You’ve heard it plenty of times. The Big 12 is a quarterback’s league.
But let’s add to the delightful hype. The Big 12 is almost like quarterback heaven. Lots of snaps. Lots of passes. Stats inflated like summer temperatures.
Last year, Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes led the country in passing. He threw for 5,052 yards, including an NCAA-record 734 against Oklahoma, and didn’t enjoy the benefit of a bowl game to spike his stats even higher. Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield finished third in the Heisman Trophy balloting, and Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph ranked eighth nationally in passing with 4,091 yards.
That was a somewhat ordinary year for the league.
There’s a chance this season could be extraordinary.
Sure, Mahomes is now a Kansas City Chief. He gave up his final year of eligibility to turn pro and was the 10th player selected in April’s NFL draft. But every conference team except for Texas Tech fields at least one quarterback who has started a game against a Power Five opponent. Plus, Mayfield and Rudolph are back for their final years, and each is generating Heisman odds.
Rudolph, given the rich talent around him at receiver and running back, could be in line for the best season of any quarterback in the country. He has an NFL build and a nice arm and toyed with the idea of turning pro in January. But he kept dwelling on a talk he’d heard Peyton Manning make to a group of quarterbacks — stay in school if you can.
“It made sense,” said Rudolph, who has a 1,000-yard receiver and 1,000-yard rusher returning from last season to help him with the Cowboys’ offense.”I wanted to leave a legacy here at Oklahoma State, enjoy my senior season and attack the NFL whenever it comes my way.”
The Big 12 has a nice recent legacy for quarterbacks.
Its best year probably was 2008, when Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford won the Heisman, Texas’ Colt McCoy finished second and Texas Tech’s Graham Harrell was fourth. Half the quarterbacks among the nation’s top 10 in passing played in the Big 12. The next year also was a terrific testament to league quarterbacks. McCoy set the national record for most career wins by a quarterback and finished third in the Heisman voting. Four other conference quarterbacks finished in the top 10 in passing.
In 2011, Baylor’s Robert Griffin III won the Heisman and Oklahoma State’s Brandon Weeden, Oklahoma’s Landry Jones and Tech’s Seth Doege also surpassed 4,000 yards passing.
The next season Baylor’s Nick Florence, Doege, Jones and West Virginia’s Geno Smith each threw for more than 4,000 yards and Kansas State’s uber-tough Collin Klein was a Heisman finalist. His 2,645 yards via the air were nice, and his 925 rushing proved to be nicer.
Mayfield probably is the biggest name in the Big 12. And he’ll have a massive offensive line blocking for him. But OU lost its best two tailbacks, including Sooners career rushing leader Samaje Perine, and Dede Westbrook, who was considered the country’s top receiver last year. There’s no doubt Mayfield can elevate an offense, but he can’t make an entire unit elite if there aren’t enough playmakers.
Mayfield was emphatic last month when he said he could “trust whoever was out there” with him. But after the first 10 days of preseason camp, he’d heard too much negative speculation.
He posted on Twitter: “Y’all are going to have to show some respect for my receivers. People saying I don’t have help. Say what you want about me. Not my guys. But the great thing about that is, we’re just going to show the world in less than a month.”
Who might join Rudolph and Mayfield as high-end conference quarterbacks?
A usual answer is whoever is starting at Texas Tech. Nic Shimonek, a fifth-year senior and former Iowa Hawkeye, tops the Red Raiders’ depth chart. He played in four games last fall as Mahomes’ backup and is the least experienced of any potential Big 12 starter.
“You don’t replace somebody with that type of talent, obviously, but Nic is a fifth-year senior going into his fourth year in our system, knows it inside and out,” Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury said. “He really got a ton of reps with our 1s last year. There was a four- or five-week stretch that Pat didn’t practice during the week, where he hurt his shoulder, and Nic got all those reps.
“He got some good, meaningful time in the games last year and played really well, and this spring he had a tremendous spring. With this supporting cast around him, we expect him to play at a high level.”
TCU’s Kenny Hill, who has started both at Texas A&M and with the Horned Frogs, could excel. He’s still trying to get back to the success in his first career start, when he threw for a school-record 511 yards against South Carolina. Statistically, it was the fifth-most prolific passing game in SEC history.
“It’s all about getting that feeling, just being comfortable, not only with the team, but with the offense and just everything,” Hill said. “Keep growing from year to year. You got to keep getting better each and every year. That’s what I’m doing, we’re doing.”
Shane Buechele, Texas’ likely starter, won top honors at the Manning Passing Academy this summer. He stood out ahead of every SEC starting quarterback, as well as attendees Lamar Jackson, last year’s Heisman winner, and USC’s Sam Darnold, this year’s favorite.
Kansas State quarterback Jesse Ertz is hoping to replicate Klein’s magic. He’s also able to pick up tips from Klein, who was hired as Kansas State’s quarterback coach this spring.
“I think he’s a great resource to have,” Ertz said of Klein. “He’s very thorough, very detailed. I’m looking forward to him making me play better.”
Baylor’s Matt Rhule still is deciding between two quarterbacks — Zach Smith and Anu Solomon. Smith started the final four games last season with the Bears, while Solomon is a senior transfer from Arizona. Their new quarterbacks coach is Glenn Thomas, who used to tutor Atlanta Falcon Matt Ryan.
Thomas says Smith has an “NFL arm,” and he loves Solomon’s athleticism and experience. The competition should carry on until the season opener.
Transfers should play significant roles at several Big 12 schools.
Will Grier, formerly of Florida, is at the helm in West Virginia. Coach Dana Holgorsen is raving about the husband and father of a toddler. Grier was considered the second-best pro-style quarterback prospect in the country when he signed with the Gators in 2014. But he hasn’t played since October 2015, when he was suspended after testing positive for a banned substance.
“He’s got that starting quarterback trait,” Holgorsen said. He’s a coach’s kid. He’s a winner.”
Iowa State’s Jacob Park, who started the Cyclones’ final three games last fall, is a transfer from Georgia. When he signed with the Bulldogs, he was considered a consensus four-star prospect.
“I think his ability level is as high as any quarterback I’ve coached,” Iowa State coach Matt Campbell said at his first preseason press conference. “He’s got elite arm strength. He’s got the ability to make all the throws. He’s elusive and creates in the pocket — all those things you want in a quarterback.”
Kansas also might have a transfer atop the depth chart. Peyton Bender, who grew up in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and initially signed with Washington State, is battling with Carter Stanley for first team.
It is mid-August, so it’s difficult to project into December. But the conference seems set up for a nice quarterback run.