- Brandon Chatmon, ESPN Staff Writer
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He has to deal with them every Saturday, so TCU safety Sam Carter would know better than most.
"The Big 12 is a quarterback league," the Horned Frogs senior said. "When the game is on the line, the ball will be in the air."
Yet the Big 12 seemed to lose its way a year ago.
The Bears and Red Raiders were the only Big 12 teams that finished in the top 25 in the FBS in passing yards or averaged more than 300 passing yards per game. Two seasons ago, in 2012, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and West Virginia joined Baylor and Tech in the top 10 in that category and averaged at least 330 passing yards per contest.
But conference coaches don’t expect the downward trend to continue indefinitely.
"I think time will take care of that," West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. "There were so many years with top-notch guys that got drafted. It’s the same schools, recruiting the same kids, being coached by the same guys and playing the same type of ball in the Big 12 for the last decade and a half. Time will tell."
Petty is the unquestioned face of Big 12 quarterbacks heading into 2014, the guy every team in the conference would love to call its own. He’s an ultraproductive, experienced leader who still has room to grow as a senior. Alongside Petty, the league features young talents led by Tech’s Webb and OU’s Trevor Knight. Kansas State’s Jake Waters, Kansas’ Montell Cozart and West Virginia’s Clint Trickett are other Big 12 quarterbacks who entered preseason camp as clear starters at their respective schools and still have room to grow as quarterbacks.
"I just think they have to get older," Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury said of the Big 12’s return to prominence at quarterback. "I don’t think it’s anything other than that. You have some stars that are younger guys getting broken in in this league. They’re a year older, year wiser. You had such a good run of three or four years, now it’s these guys’ chance."
That run is well-documented. No league supplied the NFL with more first- or second-round picks in the past five NFL drafts then the Big 12. Six quarterbacks who played in the conference have been drafted in the first two rounds since 2010, including a No. 1 overall pick in Oklahoma's Sam Bradford. The SEC and Pac-12 are tied for second with three apiece during that span.
The trend slowed a bit in recent years, as former West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith is the lone quarterback who played in the Big 12 to be drafted in the first two rounds in the past two drafts. But Petty, who enters the season as Mel Kiper's top-ranked senior quarterback, could hear his name called in Round 1 or 2 of the 2015 NFL draft, while Knight or Webb could find themselves in a similar position if their development continues during the rest of their careers.
Petty's proactive nature has helped cement his reputation as the Big 12's top quarterback, as he has refused to be satisfied with the accolades he earned a year ago. The Midlothian, Texas, native spent some of his offseason with quarterback guru George Whitfield, who has played a key role in Petty’s development. Petty says he would recommend time with Whitfield to any young quarterback looking to excel in the Big 12.
"When we have breaks, I want to work," Petty said. "A lot of times, because of NCAA regulations, I can’t do that with my coach [at Baylor], so Coach Whitfield is kind of my outlet to keep working."
It’s an approach Kansas coach Charlie Weis understands. The veteran coach believes the quarterback position has been in need of better coaching, be it individual quarterbacks coaches or more detailed coaching at their school, for years.
"I think the quarterback position used to be the most undercoached position, of all positions, even though it's the most important," Weis said. "Usually it’s because the title of quarterbacks coach almost always went to the offensive coordinator who has to worry about every single position. I think having a quarterbacks coach helps every offensive coordinator invaluably. It’s easily the most important position on your team."
Improved coaching is just one aspect. Simple game experience is another. The value of playing games in the conference is just as invaluable. At this time a year ago, none of Big 12’s top quarterbacks in 2013 were proven commodities.
"Each and every year, there have been guys emerge that were ‘no name’ guys because of youth or inexperience. Or they just hadn’t matured or developed yet," Holgorsen said. "We have some young guys that will make a name for themselves, probably starting this year."
Petty went from unproven to Heisman Trophy candidate and Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year. Webb was a true freshman fighting for a job, and Knight was about to be named OU’s starting signal-caller. Twelve months later, that trio represents the Big 12’s biggest hope for a return to the forefront of the elite quarterback landscape in college football.
"I think our league has a reputation and commitment to throw the football," OU co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said. "And because of that, we develop quarterbacks in our league, and I think we’ll see a strong group this year."
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