At first glance, Jake Luton looks every bit the Pac-12 starting quarterback he’s become.
Standing 6-7 and weighing 234 pounds, he measures up just right – more than just right, actually. NFL scouts drool over passers with that kind of physical makeup, and wait until they watch Luton throw. Or better yet, wait until they hear it. Luton’s balls whizz through the air with such velocity that anyone standing in close proximity can hear them sing.
“Literally when he threw the ball, you could hear it spin in the air,” said Bryce Erickson, former quarterbacks coach at Idaho. “That’s how much juice he had on it.”
So why is Oregon State’s starter not being mentioned this season in the same breath as Rosen, Darnold, Browning and Falk? How is Luton 21 years old and only just making his first few starts in the Pac-12 Conference?
The short answer: for a period of time, Erickson and the Vandals were the only ones willing to hear to the music.
If recruiting is an inexact science, Luton is the perfect lab rat. He was once undervalued and overlooked – the byproduct of a system that doesn’t always function the way it should. But Luton kept patient. He’s a quarterback, so he understands it can take awhile for a route to develop and looking back now, there’s no doubt he made the right read.
On Saturday, Luton will make his fourth start for the Beavers in a Pac-12 opener at No. 21 Washington State – just seven short miles away from where this roundabout journey all started at the University of Idaho.
“I’m grateful,” Luton said by phone Tuesday morning. “I’m grateful for a lot of things, for my family supporting me and giving me the opportunity to do it and grateful for the coaches (at Oregon State) for seeing the film and believing in me and giving me a shot to compete. So yeah, grateful is probably the right word.”
High school prospects often don’t get the attention they warrant from bigger schools because A) They live in a rural part of the country situated hundreds of miles away from the “hotbeds” that recruiters typically visit or B) They haven’t developed from a physical standpoint, and programs aren’t willing to take a chance on a kid who doesn’t hit the minimum standards.
Neither of those were the knock on Luton. He grew up in Marysville, Washington – not far from Seattle – and at 6-5, 215, towered above all of his teammates at 3A Marysville-Pilchuck High. By the time most players attract college interest, Luton was already clocking a baseball at 90 miles-per-hour and throwing one of the tightest spirals in the area.
Then again, how good is a gun if it never comes out of the box?
Marysville-Pilchuck’s Wing-T offense put points on the board, but it didn’t demand much of Luton’s arm, especially with the state’s top rusher, future UW corner Austin Joyner, in the Tomahawks backfield.
It wasn’t rare for M-P coaches to call fewer than 10 designed pass plays in a single game. Of course, that didn’t give Luton much content for his recruiting tapes and he finished his senior season with only 1,300 passing yards.
“I’m humble enough to go back and look at my high school film and there’s just not a lot there,” Luton said. “You go watch some of these high school kids, these four- or five-star recruits and they’re very polished and they’re great pocket passers and they have great presence and they’re good players. And that wasn’t something I didn’t necessarily have.”
Luton grew up a diehard fan of the local team, UW, and would’ve been OK turning in his allegiance to the Huskies if it meant a scholarship at WSU. Mike Leach’s patented Air Raid is always seeking out big-time gunslingers and Luton, with a rocket for a right arm, seemed like a natural fit.
But the Huskies didn’t budge and though the Cougars knew about Luton, they already had another QB in mind. After last Saturday’s triple-overtime thriller in Pullman, it’s tough to say they made the wrong call choosing Tyler Hilinski.
“We’re pretty happy with him,” Leach said Monday.
So the staff a few miles down the road lucked out when Luton appeared on their front porch for a camp in Moscow. The Vandals saw Luton release a football and didn’t wait long to pull their own trigger.
“Physically, he’s got just such a live arm,” said Erickson, now the head coach at Lake City High. “We got to see him live and coach (Paul) Petrino and myself were like, we’ve got to offer this kid. This kid’s got special intangibles and he’s got great feet and he’s athletic for as big as he is.”
But Luton was hamstrung again when he arrived in Moscow. Not by the offensive system – Petrino’s operation is passer-friendly – but by the depth chart. Matt Linehan was the coach’s first QB signee at Idaho and simply by getting there a year earlier, he had an edge on Luton. And to his credit, Linehan posted some of the best numbers in school history by an Idaho freshman in 2014.
“It was his job to lose and Matt didn’t lose it,” Erickson said.
Luton still dazzled in practice and completed passes in four games during the 2015 season. Teammates began to playfully call him “golden arm.” They didn’t have a similar nickname for the starter.
But Luton wasn’t thrilled with the idea of being a career backup, so he contemplated a transfer.
“That next year, I was the guy for most of (2016) spring ball,” said Luton, who got a majority of the reps with Linehan injured. “I tried to go out there and win the spot and it didn’t look like that was how it was going to pan out. … I decided to gamble on myself and tried to go the (junior college) route.”
Luton’s leap of faith landed him at Ventura College in southern California. The Pirates vowed to use Luton’s right arm – almost to a point of exhaustion – and had him throwing “40, 50, 60 times per game,” he said. Luton set Ventura records for season and career passing yards (3,551) and touchdowns (40 TDs) on his way to becoming a Junior College All-American.
“That’s just a testament to Jake Luton … you never know what happens when you go to a JC,” Erickson said.
On Oct. 18, 2016, 30 minutes before midnight, Luton announced he’d received his first Pac-12 offer. He committed to Oregon State less than 24 hours later and signed his letter of intent with the Beavers in December. Luton outplayed every other signal-caller during spring camp and needed just a week in the fall to clinch the starting job.
The big right arm can’t hide anymore.
From this Saturday until the last week of November, he’ll be playing major college football every seven days. Luton and the Beavers (1-2, 0-0) still have some kinks to work out on offense, but through three games, he’s completed 61 percent of his passes for 674 yards – by no means a horrendous start.
“He’s the starting quarterback for a Pac-12 team,” Erickson said. “He took kind of an interesting path, but he’s very fortunate to have this opportunity and I think he’d tell you the same thing.”
Well, Luton might use “grateful,” but it still gets the point across.