Pac-12 football is known for its innovative and high-flying offensive attacks. Scoreboards tend to light up like Christmas trees out in the West Coast.
As a result you’ll normally find a high-caliber quarterback running these awesome offensive attacks. This upcoming season is a bit different, though.
In 2016, the Pac-12 is full of quarterbacks who have potential galore but not a lot of experience. The few quarterbacks who do have experience haven’t done a lot so far in their careers due to the lack of talent that surrounds them.
It’s difficult to pinpoint one quarterback in the league and say, ‘Yeah, he’s the best in the Pac-12 by far. No question about it.’
Each have different skill sets and a variety of players around them. Unfortunately for the league, there isn’t a Marcus Mariota among the bunch. There are a couple of NFL-type quarterbacks currently playing in the Pac-12, though, and they couldn’t be in more different situations.
Luke Falk plays for Washington State, a university in Pullman, Wash., a town of just under 32,000 people. The Cougars are poised to have their best season in nearly a decade and a big reason is because of Falk taking full advantage of Mike Leach’s air attack offense. The 6-foot-4, 215-pounder was a top recruit out of Utah and was expected to sign with Utah or BYU. He instead decided to play for Leach and the numbers in the WSU record book have never been the same.
Falk’s size says NFL quarterback, as do his stats. But it’s the quick-hitting passing offense that might have scouts briefly questioning whether his talents can translate to Sundays. Is he a “system quarterback” or is he really that good?
As a redshirt sophomore, Falk earned 2015 All-Pac-12 First Team honors and was a finalist for a bunch of national awards, including the Burlsworth Trophy — signifying the nation’s top player who began his career as a walk-on — as well as the Dave O’Brian Award. He was also one of 15 Walter Camp Players to Watch. Falk led the nation in passing average at 380.5 ypg, was third in total offense at 370.9 ypg and was fourth in nation with his 38 touchdowns.
His talents were put on display when he torched Oregon at Autzen, a place the Cougars never seem to win at. But under Falk, Washington State amassed 505 yards and five touchdowns through the air in a 45-38 double overtime win. Piling up numbers against a poor defense is one thing, but Falk showed the capacity to come through in the clutch. He was able to lead the Cougars on a 75-yard drive that ended with a 21-yard pass for a touchdown with just three ticks on the clock in a 31-27 win over No. 18 UCLA at the Rose Bowl.
Looking ahead to 2016, Leach is looking for his junior signal caller to take the next step in his development.
“Steady improvement,” Leach said at Pac-12 Media Day on what’s he’s looking for out of Falk. “I guess one of his best qualities is he doesn’t have a glaring weakness, but like anybody, he needs to improve. There’s nothing he can’t improve on, too. Just overall improvement, and he’s pretty diligent about that. He’s one of those guys that is always working at it, and I also think that steadiness and dedication helps our team.”
As for the other quarterback who might be ready to play on Sundays, he’s quite the opposite of his counterpart in the Pacific Northwest.
USC’s Max Browne hasn’t had the chance to play as often as Falk, but he will get to show everyone what he’s got in 2016. Unlike at WSU, there’s a ton of pressure to perform as a Trojan. USC is still the face of Pac-12 football and when the Trojans are good, the conference’s image on a national scale is heightened. Playing in Los Angeles is the exact opposite of playing in Pullman. The enrollment at USC is 11,000 people more than Pullman’s population.
USC means glamour, glitz and Hollywood, while Washington State means, well…none of that.
Browne has had to ride the sidelines the past two seasons under Cody Kessler, even though Browne was named the 2012 High School Player of the Year by nearly every single outlet in the country. The 6-foot-5, 220-pounder from Sammamish, Wash., has a frame that NFL scouts drool over. In his senior year at Skyline High, he completed 277-of-377 (73.5 percent) of his passes for 4,526 yards (323 ypg) with 49 TDs and just five interceptions in 2012 as his team went 14-0 and won the Class 4A state championship.
After redshirting the 2013 season, he’s been the Trojans’ back up and has seen limited playing time.
Browne is just 11-of-19 for 143 yards in his short playing career, but in the most recent Spring Game, he showed off some of his skills, going 7-of-11 for 114 yards and three scores. The starting job won’t automatically be Browne’s come the Fall — he’s going to have to beat out Sam Darnold, another high school All-American — showing that the Trojans have an embarrassment of riches once again.
At the end of the day, you’ve got to play the best player and who’s performing the best,” USC head coach Clay Helton said on Media Day. “You can’t look at your other players in the eye and not play the best player. Usually if you’re not playing the best player and you’re losing games, they usually find a new head coach, so you’d better put the best 11 out there that you can put out there.”
One would think that if all things are equal, Browne will be the guy under center when the Trojans open the season Sept. 3 against defending national champion Alabama.
Whether it’s playing in the snow of eastern Washington and playing for three straight years or watching from the sideline in sunny California, Falk and Browne are showing that there’s more than one way to attract the scouts and open the eyes of NFL teams.