During preseason practices, it became clear to Southern California head football coach Clay Helton that one quarterback was standing out.
It wasn’t much of a surprise that true freshman J.T. Daniels emerged as the Trojans’ starter heading into Saturday’s opener against UNLV.
“When the ball was put down in our scrimmage situations and the live game play situations, the ball moved and it progressed and it looked easy for him,” Helton said of Daniels during the Pac-12 coaches teleconference this week.
Most of the teams in the Pac-12 will have a returning starter at quarterback when the season kicks off this weekend, but USC is one of three teams replacing a star at the position.
USC is replacing Sam Darnold, who was the No. 3 pick, by the New York Jets, in April’s NFL draft; UCLA is replacing Josh Rosen, the No. 10 pick, by the Arizona Cardinals; and Washington State is replacing Luke Falk, the Pac-12’s all-time leading passer who was a sixth-round pick of the Tennessee Titans.
At USC, Helton picked Daniels, the Gatorade National Player of the Year in 2017, over sophomore Matt Fink and redshirt freshman Jack Sears.
“He was in a very fierce competition with a lot of good other quarterbacks,” Helton said. “I’m looking forward to watching him play in this first game.”
UCLA also had a three-man battle for the job, between sophomore Devon Modster, freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson and graduate transfer Wilton Speight. Former Legacy High School star Matt Lynch, a sophomore, is behind that group.
Early in the week, first-year Bruins head coach Chip Kelly said, “All three guys are playing at a really high level now in camp, so it’s just being fair to everybody in terms of competition.”
On Thursday, UCLA announced that Speight would start against Cincinnati in Saturday’s opener. Speight was Michigan’s primary starter in 2016 and started the first four games of last year before a season-ending injury.
Speight threw for 3,119 yards, 21 touchdowns and nine interceptions in 16 games over the past two years, including a 45-28 win against Colorado on Sept. 17, 2016.
Meanwhile, East Carolina grad transfer Gardner Minshew is expected to start when the Washington State opens its season Saturday at Wyoming. However, Wazzu’s depth chart shows a four-man competition that includes juniors Anthony Gordon and Trey Tinsley and freshman Cammon Cooper.
“We’ve got four quarterbacks and one of them will play, and it’d be a thrill a minute to discover which one that’s going to be,” Cougars head coach Mike Leach dryly said. “So, I think everyone should show up to the game and make sure they come watch, because nationally it’s going to be one of those things that’s unveiled, but not until game time, and I think there’s a few opportunities that happen every couple of years, or even this year, that you want to be there when it happens, and I think this is one of them.”
In other QB competitions, Oregon State named Jake Luton as its starter and California is going with Ross Bowers. Luton started the first four games of 2017 before a season-ending back injury, while Bowers had to fight for his job after starting all 12 games last year.
Utah’s Tyler Huntley is one of the Pac-12’s top returning quarterbacks, and the Utes would like to keep him on the field a bit more. Huntley had nearly 3,000 yards in total offense last year (2,411 passing, 537 rushing), but missed three full games because of injuries.
Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said Huntley took too many hits last year.
“That’s been a point of emphasis for us as coaches with Tyler this offseason and all through fall camp,” he said. “He’s still going got get his fair share of carries running the football, but be more judicious in his decision making as far as finishing the play off — step out of bounds when you get the opportunity, slide and avoid the direct shots.
“That’s Tyler’s challenge, to be smarter when he’s carrying the ball and continue to improve his overall game.”
Love even better?
It’s hard to imagine Stanford running back Bryce Love being better than last year, when he rushed for 2,118 yards and 19 touchdowns and finished second in Heisman Trophy voting.
Cardinal head coach David Shaw said Love, eyeing a future in the NFL, has improved and added 10 pounds of muscle.
“I think Bryce was ready to play last year if he went to the NFL,” Shaw said. “I think he’s better or more suited this year. He’s bigger, he’s stronger, he’s still extremely fast and I believe he’ll be more versatile.”
UCLA has suspended six players for rules violations: offensive lineman Boss Tagaloa and tight end Devin Asiasi for three games; running back Soso Jamabo for two games; and defensive linemen Osa Odighizuwa and Moses Robinson-Carr and defensive back Mo Osling for one game. … Former Nebraska QB Tristan Gebbia has committed to Oregon State. Gebbia left Nebraska this week after competing for the starting job there and will be eligible to play for the Beavers in 2019. … Arizona opens Saturday against BYU and head coach Kevin Sumlin said the Cougars will be “one of the larger teams we play.”