Herbert (Jr.)

The Challenger(s): Braxton Burmeister (So.), Tyler Shough (Early Enrollee)

The Skinny: This one’s pretty open-and-shut as well as Herbert is arguably the best draft-eligible quarterback in the nation. This will be his second full year at the reins of the Oregon offense and the scheme will be largely the same even though head coach Willie Taggart is now at Florida State. If last year taught us anything, it was that this team can only go as far as Herbert can take it. When Herbert was sidelined with a collarbone injury, the Ducks were 1-4 and averaged 15 points per game. When he was healthy? The Ducks were 6-2 and averaged a whopping 49 points. Sure, that number is inflated by the 77- and 69-point explosions against Southern Utah and Oregon State, but it goes to show how valuable Herbert is. With that, there’s not much he needs to prove this spring.

A subplot to follow is Oregon’s backup situation. Burmeister, who was a freshman last year, struggled mightily when asked to replace Herbert. The addition of blue-chip recruit Tyler Shough this January means that Burmeister will have to make some improvements to remain as Herbert’s backup.

OREGON STATE

The Incumbent: Jake Luton (Sr.)

The Challenger(s): Mason Moran (R-So.), Conor Blunt (R-So.), Aidan Willard (R-Fr.)

The Skinny: Luton is the only quarterback on the roster with legitimate game experience at the FBS level, so he has a leg up this spring. That said, everything is in flux at this stage with Oregon State opting to wait until April 4 to begin spring practice. Luton should enter atop the depth chart, but new coach Jonathan Smith figures to mull over all of his options and not rush a decision on his starter. This is one of the more wide-open competitions in the PAC-12 and it might take until Week 1 to see some clarity.

STANFORD

The Incumbent: K.J. Costello (R-So.) Out with hip injury

The Challenger(s) Davis Mills (R-Fr.) Out with knee injury; Jack Richardson (R-So.)

The Skinny: There isn’t much that can be done here with Costello and Mills both sidelined. Last year’s Week 1 starter, Keller Chryst, has pledged to Tennessee as a graduate transfer, which leaves Stanford with a walk-on to run the show this spring. Richardson garnered some praise from his teammates early in camp, according to The San Jose Mercury News, but let’s be honest, it’d be a little weird if a bunch of Stanford players were outwardly ripping their quarterback. The bottom line here is that until Costello and/or Mills are healthy, there’s not a ton to be learned about Stanford’s quarterback situation. Once fall camp gets underway and Costello is healthy, he’ll take over as the starter for the Cardinal.

UCLA

The Incumbent: None

The Challenger(s): Devon Modster (So.), Matt Lynch, Austin Burton

The Skinny:This spring will mostly be a dry run for UCLA’s quarterback competition with new coach Chip Kelly installing his intricate and uptempo scheme. The other wrinkly is that UCLA has not been particularly shy about saying that it’s not overly thrilled with its current quarterback depth. The Bruins secured a commitment from graduate transfer K.J. Carta Samuels but CBS Sports reported that the ex-Washington Huskie has since flipped his pledge to Colorado State.

A recent report from Thuc Nhi Nguyen of the Southen California News Group stated that Kelly could still be on the lookout for possible graduate transfers at quarterback. As it stands, Modster is the leader in the clubhouse with an experience edge over everyone else on the roster, but this is another situation that won’t be settled until fall camp. What’s more, freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson -- one of the nation’s top quarterback recruits in the class of 2018 -- is due to arrive on campus this summer as well. Who Kelly decides as the chosen one to run his system is one of the more interesting storylines in college football heading into the fall.

USC

The Incumbent None

The Challenger(s): Jack Sears (R-Fr.), Matt Fink (R-So)

The Skinny: In almost any other situation, Fink and Sears’ battle this spring would give a solid glimpse into what USC’s quarterback outlook for the upcoming season. However, it feels a little empty. Here’s why: Freshman J.T. Daniels. The wunderkind quarterback prospect reclassified to the 2018 recruiting class and will arrive at USC this summer after three remarkable high school seasons for powerhouse Mater Dei. So, in layman’s terms, USC’s starting quarterback this year might not be on campus yet. Fink and Sears certainly have a huge opportunity to make some headway this spring in terms of mastering the playbook and working with the first-team offense. But this competition won’t be settled until Daniels gets his say in August.

UTAH

The Incumbent: Tyler Huntley (Jr.)

The Challenger(s): Jason Shelley (R-Fr.), Jack Tuttle (Early Enrollee)

The Skinny: Huntley was extremely impressive in his first year as a starter in 2017 and is the clear-cut starter heading into 2018. The future is bright at the position for Utah beyond Huntley with a player like Tuttle on campus and already getting acclimated to this level. Still, there's not much in the way of moving parts here. Huntley is the guy after throwing for 2,411 yards, running for 537 yards, and accounting for 21 total scores in 10 games last year.

WASHINGTON

The Incumbent: Jake Browning (Sr.)

The Challenger(s): Jacob Sirmon (Early Enrollee), Colson Yankoff (Early Enrollee), Jake Haener (So.)

The Skinny:This is as open-and-shut as it gets. Browning is the guy. He’s entering his fourth year as Washington’s starter and has the Huskies primed for another run at the PAC-12 title. Really, the main thing Browning has to do this spring is develop a better rapport with his pass catchers now that Dante Pettis is off to the NFL. According to The Tacoma News-Tribune, Washington’s first unit consists of Aaron Fuller, Andre Baccellia, Ty Jones, and Hunter Bryant. Considering that Browning didn’t have more than 26 completions to anyone outside of Pettis last year, he’ll have to take advantage of the spring to build his chemistry up with the younger receiving corps.

WASHINGTON STATE

The Incumbent: None

The Challenger(s): Cammon Cooper (Early Enrollee), Trey Tinsley (R-So.), Anthony Gordon (R-Jr.)

The Skinny: This one’s got some intrigue with Washington State having to replace a four-year starter who will go down as one of the greatest quarterbacks in program history. There are three main candidates right now, according to Theo Lawson of The Spokesman-Review, with Tinsley taking an early lead. Tinsley, a redshirt sophomore, hasn’t attempted a pass for the Cougars but does have experience in Mike Leach’s system as a third-year player.

There’s also freshman early enrollee Cammon Cooper, who is the biggest quarterback recruit to come to Pullman during the Leach era.

As good as the competition between those two and Gordon might be this spring, Washington State won’t make any decisions until Gardner Minshew comes to campus. Minshew, a graduate transfer from East Carolina, drew interest from some big programs like Alabama before finally committing to Washington State. He’s not the typical graduate transfer who becomes the clear-cut favorite to start the second he gets to campus, however. Minshew completed just 57 percent of his passes with a 7.0 YPA last season, adding 16 touchdowns and seven picks.