The start of football season is under two months away, which means it’s time for Ute fans to better acquaint themselves with the divisional rivals they’re about to square off against. Over the next few weeks I’m going to highlight particular positions and grade each team in the Pac-12 South in order to show just how the Utes stack up against our new conference.
In order to kick this new project off with a bang, let’s start with the most important position on the field: the quarterbacks.
USC Trojans A-
To put it simply, USC has the best starting quarterback in the South. Not only that, they also have a very competent group of backups too. Matt Barkley is a typical USC quarterback; a very good passer that benefits from having an extremely talented group of players around him to make him even better. He is very comparable in style and skill to the USC greats that have come before him in the recent pass such as Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, and Mark Sanchez, and will probably be a high draft pick just like each of them. In fact, if Barkley has another dominant season I wouldn’t be surprised to see him push Andrew Luck for the #1 pick in next years’ NFL draft.
As a true freshman Barkley passed for over 2700 yards and 15 touchdowns, but coupled that with 14 interceptions. His most impressive win that season came week 2 when he went on the road to Ohio State and led the Trojans to an upset win over the Buckeyes on national TV. Last season, Barkley’s touchdown-to-interception ratio improved greatly as he tossed an impressive 26 touchdowns and threw just 12 interceptions. Barkley showed major improvement in year two making much smarter decisions on the field. By the end of the season he looked like the pro prospect that people expected him to be when he came out of high school.
Unless Barkley gets injured and misses MULTIPLE games this season, I expect this to be his last year at USC. If the worst does happen, USC may have the deepest group of backups in the conference.
Arizona Wildcats B+
Arizona has without question the best quarterback duo that nobody talks about. In a conference lead by Luck and Barkley, Nick Foles and Matt Scott put up numbers in their shadows that rival some of the better QBs in the country. Foles is a fun quarterback to watch. He has a rocket for an arm and makes very good decisions. He is a prototypical pocket quarterback with great vision and smarts. Scott, on the other hand, adds a run threat to the position with his field vision and speed.
Last year Foles was the undisputed starter and he didn’t disappoint. With a solid group of wide receivers around him he was able to throw for over 3,100 yards with twice as many touchdowns (20) as he had interceptions (10), and only played in 10 games missing two games due to injury. Foles looks and feels like an NFL quarterback, which is something the University of Arizona isn’t used to having. I expect his numbers to get even better this year.
If Foles happens to get injured again, Matt Scott is more than capable of leading this team. Scott was actually the starter over Foles at the beginning of the ’09 season, but eventually lost the job to the better Foles. Scott can move the football both through the air and on the ground. He’s smart, throws the ball well, and his speed at quarterback makes him a major run threat that defenses need to respect. His accuracy needs improvement and he needs to avoid throwing untimely interceptions, but could start for a lot of teams in the NCAA. Both Foles and Scott will be seniors this year, so don’t be surprised to see Scott redshirting in 2011.
Utah Utes B-
Utah joins the Pac-12 conference this season with one of the weakest quarterback groups it’s had in recent history. Outside of starter Jordan Wynn, the Utes have no D-1 experience on the depth chart. Wynn sat out the Las Vegas Bowl in December and then missed spring practices rehabbing a shoulder injury that required surgery and kept him from playing his best football at the end of last season. Utah will need Wynn to stay healthy in order to be successful this year.
That may be easier said than done. Wynn has been injured at some point in each of his first two seasons at Utah. In these situations in the past Utah has had an experienced back-up, but that luxury is now gone. Terrance Cain graduated last season and with him went any bench experience the Utes had at quarterback. Griff Robles (the only other QB to see game action last year) and Tyler Schreve battled each other this spring for the #2 position, but Robles has decided move to linebacker. That decision left the Utes with just one bench QB and forced Utah coaches to quickly search for depth, adding JC quarterback John Hays who will join the team this fall. That still leaves the Utes extremely thin at QB. If Wynn misses action this year due to injury, the Utes will be in big trouble.
Wynn has shown flashes of greatness in his first two seasons. Though he didn’t start his entire freshman year, he sparked the offense when he replaced Cain and quickly endeared himself to the fans. In a rout of Cal in the Poinsettia Bowl, Ute fans saw a quarterback with real potential and hopes for Wynn skyrocketed. In 2010 expectations for Wynn and Utah were a mile high, but an early season injury kept Wynn from reaching his potential all season long. He finished with a respectable but not great 17 touchdowns and 10 interceptions while throwing for just over 2,300 yards. Wynn will need to improve on those numbers if Utah is going to be successful in 2011.
If Utah is going to succeed in its first year in the Pac-12, not only does Wynn need to stay healthy, he also needs to improve. Wynn has shown that he has the potential and capability to be a great quarterback. When he is playing his best football he has NFL-level talent. But when Wynn is bad, he’s really bad. He is often one-dimensional and can stagnate an offense with his lack of mobility and sometimes poor decision making. No quality depth on this roster make quarterback a position of real question for the Utes.
