Since the turn of the millennium, the Big 12 has forged a national identity of elite quarterbacking. In fact, dating back to 2000, the Big 12 had a quarterback become a Heisman finalist in every season but three.
Last season, however, that identity all but vanished.
Bryce Petty briefly emerged into a Heisman contender at Baylor. But otherwise it was a dismal season for quarterbacking according to the Big 12’s high standards. Oklahoma State’s Clint Chelf was named the league’s second-team quarterback despite starting only half of 2013. Nine of the league’s 10 teams juggled starting quarterbacks well into October.
But thanks to breakout performances during the bowl season, coupled with the imminent arrival of numerous blue-chip freshmen, the conference appears on the way back to restoring its quarterbacking reputation heading into spring practice.
Baylor, Kansas State, Oklahoma and Texas Tech have their starters cemented. Oklahoma State, Texas, TCU and West Virginia will welcome true freshmen with the pedigrees and opportunities to compete for jobs right away. And Kansas (Montell Cozart) and Iowa State (Grant Rohach) enjoyed promising moments from a pair of freshmen.
After totaling 46 touchdowns to just three interceptions in his first season as the starter, Petty headlines the position in the league again.
But if the bowl season was any indication, he won’t be the lone headliner.
And Kansas State’s Jake Waters capped a red-hot second half of his season by throwing for three touchdowns in a rout of Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.
Knight, Webb and Waters delivered three of college football’s 10 best bowl performances according to the Adjusted QBR metric. All three rapidly improved in their first seasons. And that rapid improvement figures only to continue in their second.
“Traditionally, Year 2 in the offense is when you see the most growth in a quarterback,” Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury said.
Of the three, Knight was the only full-time starter to begin the season. Spearheaded by a dazzling preseason, he beat out Bell, who was the favorite to replace four-year starter Landry Jones. But Knight completed just 21 of his first 48 pass attempts, and after a knee injury, lost the job to Bell not even two games in.
Knight, however, emerged late in the season, and displaying improvement with his accuracy, led the Sooners to a late November win at Kansas State. Then in the Sugar Bowl, he finally showed why he won the job originally in August. Against one of the nation’s most dominant defenses, Knight completed 32 of 44 passes as the Sooners toppled the Crimson Tide in one of the biggest upsets in BCS bowl history.
“If you’re going to win a championship, your quarterback is going to have to make plays,” Oklahoma offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said. “We all saw Trevor [struggle] as a young freshman, first start, first game. To see him grow throughout the entire year and play extremely well down the stretch and played really well in the Sugar Bowl, obviously -- he’s obviously got a great future.”
The same goes for Webb.
Despite being the only healthy scholarship quarterback on the roster in August, Webb was beaten out by walk-on true freshman Baker Mayfield. But like Knight, Webb settled in behind the scenes. After Mayfield injured his knee, Webb led Tech to a come-from-behind win at West Virginia. Then, after Mayfield transferred, Webb was almost flawless against the Sun Devils. He passed for 403 yards and four touchdowns as Texas Tech controlled the game the entire night.
“The success he had in that bowl game against one of the top defenses showed what he can be,” Kingsbury said.
Waters’ bowl success showed the same.
Out of junior college, Waters beat out Daniel Sams for the starting job to begin the season. But with Waters taking the majority of the snaps, K-State fell in its season opener to FCS opponent North Dakota State. The next two months weren’t much better for Waters or the Wildcats, as the defending Big 12 champs stumbled to a 2-4 start.
But after losing snaps to Sams, Waters reestablished control of the position and quarterbacked K-State to wins in six of its final seven games, including a 31-14 rout of Michigan in the bowl. Waters had his best outing yet, too, completing 78 percent of his passes for three touchdowns.
While Waters, Webb and Knight will be looking to build off their bowl performances this spring, Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph will be looking to win a job. Perhaps the most highly acclaimed quarterback the Cowboys have ever signed, Rudolph had a monster senior season in Rock Hill, S.C., throwing for 64 touchdowns while leading his team to a state championship. Enrolled for spring ball, the ESPN 300 recruit will challenge J.W. Walsh.
“Mason really brings all of the characteristics you want to see in a quarterback,” Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich said. “All of the intangibles.”
Plenty more quarterback talent is on its way, too.
Texas’ Jerrod Heard, West Virginia’s William Crest and TCU’s Foster Sawyer were also four-star recruits in the 2014 class, and they will be joining their schools in the summer with chances to play right away.
Such opportunities exist because the Big 12 quarterback play was down last season. But heading to spring, the league’s most identifiable position is on its way back up.