Gold: Predicting the Pac-12's starting quarterbacks in 2023
Don’t look now, but the Pac-12 just may boast the best arsenal of aerial attacks this side of Boeing.
The league has launchers, that’s for sure. Between the reigning Heisman winner (USC’s Caleb Williams) and the nation’s leading passer (Washington’s Michael Penix), the country’s best dual-threat (Oregon’s Bo Nix) and one of its toughest leaders (Utah’s Cam Rising), the conference is sitting pretty. More than half of the league has its starting roles locked up, and another quarter of the league has got to feel like it’s in a pretty good place.
Some major question marks loom, though. Does Dante Moore seize the starting job at UCLA for the foreseeable future? Could Kenny Dillingham add another impact player to the QB room? All will be revealed come training camp.
Here’s a look at my picks for the Pac-12’s preeminent passers in 2023…
Arizona: Jayden de Laura
After transferring to Arizona coming off a Pac-12 offensive freshman of the year honor at Washington State, expectations were huge for de Laura in Tucson. Did he deliver on those expectations? That’s debatable. His 3,685 yards and 25 touchdowns were terrific. His 62.5 completion percentage and 13 interceptions were not, and both were regressions from his 2021 campaign. His quarterback rating was marginally better, improving from 144.8 to 146.7.
Unfortunately, in a year in which a rotating door of Pac-12 quarterbacks dominated the national conversation, de Laura’s efforts were overlooked. He formed an instant rapport with Dorian Singer, Jacob Cowing and Tetairoa McMillan, with the 3 top targets combining for nearly 2,900 of his yards. Now Singer is off to USC, so de Laura will need to make even better use of Cowing and T-Mac.
Arizona State: Drew Pyne
Much like the guy he’ll have to beat out for the starting gig with the Sun Devils, Pyne was a better-than-average replacement for Tyler Buchner, once the Notre Dame starter was sidelined with injury. Pyne passed for 2,021 yards and 22 touchdowns with 6 interceptions last year, including 318 yards and 3 scores with a pick in a regular season-ending loss to USC in the Los Angeles Coliseum. After the Irish were left for dead following a slow start last season, Pyne led them back to respectability.
The same can’t be said for Trenton Bourguet, who took over the starting role for the injured Emory Jones and had a huge day in an upset come-from-behind win over Washington. Bourguet couldn’t continue his winning ways, but he ended up with a respectable line by the end of the year, and he’ll be in the thick of the quarterback race.
Of course, things could take a really interesting turn if the Sun Devils land former Florida signee Jaden Rashada.
Cal: Sam Jackson
After a brutal offseason in which they lost both Jack Plummer and Kai Millner to the transfer portal, Cal bounced back with a big transfer in former TCU backup Sam Jackson. Jackson barely saw the field the last two years for the Horned Frogs, but with Max Duggan’s star turn this year, no one can be surprised.
He comes to Cal and instantly slots in as the most talented quarterback on the roster, though. The former 4-star recruit has some talented weapons, particularly running back Jaydn Ott and wideout Jeremiah Hunter — though the loss of J. Michael Sturdivant to UCLA stings — so Cal’s offense should be improved in 2023.
Colorado: Shedeur Sanders
For all the hype that Travis Hunter deservedly received in transferring from Jackson State to Colorado, Coach Prime’s son may be the more important piece of the puzzle. A former 4-star prospect who unsurprisingly chose to make waves with his commitment to his former HBCU home, Sanders was terrific for the Tigers, passing for 3,732 yards and 40 touchdowns with just 6 interceptions while adding 6 rushing scores.
Of course, the big question is if Sanders can handle the increased competition he’ll see at Colorado. The Buffaloes have an absolutely brutal schedule in Coach Prime’s 1st year at the helm, and Sanders is going to have to navigate some choppy waters without the natural advantages he had at his last stop.
Oregon: Bo Nix
Before a late-season lower body injury sapped him of his dual threats, Nix was in the argument for top quarterback in the country. Through 9 games and 3 quarters, Nix had 24 touchdowns, 5 interceptions and more than 500 rushing yards with a nation-leading 14 rushing touchdowns for a quarterback.
Then he got turned around late in a 37-34 Week 11 home loss to Washington which ended Oregon’s playoff hopes, and he finished the last two games and the bowl game — a clutch 28-27 Holiday Bowl win over North Carolina — with negative-2 rushing yards on 10 attempts and no scores. If he gets his wheels back in 2023, he’ll be in the national conversation once more.
