At a position where experience is king, it should come as no surprise that quarterbacks in their fourth or fifth seasons in a college program hold inherent advantages over younger counterparts.
It takes years to develop a knack for reading defenses, feeling comfortable in the pocket and fostering relationships with receivers, and that’s why seasoned veterans at the quarterback position have often enjoyed breakout seasons late in their college careers.
Prior to conference realignment and expansion, the Pac-10 conference was the poster child for quarterbacks whose greatness didn’t emerge overnight. From the early 1990s to the late 2000s, a startling tradition surfaced in the conference, proving the incredible value of placing a veteran quarterback under center.
In 13 of the 15 seasons from 1994 through 2008, a team led by a quarterback in his redshirt junior year or later claimed at least a share of the conference championship. Just twice in that span, in 1997 and 2003, did quarterbacks with fewer than four years of experience at the college level snap the trend and overcome the veterans to bring home a Pac-10 title.
But beginning in 2009, the dominance of fourth and fifth-year starting quarterbacks began to fade thanks to the offensive ingenuity of Oregon head coach Chip Kelly. Kelly and successor Mark Helfrich deployed a masterful, progressive scheme that helped the Ducks notch four conferences titles in six years, including three straight from 2008-2010 with young quarterbacks Jeremiah Masoli and Darron Thomas.
The only other team to win a Pac-12 title during the five-year stretch from 2009-2013 was Stanford, which won a pair under the guidance of a youthful Kevin Hogan.
Hogan was aided by an elite rushing attack and one of the nation’s top defenses in 2012 and 2013, but in his fifth and final season with the Cardinal, his maturation is readily apparent and he has Stanford threatening for a third Pac-12 title in four seasons.
Following Mark Sanchez’s redshirt junior season that culminated in a conference title for USC in 2008, the tradition of veteran dominance at the quarterback position in the Pac-10 was in jeopardy. Kelly’s spread attack and David Shaw’s power running schemes neutralized opposing defenses on their own, and didn’t require the same types of reads and decision-making skills from their quarterbacks.
In turn, it’s possible to argue there was less of a premium on quarterbacks, and more of an emphasis on play makers, as the value of experience declined.
However, just as the trend of fourth and fifth-year quarterbacks commanding the conference was seemingly dead, a transcendental player helped lead its comeback.
In 2014, Oregon redshirt junior and 2015 Tennessee Titans first-round draft pick Marcus Mariota’s remarkably efficient season redefined the value of a veteran quarterback.
In his fourth season with the Ducks program, Mariota tossed 42 touchdowns compared to just four interceptions and ran for 15 more scores en route to a conference championship and a Heisman trophy.
Mariota’s miraculous season reset the conference’s precedent of experienced quarterbacks enjoying their best seasons in the final year of their collegiate careers, and in 2015, the tradition may very well resume again.
At the midway point of the college football season, six teams look like legitimate conference title contenders in the Pac-12, and of those six, four are led by quarterbacks in their fourth or fifth season with their respective programs.
Arizona State’s Mike Bercovici, Stanford’s Kevin Hogan and USC’s Cody Kessler are all redshirt seniors, while Utah’s Travis Wilson is a true senior with four years of starting experience. The remaining two contending programs, Cal, and UCLA, have a bit of history on their side as well.
In the 15-year stretch in which a fourth or fifth-year quarterback led his team to at least a share of the Pac-10 conference title, the only two seasons in which players with less experience broke the streak were 1997 and 2003.
In 1997, Washington State junior quarterback Ryan Leaf helped the Cougars earn a share of the Pac-10 title, and the following spring was selected No. 2 overall in the NFL Draft by the San Diego Chargers. In 2003, Leinart led the USC Trojans to a Pac-10 title and a national championship, and later became a Heisman trophy winner and the No. 10 overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft.
Between 1994 and 2008, it took a rare, elite talent under center for a team to overcome the lack of a veteran presence at quarterback in the Pac-10, and this season, both Cal and UCLA have potential future top draft picks standing at the front their huddles. Cal’s Jared Goff projects as one of the top quarterbacks in the 2016 NFL Draft should he decide to forego his senior season, and UCLA true freshman Josh Rosen was the No. 1 overall quarterback recruit in his class, but their skill sets are the exception to the rule.
In 1996, ASU quarterback Jake Plummer led the Sun Devils to a Pac-10 title and the second Rose Bowl appearance in school history. It took Plummer four seasons as a starter to win a conference championship, and he said the process of breeding consistency and overcoming adversity is one that takes years for most quarterbacks.
“We all go through it, the step up from high school to college,” Plummer said. “You learn right away certain throws in college you can't get away with because guys are a little quicker and faster. Then there's other things it takes longer to learn and develop. It takes time for guys to get that consistency and develop at a high level week in and week out. It's also about how guys bounce back from adversity after you had maybe a bad week, a bad game, a few bad plays. How do you overcome that and experience with that matters and how guys respond to you as the leader of the team."
Goff, Rosen, Arizona’s Anu Solomon and Washington’s Jake Browning are all in command of teams still within striking distance in the Pac-12 title hunt, but if this season follows suit with history, it’s more likely Bercovici, Hogan, Kessler or Wilson ends up leading their team to a conference crown.
This Saturday, Bercovici’s Sun Devils and Wilson’s Utes will square off in Salt Lake City in a matchup that will go a long way toward determining each team’s conference championship hopes.
Though their styles of play starkly contrast one another, Bercovici and Wilson possess some of the same qualities many of the fourth or fifth-year quarterbacks who have won Pac-10 or Pac-12 titles also enjoyed.