UCLA Bruins C+
Lately it has seemed like the quarterback position at UCLA has been cursed. The Bruins haven’t been able to sustain any kind of consistency at the position due to quarterbacks constantly playing hurt or missing games all-together. This year UCLA returns starters from each of the past two years and also adds highly touted freshman Brett Hundley. Experience and depth will finally give UCLA stability at quarterback that they desperately need.
Competition should drive potential starters Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut throughout summer and fall practices. Ultimately Kevin Prince is my projected starter for the Bruins when the season begins in September, but don’t be surprised if he’s not there at the end. Prince missed a lot of action last season due to injury. Richard Brehaut ultimately replaced Prince on and off throughout the year, but Brehaut never owned the position and his results as starter fell short of expectations. Both Prince and Brehaut return this season but so far a starter has not been named. Prince is a better quarterback overall in my opinion and Neuheisel really seems to like him. Don’t be surprised to see freshman Brett Hundley starting for the Bruins by the end of the season. Hundley is a very athletic quarterback who is unquestionably the best option UCLA has to run the pistol offense Neuheisal has adopted. He was arguably the top quarterback recruit in the country last year and was with the team for spring practices. Hundley is the long-term solution to the recent UCLA quarterback problem, and although it may take a few weeks before we see him under center, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
If UCLA can avoid the nagging injuries that have plagued them over the past few seasons and adopt a sense of stability in offensive playcalling and scheme, watch for their quarterback play to rise. If the Bruins can get above-average play from their quarterback this season they could push for a bowl game after a 4-8 result last year.
Arizona State C
Much like UCLA, the quarterback position for Arizona State over the past few years has been anything but stable. Last summer the Sun Devils had three quarterbacks competing for the starting position with Steven Threet ultimately being named the guy for the season opener. Brock Osweiler, a fan favorite, was left to learn on the bench for a second straight year. Threet threw for over 2,500 yards but also tossed an alarming 16 interceptions which ultimately kept Arizona State from a bowl game for the third consecutive season.
Threet won’t be back for the Sun Devils this year after deciding to medically retire. Backup Samson Szakacsy also left the program, so in 2011 Brock Osweiler will finally be the man for ASU. Osweiler has experience; He’s only started one game in his career but has played in many more. In last year’s season finale Osweiler got the start and led the Devils to a thrilling double-overtime win. If you watched that game, you know that Osweiler was far from perfect. But what you saw was a kid that kept confidence through sub-par play and never gave up. On the road trailing 14-6 in the 4th quarter, Osweiler led ASU to 14-consecutive points and ultimately overtime. ASU won the game and although at 6-6 they were not allowed to participate in a bowl game, Sun Devil fans have hope that this year will be different.
Osweiler will be the key to the success of the Sun Devil offense this year. Many predict Arizona State to win the South Division in 2011 and much of that will depend on how Osweiler performs. Behind Brock is a group of talented freshmen, but don’t expect any of them to push for the starting job.
Colorado Buffaloes C-
Nothing can derail the growth and development of a quarterback or group of quarterbacks faster than a bad head coach. For the past two seasons Colorado has gone back and forth at the quarterback position switching between the coach’s son Cody Hawkins and Tyler Hansen. Although Hawkins broke CU records for career passing yards and touchdowns, they still struggled to win.
Tyler Hansen returns for the Buffs this season and will have to fight for the starting position under new head coach Jon Embree. Hansen has experience playing under center and although the new coaching staff signed quality depth behind him, none have the skill to dethrone Hansen by the start of the season. Don’t underestimate the impact Hansen’s leadership will play either. His familiarity and experience playing among a group of talented offensive players should make him the favorite to start. With weapons at running back and wide receiver, consistent quarterback play could make this a very explosive Buffalo offensive group.
Hansen started the first seven games of last season in 2010 throwing for over 1,100 yards and 6 touchdowns but ruptured his spleen and sat out the remainder of the year. Hansen is quick and likes to hurt teams on the ground. He has good field vision and knows when to leave the pocket. He throws short and medium range passes well, but struggles with his accuracy on long throws. He also throws too many interceptions and will need to cut down on those numbers if he wants to be the starter at the end of the season.
Ultimately his experience on the field makes Hansen Colorado’s best option, but he’s not an elite quarterback. Serviceable may be the best description of Hansen. He’s surrounded by talent and he has the ability to help lead CU to a bowl game, but don’t expect much more than that from him. Behind Hansen are a group of freshmen and JC’s brought in by the new coaching staff. There is a lot of excitement in Boulder around this group of backups, but QB-by-committee never works. If Embree can resist the temptation to start one of ‘his guys’ over the best and most experienced guy, stability will go a long way this year for the Buffs.