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July 24, 2014

Mariota leads deep group of Pac-12 QBs

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LOS ANGELES -- The Pac-12 has long been known as the "conference of quarterbacks," the place where the likes of John Elway, Troy Aikman, and Aaron Rodgers first came to prominence. But that moniker is set to take on a new meaning this season, with 10 returning starters, each already possessing an impressive resume.

The race to be named first-team all-conference may be as competitive as the race for first-team All-American with this group of Pac-12 QBs led by Marcus Mariota, Brett Hundley and Sean Mannion. Those three are all regarded as likely first-round picks next year with perhaps one of them landing the No. 1 overall. The rest of the field has plenty to boast about. All Kevin Hogan has done is lead Stanford to consecutive conference championships and Rose Bowl berths. Cody Kessler threw for 14 touchdowns against just three interceptions after the Lane Kiffin era of error ended at USC. Connor Halliday is on pace to rewrite the Washington State career record book. Jared Goff did so to a host of California single-season marks as a true freshman. Taylor Kelly is back to lead what "will be the best offensive team that I've ever coached," as Arizona State head coach Todd Graham said Thursday. Travis Wilson of Utah has alternated between moments of sheer brilliance and sheer frustration. Colorado has hope again after Sefo Liufau showed promise in the final three games of 2013.

"They are really good," Oregon State head coach Mike Riley said in his typical understated manner at Pac-12 Media Days held on the Paramount Studios backlot. Riley's take is further strengthened by his credentials as dean of Pac-12 coaches and long-time observer before that.

"Has there ever been more good quarterbacks coming back in one year? I can't think of that time," he said. "The neat thing about quarterbacking in our conference is there is a great history there in general. I love that."

So do the current members of its fraternity. Nine Pac-12 quarterbacks attended the Manning Passing Academy in Thibodaux, La., last month, giving them a chance to spread the good word outside the conference's footprint.

"It doesn't get enough play nationally how many good guys we got in this conference," Halliday said. "We have six or seven guys that maybe will have a chance to play at the next level, and that doesn't get enough attention around the nation."

That, however, is already starting to change. Mariota was already well-known by NFL fans as a candidate to be the top pick in the 2014 draft before deciding to return to Oregon for another season, and Hundley was lauded as another future franchise quarterback before following suit at UCLA.

Mannion won the accuracy competition at the Manning Academy, where he swapped stories about former OSU offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf to give Eli Manning some material to rib his new quarterbacks coach with the New York Giants. Further boosting his profile as the top traditional drop-back passer in the college ranks -- and another potential first-round pick -- were the top honors Mannion received as a counselor at the Elite 11, the prestigious annual camp for top high school quarterbacks.

The future of the position in the Pac-12 was well-represented at the Nike complex, with the top three pro-style quarterback recruits in the Class of 2015 -- UCLA-bound Josh Rosen, his future cross-town rival in Ricky Town, and ASU pledge Brady White -- and top-five dual-threat quarterback Travis Waller, committed to Oregon, all in attendance.

"I'm only with them for two-and-a-half days, but you can tell these guys have talent," Mannion said.

The last group of returning QBs with this kind of star power in the Pac-12 was in 2004, when Aaron Rodgers, Matt Leinart, Trent Edwards, Derek Anderson and Kellen Clemens were all active. What separates this year's group is the diversity of offenses they will operate.

A decade ago the conference belonged to quarterbacks that operated almost exclusively under center, territory for the prototypical pocket passer without need to use his feet for more than the occasional scramble or bootleg. Now, there are a variety of schemes in use, opening the door to a variety of kinds of quarterbacks.

Mariota is a read-option wizard. Hundley can scramble. Kelly can do both. Halliday and Goff have no issues throwing the ball 60 times a game.

"They all have their own particular flavor," said Riley of the differing offenses across the conference. "They're not all created the same. The spread offense you'll see is different from Coach Leach at Washington State is different from the spread they're running at Arizona State and, of course, what they're doing at Oregon. Everybody's got their own little deal that is different."

What unites the quarterbacks operating those particular flavors is the pride they share in the Pac-12.

Said Goff: "Even to be mentioned in the same category as them is really humbling and I'm very thankful to be in that category."

"It is an awesome opportunity for this conference to showcase what talent it has," Mariota said. "I truly believe we have one of the toughest conferences in the country, and to be able to have so many quarterbacks returning just ups that level of competition further. I'm glad and happy to be part of the Pac-12."



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