Posted on August 20, 2019
With several teams losing their starting quarterback to graduation, ranking the Pac-12 quarterbacks this early in the 2019 preseason is no easy task. A number of graduate transfers, traditional transfers, and incoming freshman are poised to replace accomplished players at their respective schools. Of course, these rankings are subject to change during the preseason, and we’ll have more clarity as we move closer to Week One. But for now, here is a ranking and analysis of each program’s likely starting quarterback in the Conference of Champions.
1. Justin Herbert — Oregon
Justin Herbert comes back for his senior season with an eye to returning the Ducks to national prominence. There will be plenty of noise about where NFL scouts think he may go in the 2020 draft, but Herbert doesn’t seem too worried about that. Having survived three coaching staffs in three years, and a broken collarbone in 2017, Herbert has overcome his share of adversity. None of it stopped him from putting up 3,151 passing yards and 29 touchdowns with only eight interceptions last season. He has surprising mobility for his 6-foot-6, 234-pound frame, and added another 166 yards and two touchdowns rushing. Herbert’s ability to deliver pinpoint passes, scramble when needed, and make good decisions in the pocket, positions him as the best quarterback in the Pac-12, if not the country. Look for Herbert to be an early-season Heisman candidate, and possibly even get invited to New York, if he leads Oregon back to the College Football Playoffs, as some have predicted.
2. K.J. Costello — Stanford
Coming off a 9-4 sophomore season, K.J. Costello could have the Cardinal competing for the Pac-12 North Division title once again. With an impressive 3,540 yards passing last year, along with 29 touchdowns and only 11 interceptions, the only apparent flaw in Costello’s game was his inability to scramble. He lost 20 yards rushing, was sacked 23 times, without a rushing touchdown. While Costello has the size (6-foot-5, 215 pounds) and accuracy (65% completion rate in 2018) to join the ranks of other legendary Stanford quarterbacks, he hasn’t yet had the breakout season many expected when he arrived on the Farm. To take the Cardinal to a more prestigious bowl game in 2019, Costello will need the help of several key replacements for the likes of running back Bryce Love and wideout JJ Arcega-Whiteside. Stanford’s schedule is tough and front-loaded, giving Costello little margin of error in his quest to keep the Tree in the thick of things.
3. Khalil Tate — Arizona
Khalil Tate’s senior season seems like a make-or-break year for his legacy at Arizona. Plagued by an ankle injury while adjusting to a new system in 2018, his performance did not live up to his preseason Heisman hype. Although Tate’s passing numbers (2,530 yards and 26 touchdowns, with 8 interceptions) showed improvement over 2017, they did not compensate for his apparent regression in rushing the ball. He averaged just three yards per carry for 224 yards and two rushing touchdowns last year, a sharp contrast to the prior season, in which he averaged more than nine yards per carry for 1,411 yards and 12 touchdowns. With a year to learn Noel Mazzone’s system, Tate should be more comfortable as a pocket quarterback, limiting his interceptions and becoming more efficient. Provided Arizona’s depth issues at wide receiver doesn’t hamper his progress, and he’s able to stay healthy, Tate’s running and passing figures should surge dramatically in 2019.
4. Tyler Huntley — Utah
As a senior, Tyler Huntley should have ample opportunity to lead the Utes back to the Pac-12 Championship game. The talented dual-threat quarterback seems perfect for Coach Kyle Wittingham’s run-pass-option offense, and his three years at Utah give him the leadership and experience he needs to make the Utes the clear favorite again in the Pac-12 South. The key will be staying healthy after suffering a season-ending injury last year, breaking his left collarbone against Arizona State. Up to that point, Huntley had completed 64% of his passes for 1,788 yards and 12 touchdowns, while also rushing for 304 yards and four touchdowns. While Huntley will have some room to improve on those numbers in 2019, his understanding of what Wittingham needs at the quarterback position should give Utah a good chance to win more games this season with him at the helm.
5. Jacob Eason — Washington
A traditional transfer from Georgia, Jacob Eason sat out last season after arriving in Seattle with high expectations and a solid reputation. At 6-foot-6 and 225 pounds, he has the size coaches want in an elite-level passer, and will have the advantage of working with a head coach known for developing quarterbacks in UW’s Chris Petersen. A highly touted five-star recruit out of high school, Eason won the starting job at UGA as a true freshman, compiling 2,430 passing yards with 16 touchdowns and 8 interceptions for the Bulldogs. He lost his starting spot his sophomore year after injuring his knee in the first game. While his inability to scramble occasionally hampers his effectiveness, the experience he gained with Georgia in the SEC should allow him to hold his own in the Pac-12. Eason’s initiation into the Conference won’t be easy, however, as he’ll have to outplay a gauntlet of tough competitors in the North Division to lead Washington to another Rose Bowl.
6. JT Daniels — USC
While JT Daniels didn’t quite live up to the hype that ushered in his freshman season, he showed flashes of what made him such a highly touted five-star recruit. With a year to adjust to the college game, and a bevy of productive receivers, it seems reasonable for USC to expect better results in 2019. It remains unclear, however, if Daniels will grow into the savior-quarterback that many Trojan fans hoped would return them to the promised land. He threw for 2,672 yards with 14 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 2018, but his lack of mobility lost 149 rushing yards and yielded no touchdowns, resulting in too many sacks and interceptions. The switch to new offensive coordinator Graham Harrell’s version of the Air Raid seems to suit Daniels well. More precise routes should allow him to quickly get the ball to his athletic and speedy wide receivers with midrange balls, while occasionally burning the coverage deep, as he did so often last season.
