Analysis

Big Sky Conference quarterback rankings by team – Part I

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Editor’s note: From Idaho’s John Friesz and Doug Nussmeier to Weber State’s Jamie Martin to Montana’s Dave Dickenson to a seemingly endless string of gunslingers from Eastern Washington, the Big Sky Conference has long held a reputation as a quarterback-driven league.

But when one analyzes the 21st century landscape of the conference’s best teams, it becomes apparent that, whether its Montana between 2000 and 2009, Montana State from 2010 until 2014 or Weber State the last five seasons, teams with defensive identities win most of championships. Individual talents like Montana State’s Dakota Prukop, Sacramento State’s Garrett Safron, Northern Colorado’s Kyle Sloter and Northern Arizona’s Case Cookus all went on to the professional ranks. None won a Big Sky title.

That notion is bucked, of course, when you consider Eastern Washington, an offensive juggernaut that has produced eight different Big Sky MVP quarterbacks, a group that won 12 league Most Outstanding Player honors overall over the last 18 seasons.

This year’s Big Sky landscape is shrouded in mystery when it comes to the primary trigger men for teams across the league. With the season less than a month away, here’s a look at the quarterback situations, from most cloudy to most clear, across the Big Sky Conference.

13. Cal Poly

Three of the five quarterbacks from Cal Poly’s 2020 roster, all of whom had eligibility remaining, are still playing for the Mustangs (although one, Kyle Reid, is now listed at wide receiver). That’s honestly higher than expected after Beau Baldwin took over for Tim Walsh and junked the triple option that Poly has been running ever since Rich Ellerson was the head coach and the Mustangs were an FCS Independent squad.

Cal Poly head coach Beau Baldwin, pictured here leading Eastern Washington against Montana State in Bozeman in 2016/ by Brooks Nuanez

“It’ll look a little bit different,” said Baldwin, the architect of Eastern Washington’s prolific attack as the offensive coordinator from 2003 until 2006 and the head coach from 2008 until 2016. “To be a triple option team and go to what we’re doing now, your quarterback room is naturally going to change those first few years.”

Conor Bruce, a redshirt junior, played in one game in the Mustangs’ three-game spring season, completing his only pass for 11 yards. The Bakersfield native was primary an option quarterback in high school and chose Cal Poly over triple option heavy Air Force.

Jalen Hamler and Hunter Raquet, who played ahead of Bruce, are now both gone, so Bruce’s blurb on the Cal Poly website reads “enters Fall Camp No. 1 on the preseason depth chart at quarterback.”

That would make him by far the least experienced starting quarterback in the conference other than Kaiden Bennett if the Nevada transfer grabs the job at Sac State.

The new-to-the-program option is Cal transfer Spencer Brasch, who played in two games for the Bears as a freshman in 2019 but completed 9 of 25 passes, had seven carries for negative-42 yards and didn’t see the field the rest of the year. Baldwin was the offensive coordinator at Cal from 2017 until taking the Cal Poly job in December.

The other three quarterbacks listed on the roster are freshmen, although Jackson Pavitt does have a redshirt year under his belt. We think Brasch wins the job, but we also think this year might stretch the coaching abilities of even Baldwin, who constantly mentored great quarterbacks at Eastern Washington.

“I’m excited about the competition that’s in that room,” Baldwin said. “Right now if you ask me (who will start) it’s still a little bit unknown. We’ll get a good idea of that going through August camp. … I want to be able to kind of clean-slate it and see what it looks like.”

12. Idaho

Ever since Matt Linehan’s last year in 2017, Idaho’s QB situation has had all the stability of a house of cards in an earthquake, and that’s not likely to change in 2021.

Rumblings around Moscow are that grad student UConn transfer Mike Beaudry, who threw for 794 yards, three touchdowns and three picks in four games in the spring season, doesn’t have a firm grip on the job going into the fall.

Mike Beaudry

That fits with what we saw in a short outing against Idaho State, when Beaudry went 5 for 9 for 50 yards before suffering an injury. Beaudry misses a lot of throws, and doesn’t have the upside — 6.5 yards per attempt in the spring — to make up for the inaccuracy.

Next up would probably be freshman C.J. Jordan, who played against Southern Utah in the spring season and is splitting reps with Beaudry so far in the fall. The 6-foot-3, 209-pound Portland product threw for 183 yards in his first career start against Southern Utah during the spring season before leaving the game in the fourth quarter with an injury.

Idaho also has 6-5 redshirt sophomore Nikhil Nayar, who threw the last-minute winning touchdown against Southern Utah when Jordan left after three quarters.