Oregon State: DJ Uiagalelei
This is going to be interesting. Ben Gulbranson seemed to galvanize the Beavers after taking over for Chance Nolan, to the point that he kept the starting gig even when Nolan appeared healthy late in the season. Was Gulbranson productive? Not so much. Did he win? Yes, very much — 7 times in 9 games, to be exact.
But in comes the former heavily touted recruit Uiagalelei from Clemson, trying to recapture the spark of his younger days. Considered the heir apparent to Trevor Lawrence, Uiagalelei never lived up to his reputation in his old digs. He has flipped coasts to come under the tutelage of Smith, a fine quarterback in his playing days and a great QB coach who nonetheless couldn’t spark the Beavers’ passing game last year. If he can flip the switch in the former 5-star, Oregon State is going to be in a great position.
Stanford: Ari Patu
Patu hasn’t seen much time behind Tanner McKee the past couple of years, but his time to shine is here. The former 4-star recruit was one of the most coveted dual-threat quarterbacks in the country as a senior, and he hails from an impressive lineage, as his father, Saul, played football for Oregon and in the NFL and his mother played softball for the Ducks.
UCLA: Dante Moore
This is going to be one of the most intriguing quarterback battles in all of college football. The duel to replace Dorian Thompson-Robinson is going to be a defining moment for Chip Kelly and the Bruins.
On the one hand, you’ve got a pair of veterans in Ethan Garbers, who backed up DTR for 2 years and performed relatively well in spot time, and Collin Schlee, the touted Kent State transfer who didn’t put up huge numbers for the Golden Flashes but nonetheless was one of the more promising passers in the portal.
On the other, you’ve got Moore, one of the most exciting UCLA quarterback commits in history, a 5-star prospect who flipped from Oregon in one of the major moves of the recruiting cycle. Kelly has turned the keys over to freshmen before, and many think Moore is just too talented to be denied.
USC: Caleb Williams
What is Williams going to do as an encore? It doesn’t get much better than his record-breaking first season at USC. The Heisman Trophy winner completed 333-of-500 passes for 4,537 yards and 42 touchdowns with 5 interceptions, rewriting the Trojans record books. He also had 382 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns.
The bar is going to be set astronomically high in 2023, but Williams had some room to improve in his accuracy and in handling pressure, as he was sacked 30 times. That’s nitpicking, though. Dude won the Heisman. With a loaded wide receiver room that got bolstered by the addition of Dorian Singer, the league’s lading receiver at Arizona, he’ll be in the mix again as he tries to become just the 2nd player to repeat as a Heisman winner.
Utah: Cam Rising
This one deserves an asterisk, as we’re still a bit unsure of Rising’s status coming off a brutal end to the 2023 season. For the second straight Rose Bowl, Rising was hurt, this time suffering a knee injury that threatens to derail his status for the season opener. That may be a doomsday scenario for Utah fans, but we’re not exactly getting weekly updates, either. The Utes don’t really have anything simmering on the backup front, either, so I’m betting Rising defies all odds and is back in the saddle early next year.
Washington: Michael Penix Jr.
If it weren’t for Caleb Williams and Bo Nix, Penix would’ve been the talk of the Pac-12 last year. Reuniting with Kalen DeBoer, the Washington 1st-year head coach who led the Huskies to great heights and served as his offensive coordinator at Indiana in 2019, Penix lit it up last year, leading the nation in passing yardage while throwing for 29 touchdowns and 7 interceptions.
With his entire cupboard returning in the passing game, it’s possible Penix tops those numbers next year. Washington had a huge offseason win with the return of Rome Odunze, who could’ve certainly dipped his toes into the NFL Draft waters. Instead, he’ll b back to bolster the Washington aerial attack and lend Penix maybe the league’s top target.
Washington State: Cameron Ward
Kind of like de Laura, who left Washington State to become Arizona’s starting quarterback and delivered mixed results, Ward was a heavily hyped transfer from Immaculate Word who also underwhelmed for the Cougars. Ward completed 320-of-497 passes for 3,231 yards and 23 touchdowns with 9 interceptions, finishing with a passer rating of 130.6 a year after tossing 47 scores and 10 picks en route to a 154.2 rating. Of course, jumping to the Pac-12 was a huge vault, but it didn’t feel like the Cougars pushed the ball down the field enough last year. Ward has a chance to really build on his numbers in 2023.