Ranking the likely Pac-12 quarterback starters ahead of 2022 season
Since Marcus Mariota was a first-team AP All-American selection in 2014, the Pac-12 hasn’t had a quarterback placed on even the third-team any year since. And this past month, for just the third time in the last 52 draft classes, the NFL Draft opened and closed without a Pac-12 quarterback being taken.
This is a league that has consistently provided upper-echelon quarterbacks, and yet it has experienced something of a down period since Justin Herbert left Eugene. Quarterback play across the league was down last season. The leading passer in the conference was the 35th passer in the country in terms of overall yardage. The conference’s most efficient player didn’t draw national acclaim.
As the league hopes to end its College Football Playoff exile this upcoming season, getting improved play across the board from that position will go a long way in helping the overall perception of the league. Fortunately, it looks like the floor could be pretty high in 2022, and the ceiling could be “Heisman finalist” for more than one player. The NFL Draft shutout, while problematic, is also a bit of a red herring. Ten of the league’s 12 starting quarterbacks last season will be at the college level again next season.
Cameron Rising returns to Utah and Dorian Thompson-Robinson is back at UCLA. Tanner McKee (Stanford) and Chance Nolan (Oregon State) are back after decent seasons last year. Jayden de Laura (Arizona) jumped into the transfer portal but remained in the Pac-12.
USC, Oregon, Arizona State, Washington State, California, and potentially Washington will all have transfers from outside of the league at the quarterback position when the season opens.
We could experience a bit of a quarterback renaissance on the West Coast in 2022.
As things stand now, here’s how we’d rank the league’s quarterbacks.
(One point worth noting before getting started: this isn’t a ranking of each room, just the projected starter. The Mercury News’ Jon Wilner offered up the former earlier this week and it’s certainly worth the read.)
No. 12: Brendon Lewis, Colorado
To help provide a backbone for this ranking, I created some composite scores for each of the other 11 quarterbacks in the league and Washington’s three options based on 2021 performance. The first of those scores was heavily influenced by QBR, PFF grade, and traditional quarterback rating, weighted to value QBR more. The second factored in yards per play (passing and running), EPA per play, big-time throws per turnover-worthy plays (both tracked by PFF), points produced per play, and interception rate.
Lewis came in 12th out of the 14 quarterbacks in both the grade and production composite scores. The Texas native played in just one game during the 2020 season—the Alamo Bowl against Texas—and looked promising. He sparked a big play and was efficient with his pass attempts. In 2021, he struggled. The blame doesn’t all rest on the quarterback’s shoulders considering he played behind a maddeningly inconsistent offensive line, but Lewis completed less than 60% of his pass attempts and very rarely looked downfield. It still feels like his job to lose with JT Shrout coming off a knee injury and Houston transfer Maddox Kopp needing a bit more time to develop. How does a new offensive coordinator help massage all the offensive departures? Colorado had the fourth-worst passing success rate in all of football last season, so it’s a pretty tall task.
No. 11: the Washington starter
It could be Michael Penix Jr. and probably will be. It could be Sam Huard. It could still be Dylan Morris, a former 5-star and 11-time starter last season. Across the Pac-12, there are quarterback competitions and there are in-name-only quarterback competitions. At Washington, this might be the truest competition there is. Huard looked like the best option in the spring game, but that was one of 15 practices and the coaching staff left the spring period not yet ready to name a starter. Morris has the advantage of having been the starter for most of last year, but with a new coaching staff and a new system, that advantage is somewhat watered down. Penix has the advantage of having played in this system for this coach—Kalen DeBoer was his OC at Indiana in 2019—but has an awful lot of question marks. The Washington trio had three of the four worst scores of the group in both the grade and production composites. DeBoer has a solid foundation of talent to work with in Seattle, but he has a lot of work in front of him. The quarterback spot is a big question mark heading into the year.