The Vandals even had to turn to running back/special teamer Zach Borisch to run the option against Eastern Washington with Beaudry, Jordan and Nayar all out, and got maybe their best QB performance of the year in a 38-31 loss. According to head coach Paul Petrino, Borisch might be in the mix this fall as well.

“Mike played the most. So he’s coming back, which is really good,” said Petrino, who is also expected to serve as Idaho’s primary offensive play caller this fall. “C.J. just played in the Southern Utah game, but now he’s all healthy and back, so that’s good. And then Borisch played good in that second Eastern game, and Nikhil played in a couple of games. So it gives us a lot of depth, and it’s a good competition going into fall camp. They can all go out there and compete and see what happens.”

11. UC Davis

UC Davis junior Hunter Rodrigues/ by UC Davis Athletics

Hunter Rodrigues, Jake Maier’s long-term backup, went under the radar in the spring season, even though his stats were very good — a 66 percent completion percentage, 831 yards, eight touchdowns and four interceptions in five games as the Aggies went 3-2, narrowly missing a playoff berth with a loss to Eastern Washington in the season finale. The problem with Rodrigues’ stats is that they were buoyed by a 19-of-23, 265-yard, three-touchdown game in a 73-24 win over a sorry Cal Poly team that was just about to pull the plug on its season.

He went over 200 yards passing in just one other game, a season-opening win over Idaho, and managed just 116 in that season-deciding loss to Eastern Washington while splitting time with Trent Tompkins.

Tompkins, a 200-pound redshirt freshman from Fresno, is a much better runner than Rodrigues. He ran for 170 yards and four touchdowns on just 17 carries in the spring, including the winning score with eight seconds left against Idaho State, and also threw a touchdown pass.

The Aggies are almost certain to keep using Tompkins in a two-quarterback system, and there’s a possibility he could take the starting job. Redshirt freshman Miles Hastings was the third-stringer in the spring.

Perhaps the biggest factor in replacing Maier — who threw for 11,163 yards and 88 touchdowns in three years as a starter — is replacing Tim Plough. The former NAU and Davis offensive coordinator left to become the OC on Andy Avalos’ first staff at Boise State during the off-season.

“It was nice that the promotion (of wide receivers coach Cody Hawkins) was internal,” UC Davis All-Big Sky senior center Conner Pettek said at the Big Sky Kickoff. “It was a pretty easy transition. We have had a little more time, we’ve started to put in more and it’s become his offense. I’m really excited for it but I think it’s been a pretty smooth transition.”

10. Weber State

This whole story almost feels insulting to Weber State.

The narrative about a star quarterback being important gets blown up by the Wildcats, who have won back-to-back-to-back-to-back Big Sky ‘ships with a stacked defense and not all that much from the man under center.

That’s not to say that Stefan Cantwell and Jake Constantine were bad, exactly, just that Weber won titles in 2018 and 2019 with Constantine averaging about 180 passing yards a game. The former Boise State transfer valued possessions, protected the ball, didn’t do much wrong and usually scored enough to take home the W. Cantwell encompassed the tough attitude Weber head coach Jay Hill loves in all his players.

Weber State freshman quarterback Bronson Barron/ contributed

Which is why when I saw Bronson Barron launch about five deep balls in the first half of the spring opener against Idaho State, I nearly fell out of my seat in the Holt Arena press box. The 6-3, 210-pound freshman from American Fork, Utah, came back from a two-year church mission and beat out Middle Tennessee State dropdown Randall Johnson for the starting job in camp. He went on to average 214 passing yards a game, more than any Weber State quarterback since Jadrian Clark in 2016.

Bronson has a big arm, and new offensive coordinator Matt Hammer opening up the playbook a little bit in the spring indicates that they also think it could be a weapon. He’s also surrounded by excellent skill talent, let by wide receivers Rashid Shaheed and Ty McPherson along with tight end Justin Malone. Hammer, by the way, coached wide receivers and running backs for Weber’s Big Sky championship-caliber teams in the late 2000s.

The interesting thing is that a quarterback like Barron might not be the best thing for Weber State. The Wildcats should still be nasty on defense — all they need is somebody to manage the game. On the other hand, a more potent quarterback could raise the ceiling for a team that still hasn’t gotten past the national semifinals.

The stakes are high, and in terms of pure intrigue, this is one of the spots around the conference to watch. Johnson should be a more than capable backup.

9. Sacramento State

Sac State head coach Troy Taylor would make a fine riverboat gambler. He barely revealed his cards during the Big Sky Kickoff — upon closer examination, the move of a man who might have a better hand than he wants the rest of the table to know.

