Pac-12 quarterback battles continue into summer

With spring practices all wrapped up, Pac-12 coaches got on a conference call Monday to answer questions. They covered a range of topics, and each school has its own unique situation heading into the offseason, but one thing seemed to keep coming up: quarterback battles.

Half the 12 teams enter the summer with an unsettled quarterback situation, and save Oregon State, each will open the 2013 season with an untested signal caller. Here’s a look at where the quarterback battles around the Pac-12 stand after spring practice and how they might shake out come fall.

ARIZONA

Departed: Matt Scott, who threw for 3,620 yards and 27 touchdowns in his senior season.

The candidates: Senior B.J. Denker, Junior Jesse Scroggins, Freshman Anu Solomon
Leading: Denker.

Outlook: Denker is leading by default right now after Scroggins missed most of the spring with a foot injury; Solomon, a highly touted recruit, has yet to arrive in Tucson. Denker, who played in six games last year, has the benefit of experience, but that may be the extent of his advantage. Scroggins, a former USC quarterback, has a better-regarded arm but must gain a better understanding of Rich Rodriguez’s offensive system.

“I’ve been really pleased with way he’s jumped in and tried to learn the system,” Rodriguez said. “It’s going to be an important summer — he’ll be on his own. We’ll see what he can learn, and then when August gets here, he’s going to be right in the mix, and we’ll see how quickly he can pick it up.”

Solomon is thought to be the quarterback of the future at UA, and if he adjusts to the college game quickly, he might have a shot to start at some point in 2012, but it seems more likely he will redshirt in 2013. That could make the 2013 starter more of a stopgap option.

It’s unlikely any of the candidates can match Scott’s production from a year ago, so UA must determine which quarterback offers the smallest step back.

CALIFORNIA

Departed: Zach Maynard, who left Cal after a mediocre junior season.

The candidates: Redshirt freshman Zach Kline, Freshman Jared Goff, Junior Austin Hinder.

Leading: Kline.

Outlook: The buzz is that Kline moved to the front of the pack by the end of spring practice, but first-year Cal coach Sonny Dykes did not tip his hand.

“There were days you would walk off the field and say, ‘OK, Zach Kline’s the guy,’ and then the next day you’d go and say, ‘Wow, Jared Goff’s the guy,’ and then Austin Hinder would make a run,” Dykes said. “I don’t think anybody solidified the position really during the spring.”

Much like the situation Todd Graham faced when taking over at Arizona State last year, this one should be interesting to watch come fall camp. Each has his strengths, and Cal could end up using multiple quarterbacks with certain packages, but Dykes seems to want one guy. Whoever that guy is, Dykes knows there will be a learning curve. Accordingly, he wants to get his quarterback competition settled as quickly as possible.

“The best thing would be if one guy really improves over the summer and takes over the job a week into camp,” Dykes said. “I think we’re going to need to make a decision by practice 12, practice 15 probably at the latest. We’re hoping somebody is the clear-cut winner.”

COLORADO

Departed: Jordan Webb, a senior who was the primary starter last season and was competing to start again until a torn ACL in spring practice ended his 2013 season before it started.

The candidates: Junior Connor Wood, Redshirt Freshman Shane Dillon, Freshman Sefo Liufau.

Leading:
Wood.

Outlook: This race got a whole lot clearer when junior Nick Hirschman decided to leave Colorado, having promised himself he would do so if he did not win the job outright in spring practice. He had been about even with Wood.

The job now seems to be Wood’s to lose. He impressed new coach Mike MacIntyre, who said he’s counting on Wood to be a leader in summer practices when coaches aren’t allowed on the field.

“We’re definitely looking for Connor to do that,” MacIntyre said. “The quarterbacks are the biggest leaders when it comes to organizing things and putting things in place.”

That sounds like a starting quarterback’s duties. But it’s not that simple. Dillon didn’t perform as expected this spring and might come back in the fall better positioned to compete for the job. Freshman Sefo Liufau could also arrive and make a run at the top job and might be the best fit in MacIntyre’s offense.

With Colorado unlikely to win many games in the Pac-12 next season MacIntyre could also decide to build for the future by going with one of his younger options in Dillon or Liufau, but it seems likely Wood will be quarterbacking at the season’s start.

OREGON STATE

Departed: No one.

The candidates: Junior Sean Mannion, Senior Cody Vaz.

Leading: No one.

Outlook: The Beavers’ quarterback competition is different than the rest in that it features no new candidates. Vaz and Mannion started at separate times last year to varying success, often leaving coach Mike Riley to monitor a quarterback battle from week to week. But the coach put a positive spin on his particular situation.

“What’s going on … is real good for the Beavers,” Riley said. “We’ve got two kids that can win. They can both go in, and they normally always function pretty darn well.”

The old ‘good problem to have’ idea can seem like a cop out, but in this instance it’s fair. Both quarterbacks helped the Beavers win games last year and both could do so again in 2013. Riley would like to enter fall camp with a little more clarity, but that might not be possible with as closely as the two competed this spring.

“We’re just now getting to spend time evaluating spring and where we’re going to head in the fall,” Riley said. “We’ll take a good look at who might be ahead. That will be very difficult to say, and we may carry this competition in fall camp.

“Right now I’ll just say we’re pleased with both of them. They both had very good springs, and I think they both got a little bit better.”

USC

Departed: Matt Barkley, who racked up 3,273 passing yards and 36 touchdowns in his senior season.

The candidates: Redshirt Sophomore Max Wittek, Redshirt Sophomore Cody Kessler, Freshman Max Browne.

Leading: Kessler.

Outlook: While coach Lane Kiffin insisted after the Trojans’ spring game that neither Wittek nor Kessler had separated himself in the competition, Kessler impressed the most through spring practice. He was consistent and polished. Still, Kiffin didn’t offer any words of favoritism.

“I really think all three had great springs and really did a lot of things well,” Kiffin said. “It’s going to be an exciting competition.”

Wittek is more of a prototypical quarterback in size (6-foot-4) and arm strength, while Kessler is smaller (6-foot-1) and seems to rely more on savvy. Browne is still learning but is positioning himself to be the quarterback of the future at USC.

It has been suggested Kiffin prefers Wittek and would like to see him win the job in the fall. There’s really no way to tell if that’s accurate, and either way, it doesn’t hurt for Kiffin to keep the competition going. USC doesn’t need a starting quarterback any time soon, and Kiffin is going to take as long as he needs to name his team’s next signal caller.

“Whenever it shows itself, it will show itself,” Kiffin said. “We want to make sure we make the right decision and it’s a fair process. There is no timeframe.”

UTAH

Departed: Jordan Wynn, who retired during his junior season after suffering his fourth shoulder injury.

The candidates: Sophomore Travis Wilson, Sophomore Adam Schulz.

Leading: Wilson.

Outlook: This battle remains unsettled, but Wilson emerged as the front-runner during Utah’s spring game.

“I thought he put some separation between himself and Adam,” coach Kyle Whittingham said after the scrimmage. “The competition to be the starter is by no means over, but it’s obvious that Travis has improved significantly from the end of the season to now.”

Schulz might have superior arm strength, but Wilson seems to be doing all the little things well — escaping pressure, not turning the ball over, hitting receivers in stride. Those are the things that usually win in a quarterback competition. Mistake-free football is at a premium in the Pac-12.