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Pac-12 Media Days notebook: All about the quarterbacks

Associated Press
Oregon State's Sean Mannion and Oregon's Marcus Mariota are among a talented group of Pac-12 passers.

LOS ANGELES -- The word "quarterback" was mentioned 103 times by Pac-12 coaches during their main session on the Paramount lot this week at Pac-12 Media Days. One can surely triple that number if you include various radio, TV and one-on-one interviews.

Arizona's Rich Rodriguez, one of just two coaches in the league who are not returning a signal-caller behind center, uttered the name for the position 16 times alone when he was at the podium. Curiously enough it was Oregon's Mark Helfrich, who might have the best quarterback in the conference (if not the country this season), who said the term the fewest. He did have plenty to say about Marcus Mariota nevertheless.


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Yes, this week all everybody could talk about out West were the quarterbacks. And for good reason: they're really good and they're almost all back.

"I've been asked this question about the history of it, have there ever been more good quarterbacks coming back in one year?," dean of Pac-12 coaches Mike Riley said. "I can't think of that time."

"Never seen anything like this where you have multiple guys in our conference that you could say could be the number one pick overall in the draft," Stanford's David Shaw said. "You have multiple guys in the conference that could be All-Americans and could lead the nation in quarterback rating or lead the nation in yards and yards per attempt in touchdown passes, and that could be any of five or six guys that could do that this year.

"I can't wait for some of these guys to get out of our conference, which I thought a couple would last year and they disappointed me and came back."

Four SEC quarterbacks were selected in the 2014 NFL Draft, matching the high-water mark for one conference since 1990. That was nothing new, however, as the ACC did it the draft prior, and both the Big Ten and Pac-12 have accomplished the feat in the past decade.

With 10 players at the position returning for the 2014 season, could the Pac-12 bump that mark up significantly when the draft rolls around? The league's coaches certainly think it's achievable.

"The class (of) quarterbacks in the Pac-12 to me is by far the best in the country," said Colorado's Mike MacIntyre, a former Dallas Cowboys coach. "There are quite a few of these guys that are going to play on Sunday."

"That's not to say they're all going to go be great NFL players, but they're great college football players," UCLA coach Jim Mora added. "Many of them will go on to have great careers (in the NFL)."

Mora has already lauded the Bruins' starter as a potential first-rounder. Oregon's Marcus Mariota is viewed by some to be in play for the No. 1 overall selection in 2015 if he leaves early. Stanford's Kevin Hogan has the size, arm strength and deep-ball accuracy to go along with playing in a pro-style system that scouts already love. Beavers' signal-caller Sean Mannion already drew a third-round grade last year and was the top college passer at both the Elite 11 and Manning Passing Academy this summer.

Youngsters Cody Kessler and Travis Wilson have had up-and-down careers so far, but look primed for breakout seasons. Kessler's superb play down the stretch last year culminated with him out-dueling Oakland Raiders second-round pick Derek Carr in their bowl game. Washington State's Connor Halliday is rewriting multiple school records on the Palouse in Mike Leach's Air Raid, and Arizona State's Taylor Kelly is the defending South Division champ. Even Stanford's Shaw called Cal quarterback Jared Goff "a superstar" after the latter put up big numbers through the air as a true freshman.

Yes, media days are typically when conference and team boasting are at their highest, but in the case of the Pac-12's group, it's not hard to recognize that the coaches mean it.

"There was a time in the Big 12 that there were a bunch of quarterbacks. Well, let's see, in the SEC at one time it was Tim Couch, Peyton Manning, and Danny Wuerffel. That was kind of impressive," Cougars coach Mike Leach said. "I don't know that I've been around 10. The thing is at that position, being the core position that the other players draw from, I think it helps maintain the identity of these teams so that they can build on it."

Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Stanford in Stanford, Calif. Stanford won 42-28. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)
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Leach was in charge at Texas Tech when that batch of quarterbacks came through the Big 12 and gave the league the reputation of one of the best in the country around 2008. Colt McCoy and Sam Bradford each played for national titles from opposite sides of the Red River while they were in school. Graham Harrell, Chase Daniel, Todd Reesing and Josh Freeman all found success. True freshman Robert Griffin III took over at Baylor in 2008 and was named Big 12 Freshman of the Year.

Just as in the Big 12 all those years ago, the Pac-12 coaches are hoping that all the returnees coming back for 2014 will result in similar -- if not better -- success on the field for their teams.

"It's the most important position in sports for a reason. Our conference is loaded with them this year, and it's going to make it very challenging on all of the defenses," USC coach Steve Sarkisian remarked. "When you have good quarterback play, regardless of your system, it makes life a lot easier for offenses to move the ball."

NFL scouts will be burning the midnight oil to watch the Pac-12 this season with good reason. So too, we're sure, are the defensive coordinators around the conference.

More things we learned from around the Pac-12 at media days:

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Rodriguez goes after up-tempo arguments

Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez might just be the West Coast answer to Steve Spurrier. Few could come up with a quip quite like the Wildcats' boss, nor could anybody draw as many laughs as he did when making his way around the Paramount Pictures lot. If athletic director Greg Byrne isn't careful, he'll have to start fending off sitcom writers from down the street.

But when it came time to address comments about up-tempo offenses and injuries, Rodriguez did not mince words.

"I call it a farce. If you think pace of play has anything to do with injuries, you drank the wrong poison," he said. "I think it would be hard to find any hard data that shows the pace of play contributes more to injury, but that's my opinion."

Wonder if we can get Arkansas or Alabama to play the Wildcats some time soon.

Utah's Anderson primed for an even bigger season

If you followed Utah at all during its first few years in the Pac-12, you'll know that quarterback issues and injuries have played a big role in its successes and failures. Such was the case last season with Travis Wilson getting hurt and his backups struggling at times. That's why it might be surprising to some to learn wideout Dres Anderson is the leading returning receiver in the Pac-12 and a likely NFL draft pick next spring.

Utah Utes wide receiver Dres Anderson (6) runs the ball against the UCLA Bruins during the second half at the Rose Bowl. (Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports)
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With a new uptempo offense installed and a healthy Wilson behind center, Utes coaches are hoping a repeat of last year's numbers for Anderson are in the cards at a minimum.

"His strength is his ability to get vertical. If we're going to be successful, he has to do that for us," Kyle Whittingham said. "Knows exactly what is expected. He takes care of things on and off the field. He's got his degree in hand already. He's just a guy that is a pleasure to have on the team."

Anderson's father, Flipper, was a star at UCLA before moving on to the NFL and having a productive career with the L.A. Rams and three other teams. He still holds the league record for most receiving yards in a game. Whittingham talked at length about seeing the elder Anderson play back in the day.

"His dad was on the Rams and my dad was a coach on the Rams, so I watched him play intently throughout his career," the coach said. "My dad passed away about 10 years ago, but he would talk about how talented (Flipper) was."

His son is not too shabby either and could be a key factor in the Utes returning to a bowl game in 2014.

Williams' fitness impresses Sarkisian

New USC coach Steve Sarkisian didn't face Leonard Williams last season when he was coaching at Washington, but he has nevertheless been impressed with what he's seen so far as the defensive lineman returns to fall camp fully healthy after offseason surgery.

Southern California defensive end Leonard Williams, right, tries to get by Arizona safety RJ Morgan during the second half of their NCAA college football game, Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013, in Los Angeles. USC won 38-31. (Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press)
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"I'm blown away. He looks in great shape," Sarkisian said. "He's a really talented guy. And for his size and the speed with which he plays the game, how much he loves the game of football, when you watch Leonard play (you can tell) he loves playing. He plays hard."

Sarkisian has been around a lot of talented defensive linemen as a coach back in the days of USC's dynasty under Pete Carroll and assembled a pretty stacked line in Seattle that has a few potential draft picks. Still, he's not ready to compare with any of the past first-rounders he's seen over the years yet.