Like conference-title winners John David Booty and Mark Sanchez of USC, Bercovici bided his time on the sidelines and waited his turn before ever assuming a starting role. It took David Booty and Sanchez until their redshirt junior seasons to earn starts at USC, and Bercovici didn’t earn considerable playing time at ASU until an injury to starter Taylor Kelly forced him into action as a redshirt junior.
While David Booty, Sanchez and Bercovici may have lacked the volume of on-field reps other fourth and fifth-year players garnered during the early parts of their careers, they maximized practice time and took advantage of their opportunities when they came about.
In his first full season as a starter, Bercovici is still assimilating to the nuances of the game, but Plummer said the dedication and leadership a player like Bercovici demonstrates in the years leading up to his first as a starter help to win over teammates and inspire faith in coaches.
"Some guys can come in right away and have success like (Marcus) Mariota did but that's the exception,” Plummer said. “When you've been there and worked through the system a few years and are around your teammates and they've seen the work you put in, and what it means to you and it's in your third and fourth year the team comes together. You've got the guys in your class you came in with that you've been working with or maybe the class prior to you. They're your guys now and they've got the trust in you and you kind of band together.”
After a rocky start to the season, Bercovici put together back-to-back strong performances against UCLA and Colorado. Against the Buffaloes, the fifth-year player tied a career-high with five touchdown passes, and his adjusted QBR of 90.0 ranked ninth overall for all FBS quarterbacks in Week 6.
Bercovici’s effectiveness of late has emanated from his ability to keep defenses honest with his feet. After starting the season with four straight games in which he averaged fewer than two yards per carry, Bercovici has proved more elusive in the pocket and more willing to pull the ball down and run in his last two games. Bercovici hiked his average up above four yards per carry against the Bruins and the Buffaloes, and ASU’s offensive output as a whole made noticeable strides in each contest.
Another key aspect of Bercovici’s success is his ability to incorporate different receivers into the flow of a game. Last season, ASU only had three players record more than 16 catches over the course of the entire season. This year, five different players have at least 14 catches through six games, and redshirt junior wide receiver Tim White credits Bercovici’s willingness to lead as a primary reason for the improved distribution.
“I just believe his experience has helped him so much to help develop us as receivers, young receivers and new incoming receivers for us, coming from the junior college ranks,” White said. “It’s definitely helped, his leadership and when he’s out there, he sets a presence for us, and we just want to follow his lead.”
Unlike Bercovici, Utah’s Wilson has followed a distinctly different career arc. Thrust into the starting role as a true freshman in 2012, the San Clemente, Calif., native battled injuries and periods of inconsistent play throughout his first three seasons with the Utes before leading Utah to a 5-0 start this year.
Wilson’s tenure in Salt Lake City resembles that of Washington’s Marques Tuiasosopo, USC’s Carson Palmer, and even Plummer, who all started three full seasons before breaking out as seniors and winning Pac-10 championships.
Though Palmer is remembered for his brilliant Heisman-trophy winning season in 2002, it’s easy to forget he combined to throw 29 touchdowns and 30 interceptions during his sophomore and junior seasons. Wilson was much more efficient than Palmer as a junior, logging 18 touchdowns compared to just five interceptions, but the 16 picks he tossed as a sophomore were the second most of any Pac-12 quarterback, as Connor Halliday threw 22 interceptions, but attempted 477 more passes than Wilson.
Much like ASU’s Plummer, Wilson has made steady improvements in each of his four seasons, and he appears to be saving his best for last. Plummer’s quarterback rating and passing yardage incrementally improved from his sophomore season on, and Wilson’s QBR suggests his efficiency and decision-making skills have been refined this year.
As time goes on, the game slows down for quarterbacks, but Plummer said the sense of urgency picks up, and he senses that’s the case with Wilson this season.
"It's your last chance to have a go at it and do the best you can,” Plummer said about playing as a senior. “Look at Utah, they're playing so well right now. They were good last year but I think injuries to Travis Wilson hurt their chances and now he's showing how tough he is and what he's capable of through all of his experiences. When it's your last season you want to do everything you can to lead your team and make the most of every opportunity."
Even after a strong junior season, Wilson’s QBR sat at just 64.7, but through four games played this season, he ranks eighth in the nation with an adjusted QBR of 82.5.
Despite throwing two interceptions against Cal, Wilson has largely cut down on turnovers the past two seasons and has helped Utah to a plus-10 turnover margin so far this year. And aside from making a difference through the air, his 249 rushing yards (62.3 per game) ranks second in the Pac-12 for quarterbacks behind Oregon State’s Seth Collins.
The combination of improving his ball security and his ability to keep defenses guessing with his rushing abilities makes Wilson a tough task for defenses, and ASU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said Utah is making the most of what Wilson has done for its offense this season.
“I think he’s (Wilson) not putting the ball in jeopardy, they’re being very smart,” Patterson said. “He’s used to making plays with his feet and he’s not putting the ball downfield in jeopardy and he’s taking what the defenses are giving to him.”
Before the season, ASU and Utah were hopeful Bercovici and Wilson’s veteran presences could keep their teams afloat in the Pac-12 race. Though the quarterbacks took different paths to reach their final season, so far, the years of experience they’ve gained in their respective programs has begun to manifest itself on the field.
In a conference with a long-standing tradition of fourth and fifth-year quarterbacks breaking out and enjoying career years, the pair set to square off on Saturday are hoping to continue the pace they’ve set and join the long line of accomplished signal-callers in the conference at the championship podium.
If history has taught us anything in the Pac-10/12, it’s that no matter who is under center or how long it took a player to get there, the value of experience can never be discounted.