Pac-12 football: Quarterbacks developing faster these days

    Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert passes during the first day of spring practice for the Ducks on April 5, 2017, in Eugene. As a freshman, Herbert started seven games at quarterback during the 2016 season. Quarterbacks are far more advanced and prepared to start early in their college careers than ever before.

    Three Pac-12 teams — USC, UCLA and Washington State — will be replacing quarterbacks who were selected in the recent NFL draft.

    USC’s Sam Darnold went No. 3 overall to the New York Jets, UCLA’s Josh Rosen went 10th to the Arizona Cardinals, while Washington State’s Luke Falk was taken in the sixth round by the Tennessee Titans with the 199th overall pick.

    How those three teams in particular fair, as well as many others in the conference, will likely hinge on who takes over that key position and how successful they turn out to be.

    The Trojans may call on J.T. Daniels, who is graduating a year early from high school powerhouse Mater Dei in Santa Ana, California.

    Despite still bing in high school, Daniels was on hand for spring practices and appears to be in line to be the Trojans’ starter come September.

    USC coach Clay Helton isn’t all that surprised with the possibility of Daniels’ potential to be the starter basically from the moment he steps on campus.

    Quarterbacks, especially, are training year round these days and getting more and more experience with the influx of 7-on-7 leagues, Helton said last week in a conference call with the media.

    “Like J.T. Daniels or Sam Darnold, these guys train year round, they’re training with very good coaches, playing elite competition,” Helton said. “They’ve got a lot of reps and a lot of intelligence.”

    Helton has been around the sports for quite some time and said players, especially quarterbacks, are far more advanced and prepared to start early in their college careers than ever before.

    “It’s amazing where these kids are at these days and they’re already (calling out) protection and reading coverages and given two plays getting us in the right play,” he said.

    “… Not only from a physical standpoint, but the mental aspect of the game is where I think things have changed because they are truly thinking about it year round.”

    Oregon State first-year head coach Jonathan Smith, a standout quarterback in his own right at Oregon State from 1998-2001, has seen the evolution of the position as a coach and says quarterbacks are more ready than ever to start as freshmen.

    “I think as you look at it some of the development that goes on in the high schools, the coaching continues to get better on all levels,” he said. “I think coming out of high school they’ve had the opportunity to do a lot more in the summer than … 10-15 years ago.”

    Even with the year-round opportunities for development, there is still a major jump from high school to college.

    Some have graduated a semester early to attend their college team’s spring practice, a move Smith said likely pays major dividends.

    “If they’ve gone through a spring practice, they’ve got a way better chance, I think, to being close to ready to start as a freshman versus those guys who don’t have a spring practice and just come in in August,” Smith said.

    Why? The spring allows the quarterbacks get somewhat of a taste of the speed of the game and can learn from the experience before entering fall camp.

    “These windows are tighter and they close faster when they are trying to complete passes,” Smith said. “Not only the passing windows but the pass rush itself and the athletes they are working with is just drastically different than high school.

    “They see way more variety at the college level in regards to coverages and pressure than they do in high school.”

    Still, several Pac-12 coaches singled out the quarterback position as the most difficult to develop during the 15 spring practices teams are allotted.

    “Just in regards to game management, from the play clock to what happened on the previous down, those guys aren’t getting hit as much in practice and so recreating the game for the quarterback can be a little bit more challenging,” Smith said.

    Depth and injuries also often limit what coaches are able to implement in the spring.

    “I always feel like the quarterback can’t get enough team reps and we don’t do a ton of team things in spring,” Washington’s Chris Petersen said. “If you have three or four or five quarterbacks that you’re trying to develop, you can’t get enough reps for those guys. You just can’t do team (drills) that long when you don’t have enough bodies. You have to play 11 on 11 to build skills.”

    First-year Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said those who are down on the depth chart often don’t get the opportunity with the first-string players, which doesn’t always allow them to develop as quickly.

    “They’re typically running plays behind an offensive line that is a little bit decimated by injury or attrition or graduation,” he said. “So it’s a little bit more difficult to execute what you want to do offensively. So you sometimes find yourself limited.

    “You don’t want to handcuff them or curtail what you are doing during practice. But I think that’s always going to be the most difficult.”

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