No. 10: Jack Plummer, California
Jack Plummer has only seen two of his 251 pass attempts intercepted over the last two seasons. During that time, he has also tossed 15 touchdown passes. The former Purdue Boilermaker played in a quarterback-friendly system with some elite pass-catchers around him, but the coaching staff in Indiana never seemed ready to fully commit. Three different quarterbacks (Plummer included) threw at least 100 passes in 2019, then both he and Aidan O’Connell split time in 2020 and 2021. Eventually, O’Connell wrestled the position away last season and led Purdue to wins in five of its last six games, prompting Plummer to head for the exit as a grad transfer. He’ll have two years to play for the Golden Bears and comes over with a chance to give an offense that has struggled mightily in years past some air. It just remains to be seen how much of an upgrade this is over what Cal has had, if at all.
No. 9: Emory Jones, Arizona State
The former Florida passer is a tough one to place. He’s middle of the pack in the grade composite and bottom of the table in the production composite. At Florida, Jones was the primary driver for a team that wildly underperformed and lost its coach. Then, when he decided to transfer away from the program, there seemed a sense of relief that Anthony Richardson—Jones’ backup last year, and a dynamic one at that—would finally get his shot. At Arizona State, he fits pretty nicely into what the Sun Devils want their quarterback to do, perhaps providing a more seamless transition from Jayden Daniels to the new era than what Paul Tyson or Trenton Bourguet could have provided. No doubt Arizona State is better off now than it was a month ago with Jones on board. And perhaps the transfer was truly the best move for both Jones and Florida. This might be one of the few situations where it works out for all parties involved. Maybe Jones can find some consistency with a schedule that won’t include vaunted SEC defenses. Against top-50 defenses last season, Jones completed 63% of his passes with six touchdowns and six interceptions while producing 6.9 yards per pass. Against all other defenses, his completion rate was almost five percentage points higher, he was at nearly a 2:1 touchdown to interception ratio, and his yards-per-pass clip was at 9.1
No. 8: Chance Nolan, Oregon State
Oregon State pursued Georgia transfer JT Daniels this offseason, ultimately missing out on his services in a battle with West Virginia. That the Beavers were in on another quarterback was interesting. Chance Nolan returns after starting in 12 of the team’s 13 games last season. He completed 64% of his passes for 19 touchdowns and 2,677 yards against 10 interceptions. Nolan finished the season as the Pac-12’s third-best quarterback by QBR, behind Utah’s Cameron Rising and UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson. A season-long 70.9 QBR was the best mark by a qualified Oregon State quarterback since 2013. He was excellent on throws within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, but will look to show a bit more on the intermediate-to-deep stuff in 2022. Nolan finished with the fifth-best score in the grade composite but had only the 10th-best production score.
No. 7: Bo Nix, Oregon
In my estimation, if Oregon is great in 2022 it’ll be because of a bruising offensive line, a stout defense, and a passing game that doesn’t turn the ball over. In three years as a starter for the Auburn Tigers, Nix produced over 7,000 passing yards and 39 touchdowns against 16 interceptions. He had moments of brilliance mixed with stretches of bewilderment. In those three seasons, he had 44 turnover-worthy plays, as tracked by PFF. That was by far the most among SEC quarterbacks since 2019 and one more than what Anthony Brown had in his first three seasons as a starter. Nix showed growth last season before an ankle injury forced him to the sideline. At Oregon, reuniting with new OC Kenny Dillingham—his offensive coordinator at Auburn in 2019—the hope is Nix can be what Oregon needs. He has yet to finish a season with a completion rate north of 61%, which is an area to keep an eye on, but Nix only had three turnovers last season after at least six in each of his first two years. In fact, among the 14 quarterbacks on the board, his interception rate last season was the second-best mark. That kind of player will do well at Oregon. Can he be that player for an entire season?
No. 6: Tanner McKee, Stanford
Draft Twitter’s favorite quarterback prospect. The 6-foot-6 McKee is slight of frame but has the size teams look for. He’s experienced, now in his third year in the system. He plays with nice timing in the short passing game, has good touch on his intermediate throws, and can really drive the ball on his deep stuff. In my composite scores, he was ninth in both categories. Personal bias gives him a slight bump up the board. McKee flashes potential but isn’t consistent enough with it. Part of that is the inconsistency of the offensive line in front of him. Still, if he were available on the open market you’d see quite the bidding war for his services.
