Commentary: Post-spring practice quarterback comfort rankings (because the backups matter, too)
May 15, 2023 Updated Mon., May 15, 2023 at 4:42 p.m.
The unprecedented attention heaped on the Pac-12’s stellar lineup of quarterbacks is ever-so-slightly misguided. A portion of that spotlight should be directed at what lies in the shadows. At the understudies. The second stringers.
There’s more to quarterback play than the quality of the starter, and the Hotline’s Quarterback Comfort Quotient (QBCQ) attempts to address the depth across the conference. Teams with solid options if their starter is injured stand the best chance to navigate the season.
Welcome to the second QBCQ rankings of 2023. We’ll publish a third and final edition at the close of training camp.
(Note: Previous school is listed for 2023 transfers.)
Projected starter: Michael Penix Jr.
Top reserves: Dylan Morris, Austin Mack
Comment: No team is better prepared to navigate the season than the Huskies, who have one of the top starters in the nation, Penix, and an experienced backup. Morris owns 489 career attempts in 22 games, and most of those came during the Stone Age offense deployed by the previous coaching staff. The version of Morris on display in an emergency situation in 2023 would be vastly more effective than the edition we saw as a starter in 2020-21. Oh, and Mack is an elite talent at the third-string level. Previous: 1
Projected starter: Caleb Williams
Top reserves: Miller Moss, Malachi Nelson
Comment: We give USC a slight edge over Washington when assessing Williams against Penix. But the Trojans lack experience behind the reigning Heisman Trophy winner: Moss has thrown just 27 passes over two seasons while Nelson, a former five-star prospect, is a true freshman. Granted, both are more talented than UW’s primary backup (Morris). But in desperate times, we favor a steady hand above all. Previous: 2
Projected starter: Bo Nix
Top reserves: Ty Thompson, Austin Novosad
Comment: Oregon’s quarterback room is more desirable than 90 percent of those across the Power Five but rates No. 3 in the Pac-12. At the starting level, Nix doesn’t quite match Williams; as for the backups, Thompson is entering his third season and has just 35 career attempts; and Novosad is a rookie. Also, the Ducks are breaking in a new offensive coordinator, Will Stein, while the Trojans and Huskies have the same playcallers. Previous: 3
4. Oregon State
Projected starter: DJ Uiagalelei (Clemson)
Top reserves: Ben Gulbranson, Aiden Chiles
Comment: The Beavers concluded spring practice with little clarity. Uiagalelei, the Clemson transfer, and Gulbranson, the 2022 starter, were effectively even; Chiles, a freshman, looked promising but was perhaps a half-step behind. We expect a pecking order to emerge midway through training camp, with Uiagaleli the presumptive favorite once he gets comfortable with the playbook. If Week One arrives with no separation, our skepticism will increase. Previous: 5
Projected starter: Cam Rising
Top reserves: Brandon Rose, Bryson Barnes, Nate Johnson
Comment: The greatest change in outlook for any team is a direct result of the latest news on Rising, who suffered a serious leg injury in the Rose Bowl. “Cam is ahead of schedule and on pace to be ready for game one, barring anything unforeseen,” coach Kyle Whittingham told KSL Sports this spring. The Hotline envisions a few early bumps because of time missed and won’t ignore the “unforeseen” element. But the trajectory of Rising’s recovery warrants a top-half placement in the latest QBCQ rankings. Previous: 8
Projected starter: Ethan Garbers
Top reserves: Collin Schlee (Kent State), Dante Moore
Comment: The Bruins have one of the most interesting quarterback competitions in the country with a veteran returnee (Garbers), a touted transfer (Schlee) and an elite rookie (Moore). The situation is roughly comparable to the three-man race in Corvallis, albeit with less starting experience for the returnee. Our guess is Garbers starts the season opener unless Moore leaves no doubt in training camp that he deserves the job. Previous: 4
7. Arizona State
Projected starter: Trenton Bourguet
Top reserves: Drew Pyne (Notre Dame), Jacob Conover (BYU), Jaden Rashada
Comment: The first spring under Kenny Dillingham ended with Bourguet seemingly holding the frontrunner position. Will he stave off the competition through training camp? Our view of ASU’s situation is similar to what we see in Westwood: Unless the hotshot prospect rookie (Rashada) makes a clear and compelling case, the returning veteran is a safer pick for team chemistry and roster stability than the transfer or rookie. Previous: 6
Projected starter: Jayden de Laura
Top reserves: Noah Fifita, Brayden Dorman
Comment: Little has changed for the Wildcats since our February projections, but everything has changed since the first spring under Jedd Fisch. Instead of sifting through a patchwork collection of hope and dreams, the Wildcats have clarity with their No. 1 and an obvious pecking order. So why the lower-half placement in the QBCQ? Simple: de Laura doesn’t qualify as an elite starter until he proves otherwise, and the backups are inexperienced. Previous: 7
9. Washington State
Projected starter: Cam Ward
Top reserves: John Mateer, Emmett Brown
Comment: The Cougars top our list of the teams most likely to add a transfer at this late stage – not to challenge Ward for the starting spot but to fortify the depth. Mateer has thrown two career passes; Brown, none. Even if coach Jake Dickert believes one of them possesses the skills to succeed Ward next season, the present situation is tenuous. And even if the quarterbacks still available in the transfer portal are less than ideal, WSU should consider any and all options. Previous: 10
Projected starter: Shedeur Sanders (Jackson State)
Top reserves: Ryan Staub, Kasen Weisman
Comment: Yes, Sanders dazzled in CU’s spring game. But the level of resistance provided by the gutted defense was third rate. As a result, the Hotline remains hesitant to view him as one of the Pac-12’s best. And with backup Drew Carter in the portal, the Buffaloes have no proven, semi-proven or quasi semi-proven options if Sanders is injured. At least not yet. If coach Deion Sanders adds a transfer, we’ll reassess. Previous: 9
Projected starter: Sam Jackson (TCU)
Top reserves: Fernando Mendoza
Comment: Admittedly, the Bears could have far more production than this ranking suggests. Jackson’s mobility and athleticism might be ideally suited for new playcaller Jake Spavital’s spread offense. His poise might be that of an upperclassman, not a redshirt sophomore with seven games of experience. And perhaps Mendoza lends more stability than we suspect. But for now, the lengthy list of unknowns is guiding our assessment. Previous: 11
Projected starter: Ari Patu
Top reserves: Ashton Daniels, Myles Jackson
Comment: We have no doubt that new coach Troy Taylor will squeeze the most out of his quarterbacks. But we’re equally confident that the group has limited upside, at least in Year One. Patu played sparingly for two seasons, which is one more than Daniels and two more than Jackson. The deterioration of Stanford’s quarterback room over the past half-decade is substantial. It wasn’t that long ago that the second stringer was a future NFL starter (Davis Mills). Previous: 12
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