"That is probably a better question in the training camp, maybe even into the season quite honestly, because he didn't participate in the spring coming off of the shoulder surgery," said the Trojans coach. "If I'm frustrated after practice because the offense can't get a first down, then I'll probably be able to compare him to somebody."

Absence of Richardson will open things up for Colorado

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said he was "petrified" of facing Paul Richardson every time Colorado came to town. That is good news to hear if you're a Seattle Seahawks fan but probably won't inspire too much confidence if you're a fan of the Buffs seeing the second-round pick moving on to the next level.

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Head coach Mike MacIntyre knows that it will be tough to replace somebody of that caliber on offense, but there are a few candidates that could help out quarterback Sefo Liufau.

"I think Nelson Spruce is a player that made a ton of plays last year in different ways, made a lot of plays, especially as the year got going on, and I feel good about him," MacIntyre said. "You do have to utilize the whole field a little bit better knowing (defenses) are not going to isolate on Paul some. So I think it gives a better repertoire of our football team on offense, and being able to utilize different strengths."

Riley likes his offense

Mike Riley is as nice as they come in the coaching community, but will also not shy away from the negatives when he has to. When it came to star pupil Sean Mannion, he had plenty to say on the former and not all that much on the latter.

"Sean will definitely get a good opportunity, and I think he will do well," Riley said. "He is smart. He's got all the arm strength with all the throws. He's accurate with the ball, and he is improving some of the things that he'll need to work on and make better and better as he goes along in football, and that is everything that he can do fitness wise with his speed and his delivery. But he'll be just fine.

Wisconsin fullback Ralph Kurek (34), smashes off tackle into the end zone to score his teams first touchdown against Southern California while going down to a 42-37 defeat at the Rose Bowl, Jan. 2, 1963, at  Pasadena CA. Kurek takes hand-off from quarterback Ron VanderKelen, and then hit at goal line by USC quarterback Pete Beathard (12) as end Hal Bedsole (19) lunges for his bottom, he shoves Beathard back and scores. (Associated Press)
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"I think the biggest factor is he's a good player with a lot of good numbers, so he belongs in any conversation about quarterbacking in this country right now."

Riley also mentioned that, not surprisingly, there would be a team-oriented approach to replacing all that production Brandin Cooks took with him to the New Orleans Saints.

"We're probably not going to have one guy go out and catch 128 balls this year," Riley joked. "We're going to need more from a lot of people. And I think we're capable of that. That is the good thing.

"I think guys like, first of all, Richard Mullaney and Victor Bolden, those guys have played. So they've got to step up. Then we have some young guys that have to step in and be ready to make plays."

NFL experience helps UCLA's new defensive coordinator

Jeff Ulbrich spent nearly a decade playing for the San Francisco 49ers and has transitioned to the coaching life well at UCLA by turning Anthony Barr into a top-10 pick for the Minnesota Vikings as the team's linebackers coach. Now he's stepped up to run the show as the Bruins' new coordinator, and former NFL head coach Jim Mora is liking what he's seen so far.

"I think it helps our defense and our linebackers specifically. Jeff played that position at a high level. Ten years, one team in the NFL, that doesn't happen much," Mora remarked. "I think it's really helping them off the field more than on the field -- and it certainly is helping them on the field. There are little tricks that you don't understand unless you've played the position. Little things that you have to learn.

"Jeff wasn't the most talented guy in the world, but he developed and created this toolbox of tricks that helped him survive and flourish for 10 years in the league."

The elevation of Ulbrich certainly seems to be paying off for the team's budding superstar in linebacker Myles Jack, who is only coming off a freshman year in which he earned league honors as a two-way player.

"When your best player is your hardest worker, it sets a great example for your team," Mora added. "If you asked the guys in the locker room who the hardest workers are on the team, they'd say Brett (Hundley) and Myles."

That's a scary thought for UCLA opponents.

Follow Bryan Fischer on Twitter @BryanDFischer.

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