The Pac-12 is filled with talented quarterbacks, but the future is bright with its golden four: Jake Browning, Josh Rosen, Sam Darnold and Justin Herbert.
The Pac-12 has the most talented group of quarterbacks in all of college football.
That isn’t meant to detract from Deshaun Watson, Lamar Jackson, Brett Rypien or any other non-Pac-12 quarterback. Simply put, the conference has the best collection of passers.
Davis Webb and Luke Falk are both ranked in the top five in multiple passing categories through nine weeks. This is Webb’s last shot at the college level, and Falk will likely leave early. Even with both of them likely headed for the NFL, the conference could be home to four of the nation’s top five quarterbacks next season. Let’s call them the Golden Four of the Pac-12.
Six Pac-12 quarterbacks have been drafted in the last two years, which matches the amount the conference had drafted in the previous five drafts. There’s a trend. And if you’re looking for the next crop of talented gunslingers, look no further than right here.
Wow. Don’t take anything away from the defense Chris Petersen has put together. But Jake Browning has been unbelievable. The leaps he’s made from his freshman season to his sophomore year are incredible. He’s No. 2 nationally in passer rating (195.61), No. 3 in passing touchdowns (28), No. 11 in completion percentage (67.7 percent) and No. 3 in yards per attempt (9.9).
There were only four games last season in which he threw multiple touchdowns. This season, Browning’s worst passing performances came on the road at Arizona (14-of-21, 160 yards, two touchdowns, one interception) and on the road at Utah (12-of-20, 186 yards, two touchdowns, one interception). But Washington won both games.
Browning has a 9:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, the second best ratio in the FBS (Zach Terrell – 20:1). And there are few quarterbacks — let alone sophomores — capable of moving defenders with their eyes like he can. He has enough arm strength to hit every throw on the route tree, while also exhibiting excellent touch and accuracy.
The Huskies have done a great job of creating a comfortable pocket for Browning, but when he’s been flushed, he’s kept his eyes down the field and was able to make plays with his feet. He’s not Lamar Jackson. He won’t rush for 100 yards. But that doesn’t matter if he’s throwing for 300 yards.
There are glimpses of Aaron Rodgers in his film. He’s athletic and accurate on the run like Rodgers is, but he doesn’t quite have the arm the former Cal quarterback has — though very few players do. Mostly, it’s the pocket presence that draws the comparison. Their footwork within the pocket is similar. Browning will very likely be a top-10 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.
There are few quarterbacks who can walk in and start from Day 1, and Josh Rosen is of that breed. There seemed to be an aura surrounding him when he got to UCLA. Aside from the off-the-field star power he carries — like having a hot tub in the dorm room — Rosen plays with that “bigger than the game” mentality, and it’s phenomenal. He is currently dealing with an injury to his right shoulder, so we have to wait and see how he responds. When 100 percent, the guy is electric.
Some critics have soured on Rosen, claiming sophomore slump, but the problem isn’t with him, it’s with nearly unattainable expectations. After he started 13 games and completed 60 percent of his passes for 3,669 yards and 23 touchdowns, we all sort of expected him to take the next step forward. But it’s not as though he’s taken a step back. In six games, he’s completed 59.3 percent of his passes for 1,915 yards and 10 touchdowns. He threw 11 picks last year and has five this season. Before suffering this injury, Rosen was on pace for the exact same season he had in 2015, and that’s okay. Frankly, with how UCLA’s season has gone this season, it’s best for Rosen to sit out until he’s completely healthy because, at 3-5, the Bruins aren’t doing much.
Watch the tape and you’ll see a quarterback prodigy. He has a big arm and fling it down the field with minimal effort. Rosen can place the ball where only his guy will get it. Like Browning, he can flip a switch and go from the deep ball to throwing with such a soft touch that he would have to physically hand it to his receiver to make the grab any easier. Plus, the pocket presence he possesses like a sixth sense. Again, like Browning, Rosen isn’t super athletic, but he’s mobile. He can pull the ball down and get across the sticks when he needs to do it.
The comparison for Rosen isn’t as simple as it is with Browning. His bounce in the pocket and release are reminiscent of Peyton Manning, but his skill set is closer to Carson Palmer’s. Rosen has had “top-10 pick” written across his forehead since he signed his National Letter of Intent with UCLA.
Coach Clay Helton deserves a ton of credit for having the stones to sit Max Browne and roll with Sam Darnold as the starter. USC is 3-1 since the move was made, and it is in large part due to Darnold. In those four games, the redshirt freshman has completed 67.4 percent of his passes for 1,565 yards and 18 touchdowns to three interceptions. Just as important has been the revival of playmaker JuJu Smith-Schuster. Since Darnold took over the job, Smith-Schuster has been on fire with 35 catches for 532 yards and six touchdowns.
He’s protected the ball, picked his spots well and extended drives for the Trojans. Darnold is No. 7 in passer rating (173.06), No. 11 in yards per attempt (8.9) and No. 13 in completion percentage (67.4 percent) — again, after five games as the starter.
There’s still a lot of football left to be played, but damn it if Darnold hasn’t looked like a young Eli Manning in the brief amount of time he’s been on the field. The pocket presence is near congruent. The wind-up and deliveries are similar. The arm strength is close to Manning’s, too; however Darnold is a little more athletic than the former Ole Miss gunslinger. One of the key traits Darnold has is, like Manning, he doesn’t panic under pressure. That’s an invaluable quality for any quarterback.
Justin Herbert is obviously the greenest quarterback in this group, but he’s looked solid in games he’s played in. Mark Helfrich chose to start Herbert against Washington, one of the stingiest defenses in the league and a College Football Playoff candidate. Herbert held his own and completed 21-of-34 passes for 179 yards, two touchdowns and a pick.
The true freshman really came out of his shell in the double-overtime loss on the road at Cal, completing 22-of-40 passes for 258 yards, six touchdowns and an interception. Oregon trailed, 31-14, at halftime, but then Herbert started to get it going. He led back-to-back touchdown drives in two minutes, 48 seconds for a total of 97 yards on 10 plays. A 44-yard drive capped by a six-yard touchdown pass to Charles Nelson began the fourth quarter, and Herbert found Nelson for a 42-yard touchdown to tie the game with 3:15 left. He was picked off in the second overtime to seal the win for the Golden Bears, but that was still a helluva performance by a true freshman.
The following week he proceeded to lead the Ducks to a 54-35 win against Arizona State by connecting on 31-of-42 passes for 489 yards and four touchdowns. In that contest, the former 3-star recruit tied Bill Musgrave’s school record for passing yards in a single game.
Herbert is not the same kind of athlete, but there are some definite similarities to Marcus Mariota in terms of their pocket presence the way each works the hit and throw. There are also glimpses of Ryan Tannehill with his throwing motion. As he adds arm strength and improves on leading his receivers, Herbert will be an exciting prospect to watch for the next couple of years.
As is the case with every college prospect, the organization and atmosphere drafting the player will have a huge impact on his pro success. But all four quarterbacks are setting themselves up for a big season in 2017. Browning, Rosen and Darnold will be hot commodities in the 2018 NFL draft, while Herbert will have to make his play for the 2019 draft.
Until they walk across the stage, though, they’ll continue to prove the Pac-12 is the nation’s premier quarterback conference.