“We’ve got five guys. We like them all,” Taylor said. “Two of them are younger guys. They might take a little longer to get in the mix, and then we’ve got three older guys who will compete for it, and we like them all.”

Former Folsom High and current Sac State quarterback Kaiden Bennett/ contributed

Redshirt freshman Kaiden Bennett won a California state title at Folsom High School, where Taylor coached from 2012-15, in 2018. After a redshirt year at Nevada and an initial commitment to Boise State, Bennett joined Taylor in Sacramento.

The 5-11 dual-threat could comfortably replicate Kevin Thomson, who ran for 619 yards and 12 touchdowns in his Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year campaign in 2019. Jake Dunniway backed up Thomson that year, throwing for 384 yards and four touchdowns in his only start against Northern Arizona.

The under-the-radar guy is junior transfer Asher O’Hara from Middle Tennessee State, who doesn’t have the narrative of Bennett or the history of Dunniway but was a two-year starter for the Blue Raiders, where he ranks second all-time in passing yards per game — and, speaking of dual-threats, led the team in rushing in both 2019 and 2020.

That’s a lot of talent in one room, especially with Taylor, who was a quarterbacks coach at Eastern Washington and Utah before overseeing Thomson’s breakout year in 2019. The former Cal and NFL quarterback has proven he knows how to develop players under center.

8. Montana

The Grizzlies have a legitimate quarterback competition going on in fall camp between redshirt senior Cam Humphrey and redshirt freshman Kris Brown.

Humphrey, who transferred from Boise State to Saddleback Junior College to Montana, backed up Dalton Sneed in both 2018 and 2019, pushing Sneed in the fall camps leading up to each season.

Bobby Hauck reiterated before Monday’s practice that Humphrey comes into camp as the No. 1 — but that won’t stop him from going with Brown if the freshman from Bozeman outperforms the senior.

Montana senior quarterback Cam Humphrey, pictured here against Eastern Washington in 2019/ by Brooks Nuanez

There’s not much between the two. Humphrey, of course, has the experience — 185 passing attempts in his Griz career to Brown’s 12. Brown probably has a better arm. They can both run a little bit. Humphrey has played with the first string early in fall camp. Both seem to soak up the coaching of Griz offensive coordinator Timm Rosenbach, himself a former Heisman Trophy finalist out of Washington State who played nearly 10 years of professional football, including five in the NFL.

I think they’re both at least competent Big Sky quarterbacks, so simply winning the competition will be a point in the starter’s favor, and the team should have a solid backup option as well. JUCO transfer Robbie Patterson, who followed in Humphrey’s footsteps by going from Saddleback to Missoula, and freshman Daniel Britt are the next two in line.

7. Northern Arizona

Baseball has the concept of a post-hype sleeper, a highly-rated prospect who comes up, struggles, and then is largely forgotten about, even though the talent is still there. That’s NAU’s Keondre Wudtee, who played in four games over three years at Oklahoma State before transferring to NAU and backing up Case Cookus in 2019.

This season will be the third fall in Flagstaff for Wudtee, who’s the forgotten man after a spring season in which he wasn’t as good as Idaho State’s Tyler Vander Waal or or Southern Utah’s Justin Miller and wasn’t the new guy like Barron.

Former Oklahoma State and current NAU senior quarterback Keondre Wudtee/ contributed by OK State

To be fair, unlike Vander Waal or Miller, Wudtee actually won some games in the spring, leading the Lumberjacks to a 3-2 record including two head-to-head wins over Miller’s Southern Utah Thunderbirds. The 6-foot-4, 220-pounder finished with 1,074 yards on 58 percent completions with four touchdowns and one interception, and brings some value to the table as a runner too.

And remember, this man has played in the Big 12. There’s a world — and not a particularly crazy one — in which Wudtee ends up as a top-three quarterback in the league this fall.

The Lumberjacks also have redshirt freshman Jeff Widener, who played in all five games in the spring, and Oregon transfer Cale Millen, which gives them enviable depth this year and a potentially heated competition to replace Wudtee in 2022.

“We’ve got good depth there, like we do in a lot of spots in our football team, but we’re always gonna have a great quarterback, always, and I think we got a great one in Wudtee,” NAU coach Chris Ball said.


About Andrew Houghton

Andrew Houghton grew up in Washington, DC. He graduated from the University of Montana journalism school in December 2015 and spent time working on the sports desk at the Daily Tribune News in Cartersville, Georgia, before moving back to Missoula and becoming a part of Skyline Sports in early 2018.

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