No. 5: Jayden de Laura, Arizona
No player in the Pac-12 had more big-time throws (per PFF) than de Laura did at Washington State last season. And no Pac-12 quarterback with at least 20 pass attempts had a better big-time throw rate. Arizona’s new quarterback can create highlight plays and he hit the deep ball at a respectable rate. The Wildcats should be significantly improved in 2022 and de Laura will be a big reason why. How that translates to the record remains to be seen. Arizona is hoping de Laura, who threw nine interceptions last season, can be a little more protective of the ball. That’ll certainly help.
No. 4: Cameron Ward, Washington State
The FCS transfer looks like a budding star. Cameron Ward went 21-for-30 on his pass attempts in Washington State’s spring game, totaling 246 yards and four scores. All this guy does is toss touchdown passes. In 2021, he threw 47 of them. In terms of per-play point production, only Caleb Williams and Dorian Thompson-Robinson were more prolific than Ward was on a football field. Of course, the question that poses is obvious: the latter two did it against Power Five competition while Ward performed against FCS opponents at Incarnate Word, so how does it translate up to the next level? It looks like the Cougars are going to throw the ball all over the yard and Ward has the skillset to really shine.
No. 3: Dorian Thompson-Robinson, UCLA
From No. 4 on through No. 8 or No. 9, you’ll probably see a ton of differing opinions on who should be where. But there is a clear top-three in the Pac-12. Thompson-Robinson had the third-best score in both composites. It was a strong year in 2021 across the board, with an exceptional closing stretch. Thompson-Robinson finished the year third in the Pac-12 in yards per play, second in EPA per play, and first in per-play point production. The interception rate was a little high, but in terms of decision-making, the Thompson-Robinson that seems to stick in the minds of most—the sophomore DTR—is not the same player UCLA gets now. As a fifth-year starter next fall, he should give the Bruin offense a super high floor.
No. 2: Cameron Rising, Utah
Typically you want to put the known commodity ahead of the more unknown one. As a player who has led his team to the top of this league, Cameron Rising is a more-than-deserving No. 1 if that’s how you want to rank things. But here he is at No. 2. Please don’t take that as a slight. He’s an exceptional quarterback with a chance to reach even higher heights with the Utes in 2022. He was the only quarterback I looked at that ranked top-four in all five of the production categories used. He had the fourth-best interception rate (1.6%) and per-play point production (0.4), the third-best yards-per-play clip (7.6), the second-best EPA-per-play clip (0.184), and the most big-time throws per turnover-worthy plays (2.9).
No. 1: Caleb Williams, USC
Looking at the numbers used, there was no other answer for No. 1. Williams took over for Oklahoma as a true freshman in his team’s most important game of the year—its annual showdown with Texas in the Cotton Bowl. Williams led the second-largest comeback in program history. From then on, he was the guy, supplanting former 5-star prospect and preseason Heisman favorite Spencer Rattler. He finished with the fourth-best QBR in the country last year. In terms of the 14 quarterbacks I looked at, he had the best yards-per-play clip (8.1), the best EPA-per-play clip (0.185), the best per-play point production (0.6), and the second-most big-time throws per turnover-worthy plays (2.1). Williams is a Heisman favorite entering the new year. He’s the clear-cut No. 1 for his team and by the time the season begins, he will have spent the entire offseason as such. That’s valuable for a quarterback. He can make every throw. He can hurt teams with his legs and his pocket awareness. We’ll see how he can handle the pressure now on USC to win and win big, but Williams has been incredibly forthcoming about the role being the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft played in his transfer process, so it doesn’t seem like pressure is something that really bothers him. He feels like a guy with the exact kind of skillset and temperament to be the next L.A. star.