Why Pac-12 Football Turns Out the Best NFL QBs

Jeff Bell@@JrayBellCorrespondent IJuly 22, 2014

UCLA's Troy Aikman
UCLA's Troy AikmanLOU KRASKY/Associated Press

It's no secret that as we enter into the 2014 college football season, the cradle of quarterbacks is located out west in the Pac-12 (sorry, Purdue). Marcus Mariota, Brett Hundley, Sean Mannion and Taylor Kelly all look like elite signal-callers with promising professional careers ahead.

With top recruits like Ricky Town, Josh Rosen, Travis Waller and Brady White set to join the league in 2015, the trend of seeing great quarterback play from the conference of champions won't be slowing down anytime soon.

The fruits of the conference's efforts are visible in the NFL, too, with players like Aaron Rodgers and Andrew Luck holding the titles of "best quarterback" and "best young quarterback," respectively. Even former USC quarterback Carson Palmer is hanging around and producing solid play now and again.

With respect to other leagues that have also churned out multiple MVP winners, Super Bowl champions and future Hall of Famers at quarterback, what is it about the Pac-12 Conference that produces the best and most accomplished passers in the game?


Style of Offense

With all the innovation taking place in the game of football, offensive schemes are rarely categorized as simply "pro-style" or "West Coast" anymore. There are spread offenses that mix in West Coast passing schemes, up-tempo systems that occasionally slow it down and bully you up the middle and pretty much everything in between.

But when San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh unveiled the West Coast offense back in the '80s, it changed the way the game was played and directly led to much of the tremendous quarterback play we see today.

QB Aaron Rodgers
QB Aaron RodgersPAUL SAKUMA/Associated Press

Nearly every team from the current Pac-12 has run some variation of the offense in its history, and the quarterbacks produced by these systems have often gone on to have long, productive NFL careers. But at the same time, the variety of offenses out west has also helped signal-callers develop a unique skill set, and one that doesn't hinge solely on a single trait such as arm strength or mobility.

Rodgers may have benefited from the coaching styles of Jeff Tedford while at Cal, but you can go all the way back to 1970 and find Heisman Trophy winner Jim Plunkett leading the Stanford Cardinal, meaning the great play didn't begin when Walsh's 49ers began their reign.

The game has changed, of course, and Plunkett's 2,980 yards passing and 19 touchdowns in his award-winning season wouldn't draw a second glance in 2014. Heck, the strong-armed Plunkett tossed 19 interceptions the same year!

But as the game has evolved, so has the Pac-12, and after Plunkett came Oregon's Dan Fouts, who still sits in 11th place on the NFL's career passing yardage list. The next generation looks to be guys like Hundley and Mariota, both of whom play in completely different schemes than Plunkett and Fouts and, yet, have success written all over their paths ahead.

In no other league will you be able to trace the evolution of the game as well as the Pac-12, and the ever-changing offensive schemes have played a big role in the conference producing so many standout quarterbacks at the next level.


Talent-Rich Area

If you follow recruiting even a little bit, you probably know that Florida, Texas and California are the most talent-rich states by a mile and a half. But it's difficult to argue against California as having the best crop of signal-callers each year, and this year is a terrific example.

QB Travis Waller
QB Travis Waller247sports.com

Of the 19 quarterbacks who attended the Elite 11 Camp in Beaverton, Oregon, seven hailed from the state of California. Two more players reside in Washington and Arizona, respectively, which means the West Coast gave the unique event nearly half of its competitors.

But consider this: Of the nine players hailing from Pac-12 country, a whopping six are already committed to play for Pac-12 schools.

Rosen and Town lead the way along with Waller, a highly touted recruit in his own right set to play ball for the Ducks. Then there's White, an Arizona State commit, along with Ross Bowers and Sam Darnold, who have pledged their skills to Cal and USC, respectively.

With more than 100 FBS schools across the country, it's remarkable that nearly one-third of the top 19 prep quarterbacks (according to the Elite 11 guest list, at least; there are always diamonds in the rough) are headed to the Pac-12.

With that said, will anyone really be surprised when the conference continues to dominate through the air over the next few years?

QB Tom Brady didn't play in the Pac-12, but he did grow up out west.
QB Tom Brady didn't play in the Pac-12, but he did grow up out west.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Using one recruiting class might not be fair, but then you see future Hall of Famers Tom Brady and Rodgers both calling California home. Despite Brady playing in the Big Ten, it becomes increasingly difficult to deny the fact that the best high school quarterbacks are often out west.

And sure, schools like Alabama will steal players like Blake Barnett and not every great local kid stays close to home. After all, places like Tallahassee, Ann Arbor and Knoxville, just to name a few, have a lot to offer.

But when that much talent is groomed in the conference's most fertile recruiting ground, the league stands to benefit. And it has.


Developing the Talent

Let's be very clear that our final point isn't insinuating that other conferences don't know how to properly develop quarterbacks. If that were the case, no 3-star or lower would ever make it big anywhere outside the West Coast. However, the Pac-12 is excellent at taking players and making them better from day one.

This process is more impressive when the player in question was overlooked out of high school, but it's just as important with the stars.

Matt Barkley arrived at USC with a lot of fanfare, and in year one he managed to beat Ohio State in Columbus. Despite a senior season that was rather puzzling, he was one of the nation's top players after his junior season and may very well have been a top-10 pick had he opted for the draft instead of returning to school.

UCLA's Hundley is another example of a player who arrived in Westwood with a 4-star ranking in tow. He's improved each year and enters his junior campaign as one of the leading Heisman Trophy candidates. But again, those are examples of two players destined for greatness from the beginning.

Head north to Oregon and you'll find two other players, equally as important to their teams if not more so, who ended high school with little fanfare. Oregon State's Mannion was a 3-star player who didn't come anywhere near an Elite 11 invite, and the Ducks' Mariota went from 3-star to superstar the moment he took the field in his first start.

Even Rodgers had to begin his career in junior college before transferring over to Cal and being molded by Tedford's offense into one of the top prospects in the country.

Again, talent is developed at every program around the country to some degree. How apparent that is to those outside the program often has a direct correlation with the team's overall success. But the Pac-12 in this year alone boasts Mariota, Mannion, Kelly and Connor Halliday as former middling high school prospects who are now considered solid-to-elite at the college level.

Having talent to begin with is important, and exposing these players to a variety of different offenses can only help with NFL preparation. But without solid coaching and consistent improvement, the league wouldn't have the same reputation of producing top-flight signal-callers.

In a year where the Pac-12 appears to be head and shoulders above the competition at quarterback—ESPN's Pac-12 Blog lists 10 out of 12 teams as being in "good or great shape"—it's only appropriate to identify why that might be the case. And with an exciting crop of young guns set to enter the fray in 2015, don't expect things to change anytime soon.


All stats via Sports-Reference.com. All recruiting information via 247Sports. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.


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