7. Gage Gubrud — Washington State
As a graduate transfer from FCS powerhouse Eastern Washington, Gage Gubrud arrives at Wazzu with an elite resumé. He compiled a 17-6 record as a starter, including an upset-victory over Washington State in 2016. In just three and a half seasons, Gubrud has thrown for 9,984 yards with 87 touchdowns and 32 interceptions. He has also rushed for 1,042 yards and 13 touchdowns. Consequently, Mike Leach has good reason to expect big things from the new general of his vaunted Air Raid. Gubrud seems custom-made for the Cougs, in a similar mold as Gardner Minshew, who seemed to come out of nowhere, emerging as a late season Heisman contender. Don’t be shocked to see Gubrud move dramatically up the passing yards rankings by the middle of the season. His ability to pass the ball efficiently, and to scramble when needed, makes him a compelling next man up in a long line of great WSU passers. If all goes well, Washington State could be set for a second run at the Pac-12 North Championship, with another stellar transfer lining up behind center.
8. Steven Montez — Colorado
After starting last season with five straight wins, Steven Montez and the Buffaloes lost seven in a row, including an embarrassing overtime defeat at the hands of an OSU team that had lost 22 consecutive road games. Colorado’s losing streak cost head coach Mike McIntyre his job, and the losses can’t rightly be placed on Montez’s shoulders. In 2018, he put up a respectable 2,849 passing yards with 19 touchdowns to nine interceptions, rushing for another 238 yards and four touchdowns. At 6-foot-5 and 235 pounds, Montez has the ideal size, experience, and elusiveness to spark head coach Mel Tucker’s turnaround efforts. But while Montez’s role as the starter is not in question, he’ll need to grow significantly to lead the Buffaloes back to their first bowl game since 2016, when they won Pac-12 South title. His development under the new coaching staff, and his ability to grasp its offensive scheme will have a lot to say in how much he can improve on his 6-15 record as a starter against Conference opponents.
9. Chase Garbers — California
Coming off a hot-and-cold freshman season, Chase Garbers hopes to build on the success of last season’s 7-6 Bears team, which made it to the Cheez-It-Bowl. After fending off Brandon McIlwain to win the starting job in 2018, Garbers faces renewed pressure from him and UCLA transfer Devon Modster this year. Having produced a shocking win over Washington last season, along with a respectable win over USC, while narrowly missing an upset of Washington State, Garbers has proven he is capable of competing in the Pac-12. However, his ratio of 14 touchdowns to 10 interceptions was a major cause for concern, as was his 1,506 passing yards on a Cal team that ranked last in the Conference in scoring, passing, and total offense. By contrast, he ran the ball effectively, gaining 420 yards on ground en route to four rushing touchdowns. In addition to improving himself, Garbers will need plenty of help from his offensive teammates to guide Cal through the tough North Division to another bowl game.
10. Jayden Daniels — Arizona State
The race for the starting quarterback job at Arizona State appears to be wide open, so it’s anyone’s guess who will end up with the job. However, Jayden Daniels, a talented true freshman, seems primed to win the spot. A highly touted four-star recruit out of California, Daniels was ranked the second best dual-threat quarterback in the nation by 247Sports. His primary competition for the starting spot will come from Dillon Sterling-Cole, a redshirt sophomore who has barely played, as well as from fellow four-star true freshman Joey Yellen. If Daniels wins the job and plays as expected, he could find himself among the top quarterbacks in the Conference by the end of his sophomore year. However, this year could be a different story. With no snaps at the college level against superior defenses, it would not be shocking to see him struggle early on. But given his high ceiling, it would be no less surprising to see him progress quickly as the season wears on, becoming dangerous by year’s end. Doing so could make Daniels a viable candidate for Conference Freshman of the Year honors.
11. Dorian Thompson-Robinson — UCLA
After a challenging freshman season in Chip Kelly’s first year at UCLA, Dorian Thompson-Robinson begins his sophomore year on much firmer ground, with realistic hopes of leading the Bruins to a bowl game. A prototypical Kelly-style quarterback, Thompson-Robinson can beat you with his legs and his arm. In 2018, he threw for 1,311 yards with seven touchdowns and only four interceptions, but rushed for just 68 yards, failing to score on the ground. Kelly’s proven ability to develop quarterbacks should bear fruit for Thompson-Robinson in 2019. With a better understanding of the playbook and his rushing expectations, he seems poised to guide UCLA to a markedly better outcome than last season’s 3-9 disaster. If he can stay healthy and limit his interceptions, Thompson-Robinson should be able to capitalize on Kelly’s quarterback-friendly system. With a break or two, he and the Bruins might even surprise a few teams in the Pac-12 South.
12. Jake Luton — Oregon State
It has been six seasons since Oregon State last posted a winning record, and during that stretch, they have won only fourteen games. Jake Luton performed consistently at times last year, but will need to play much better his senior season to help the Beavers improve on last season’s two-win campaign. Luton established himself as a capable passer in 2018, completing 62% of his passes for 1,660 yards and 10 touchdowns, with just four interceptions. The same can’t be said of his rushing and scrambling ability, however, after losing 144 yards on the ground with no rushing touchdowns, rendering the Beaver offense one-dimensional with the ball in his hands. Nebraska transfer Tristan Gebbia, a former four-star recruit, will push Luton in the battle for the starting job, as will junior Jack Colletto. But none of them are likely to make Oregon State fans forget about former OSU great Sean Mannion.
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