Pac-12 parity rooted in quarterback changes at power schools
USC head coach Clay Helton talks about 'juggling' several roles during his time at USC as he speaks to reporters at the Pac-12 NCAA college football media day in Los Angeles Thursday, July 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
LOS ANGELES (AP) The Pac-12 has no clear football favorite this fall, and the biggest reason is obvious at the conference's annual Hollywood media days.
Of the 24 players invited to represent their schools from this famously pass-happy league, just one is a quarterback.
Most of the West Coast's usual powers still are uncertain who will be throwing the ball this fall. Stanford's Kevin Hogan, Southern California's Cody Kessler, Oregon's Vernon Adams, California's Jared Goff, Utah's Travis Wilson and Arizona State's Mike Bercovici are all gone.
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In fact, only four teams – UCLA, Washington, Colorado and Washington State – have clear returning starters.
Arizona's Rich Rodriguez is among the coaches who believe a quarterback competition takes place every week, which is why the prolific Anu Solomon isn't guaranteed to be his starter.
Other coaches, including USC's Clay Helton, value the leadership of an established starter – if they can just pick one.
''I've played quarterback, and I've coached the position,'' said Helton, who plans to choose between Max Browne and Sam Darnold two weeks before the season opener. ''I know that your team wants to know who the leader is, going into that first game.''
In a league stacked with talented tailbacks, the turnover behind center in the so-called Conference of Quarterbacks is glaring – and intriguing. New stars will be made this fall, but the holdovers could be the biggest ones of all.
UCLA was picked over USC as the preseason favorite in the South division, and star sophomore Josh Rosen might be the main reason. Washington also has sophomore Jake Browning back behind center, and the Huskies are expected to be Stanford's greatest challenge for the North division title.
Helton, the Trojans' former quarterbacks coach, will name a replacement for Kessler, his durable three-year starter, in time to prepare for the Trojans' brutal opener against Alabama.
Browne, a redshirt junior who has already graduated from USC, is widely expected to get the first shot, but Darnold is making things complicated.
''The separation between Max and Sam Darnold was not great,'' Helton said. ''If we talk about competing at every position, it's got to be the quarterback position also.''
Stanford is the preseason media poll's pick to win another league title, but the Cardinal didn't come out of spring ball with a clear successor to Hogan. Keller Chryst and Ryan Burns will continue their competition next month – even if their biggest responsibility might be handing off to star tailback Christian McCaffrey.
Across the Bay, California has the unenviable task of replacing Goff, the three-year starter and subsequent No. 1 pick.
Chase Forrest was the front-runner heading into spring ball, but coach Sonny Dykes said he ended up ''neck-and-neck'' with redshirt freshman Ross Bowers. Dykes is excited to add freshman Victor Viramontes to the competition next month, indicating nobody has an advantage.
''The good thing is we have some very viable options,'' Dykes said. ''We're going to need to make a relatively quick decision, figure out who the guy is going to be, build a football team around him and his strengths, and go out and win.''
Oregon must replace Adams after his up-and-down single season. Coach Mark Helfrich landed Montana State graduate Dakota Prukop as a transfer to compete alongside Travis Jonsen and Terry Wilson.
''We had three guys in spring ball that were very similar and completely different,'' Helfrich said. ''(Prukop) has played a lot of football, but you could see those wheels turning (in practice). Sometimes they were all trying to win the job with that next throw, and that's the worst thing.''
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham plans an open competition to replace Wilson, saying Brandon Cox, Tyler Huntley and Troy Williams all have a real shot at the job.
''We did not really see much separation, so that competition will continue this fall,'' Whittingham said. ''The biggest question is the quarterback position, just because it's unsolved. Not that we're worried about that position, but there's no pecking order established yet.''
Even at schools with returning experience, there will be competition. Rodriguez pointedly declined to guarantee the starting job to Solomon over Brandon Dawkins, even after Solomon passed for 6,460 yards and 48 touchdowns in his first two seasons.
''We have, in my opinion, two returning starters,'' Rodriguez said. ''We'll see who wins the job. I hope both of them prove that we can win with them, and we'll play both of them throughout the year.''