Dennis Erickson has been around a long time. He's seen a lot of quarterbacks. A lot of good ones, too. But Arizona State's head coach is not sure if he's seen anything like the Pac-10 in 2010.
"I've never been in a conference with this many good quarterbacks -- and they're legitimate, too," he said. "That's how it used to be here years ago. It's starting to come back to be a called a quarterback conference. It's unbelievable."
Before the 2009 season, the question in the Pac-10 was where did all the elite, future NFL first-round draft pick quarterbacks go? Turns out they were right under everyone's noses: Washington's Jake Locker and Stanford's Andrew Luck could be the top-two quarterbacks selected in the 2011 draft, if Luck opts to leave after his redshirt sophomore year. Either, in fact, could be the top overall pick.
"We think we got the best one the conference and in the country," Stanford's Jim Harbaugh said. "But to be fair, the other coaches in the conference probably believe they have the best one."
Then there's USC's Matt Barkley, the top-overall recruit in the nation in 2009, who became the Trojans starter as a true freshman, and Arizona's Nick Foles, who took over in the fourth game of the 2009 season and led the Wildcats to the Holiday Bowl.
Those four -- each already on the NFL radar -- were so highly thought of by Pac-10 officials that they were flown across the country in late July to meet the East Coast media in New York and to visit ESPN's home office in Bristol, Conn. Locker, in fact, made two trips to ESPN this summer.
Not everyone was thrilled with the promotional tour. Some felt distinguished players at other positions were slighted. Others felt their quarterback weren't getting enough credit. And some Pac-10 quarterbacks noticed their invitation got lost in the mail.
"I think I'm better than those guys," California's Kevin Riley said. "That's all that matters. Yeah, they are great players but I have more wins than all of them."
While some might think differently, Riley is correct about his record: His 15 wins is more than any of the four who were feted East.
That's another potential tweak for the touted foursome: None posted spectacular numbers last year. Luck led the conference in passing efficiency but that was only good enough for 21st in the nation. Locker tied for first in the conference with 21 touchdown passes, but that wouldn't even rank among the nation's top-25.
Most of the hype surrounding them is based on physical skills and upside. Still, that projected upside is considerable and there are few doubters as to whether it will be realized.
"Jake is a guy who can make plays with his legs that aren't drawn up," UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel said. "I think Luck is a guy with unique downfield accuracy. Jake is more about a guy who makes a 5-yard gain a 40-yard gain. And they've got all the intangibles of a person you can count on. Both those guys are high character guys. So you don't worry about the risk of how their life changes with that type of income [in the NFL]."
Neuheisel has his own returning starter at the position he's hoping will break through: Sophomore Kevin Prince. Washington State is pinning its hopes on true sophomore Jeff Tuel, who started five games in 2009 before a knee injury ended his season.
"Jeff just came in last August and he really was thrown to the wolves," Cougars coach Paul Wulff said. "But his freshman marks were better than Drew Bledsoe’s stats as a true freshman at Washington State."
Three teams will break in new starters: Arizona State, Oregon and Oregon State. It's notable that the Ducks and Beavers were picked first and third in the preseason media poll despite lacking experience at the game's most important position.
Arizona State and Oregon are both in the midst of preseason competitions, but the Beavers already have their man in sophomore Ryan Katz, who may have the best arm in the conference.
"Ability-wise, he has a wonderful arm," Oregon State coach Mike Riley said. "He can throw all the passes. He is pretty much unflappable, so I don’t think he’ll be intimidated by anything. He has two years of experience in the program.
Yet then Riley adds, "The transition always provides a mystery."
Yep. New quarterbacks are a mystery. It's not only about ability. How will they react on the road when 50,000 to 100,000 of their newest enemies won't hush? Moreover, it remains to be seen whether Luck, Locker, Foles and/or Barkley live up to the preseason hype, earn All-American accolades and go on the become Pro Bowl quarterbacks in the NFL.
But having a talented veteran at the position is certainly a nice thing to have.
Said Washington coach Steve Sarkisian, "When your guy is the senior quarterback in this conference, your chances of winning a championship increase greatly."