Editor’s Note: this is the third installment in a three-part series about the quarterback position in the Big Sky Conference. Montana, Montana State, Idaho, Weber State and Southern Utah are all on the verge of upcoming quarterback battles during fall camp while Eastern Washington senior Gage Gubrud, Northern Arizona junior Case Cookus and UC Davis junior Jake Maier are three of the most prolific passers in the Football Championship Subdivision. This installment addresses the quarterback competitions upcoming across the Big Sky Conference.
On the first night of the Big Sky Kickoff in Spokane, Washington in July, Case Cookus and Jake Maier engaged in a game of corn hole, tossing beanbags for accuracy at a hole in rectangle wooden ramp across the room. What was supposed to be a friendly competition instead provided foreshadowing for what should be a pivotal matchup with playoff implications when Cookus and Northern Arizona face off against Maier and UC Davis in California on November 3.
“Those guys are ultra-competitive,” Southern Utah head coach Demario Warren said as he watched the action. “This is like a playoff game. That’s why these guys are nationally elite.”
The dichotomy of quarterback situations in the Big Sky Conference is stark with the league quickly approaching the kickoff of what is sure to be one of the wildest playoff races in recent memory. Some contenders sport stars like Cookus, Maier and Eastern Washington record-setter Gage Gubrud. Other contenders harbor nothing but question marks for the most crucial position in college football.
Northern Arizona is chasing a second straight berth in the postseason with Cookus, a Walter Payton Award hopeful, operating an explosive offense spurred on by future NFL pass catcher Emmanuel Butler.
Eastern Washington hopes to wash the taste of last season’s playoff snub out of its collective mouths behind the versatile playmaking of Gubrud, a fellow Payton favorite as a senior who led the Eagles to the FCS semifinals two years ago. Last season, Gubrud was the engine for Eastern’s offense again, helping EWU to seven wins before a playoff snub stamped Aaron Best’s first season as head coach of his alma mater.
In its first year under Dan Hawkins’ tutelage, UC Davis took the Big Sky by storm with a potent passing attack that finished the season third in the FCS in passing yards per game. Aggies’ wide receiver Keelan Doss grabbed the headlines as the Big Sky Offensive Most Valuable Player but Maier, the league’s Newcomer of the Year after transferring from Long Beach City College, was equally integral to the offensive improvement.
Sacramento State entered the season wondering how it might replace graduated running back Jordan Robinson and disgruntled quarterback Nate Ketteringham. The rapid emergence of UNLV transfer Kevin Thomson behind center gave the Hornets a dangerous and efficient dual-threat that helped Sac lead the league in scoring en rout to tying a school record with seven wins.
Because of the return of all four of those prolific gunslingers, all four teams certainly harbor lofty internal expectations. On the other side of the coin, Weber State is fresh off one of the great seasons in school history, yet is without a defined starter at quarterback after the graduation of steady Stefan Cantwell. Southern Utah shared the Big Sky crown with its in-state rival WSU last season before losing in the playoffs to the Wildcats. SUU is in search of a replacement for Patrick Tyler as Warren will observe the third quarterback battle in as many years as head coach when the Thunderbirds begin fall camp next week.
Throw in impending quarterback battles at Montana, Montana State and Idaho and August is sure to be filled with intrigue with quarterback battles highlighting fall camps across the wildest FCS league in the West.
“The quarterback play in the Big Sky has always been a highlight position,” said NAU head coach Jerome Souers, who enters his 21st season at the helm in Flagstaff this fall. “In FCS football, when you have fewer scholarships, more falls on that guy’s shoulders and the better you are there, the better your team is going to be. It’s a premium in each program to have a guy who is that capable of leading your team, not just managing a game.
“If you look at the Power 5 conferences, if you get a guy who can just manage a game, you are fine. You have a big ass tailback, NFL receivers, stud tight ends. And five-star guys on defense. You have players all around. At our level, that guy under center has to be special. We recruit those guys to straight up win us games.”
A total of 10 quarterbacks in the Football Championship Subdivision threw for 300 yards per game or more last season. Gubrud ranked fourth (334.2 yards per game), Maier ranked fifth (333.5 yards per game) and Cookus ranked 10th (301 yards per game).
“The quarterbacks in this league are second to none,” Warren said. “We get thrashed for not having great defenses in this conference. But when you have to play these guys week in and week out, what are we supposed to do? (Laughs). Those dudes throw it all over the yard and they are ultra competitive.”
Weber State, Southern Utah and Northern Arizona are the three teams chasing repeat playoff berths, with Weber in pursuit of a third straight spot in the FCS playoffs. Yet Eastern Washington was the consensus pick to win the Big Sky by the league’s coaches and affiliated media. Gubrud, a former walk-on from McMinville, Oregon who has thrown for 8,568 yards and 74 touchdowns over the last two seasons, is the primary reason the Eagles are once again the Big Sky favorites.
“It’s an honor to be mentioned among guys now and from the past,” Gubrud said. “The Big Sky has produced a lot of really good quarterbacks throughout the years, produced some guys who go play at the next level whether it’s the NFL or the CFL. It’s awesome and you always want to be the best, so we are always all competing against each other to be the best in the Big Sky.”
Gubrud set a Big Sky and FCS record by throwing for 5,160 yards and 48 touchdowns while spurring the Eagles to 12 wins and a Final Four playoff appearance. Despite the departure of NFL wide receivers Cooper Kupp and Kendrick Bourne, the 6-foot, 195-pound dual threat earned a spot as a Payton Award finalist by throwing for 3,342 yards and 26 touchdowns.
“The three returning all-league guys are all three exceptional players, game-changing type guys,” said Montana State head coach Jeff Choate, who played against Gubrud and Cookus last fall during MSU’s 5-6 season. “The quarterback position is such a pivotal position. I think it is going to be interesting to keep an eye on that throughout the league in August.
“I think that’s why you see Eastern at the top of the coaches’ and media polls is just the level of production Gage has had throughout his career, the style of offense they play. And Case is a game-changer in his own right. It will be interesting to see if those guys continue to develop and progress.”
Cookus burst onto the scene operating former offensive coordinator Tim Plough’s spread West Coast hybrid offense at NAU in 2015. He led the Big Sky in passer efficiency (184.9) while throwing for 3,111 yards, 37 touchdowns and just five interceptions as a freshman. NAU fell 49-41 in its season finale that year to finish 7-4, missing the playoffs.
In 2016, the Lumberjacks entered the season as the favorite to win the Big Sky before Cookus went down with a season-ending shoulder injury four games in. Last season, Butler’s early injury, off the field drama because of Souers’ uncertain job status and Cookus’ precedent-setting ejection for targeting in a 17-15 loss at Montana all played factors in a late-season slide that pushed a team that forged a six-game winning streak to a 7-5 final record.
Entering this season, the 6-foot-4, 205-pound junior returning first-team All-Big Sky quarterback harbors lofty expectations that mostly center upon his team’s performance.
“Gage is the benchmark in the league right now,” said Cookus, the FCS National Freshman of the Year in 2015. “In this league, you always check in on your guys, see if you are first in the conference for this, first in the conference for that. But for me, if we can win the Big Sky, that’s all I care about. I don’t care if I’m first-team All-Big Sky. We have some great quarterbacks, very talented and a challenge to play against them. It’s always great to compete against them. But we are looking for that championship.”
Maier, a 6-foot, 200-pound natural field general with a rocket arm, came out of nowhere, completing 19-of-24 passes for 258 yards and two touchdowns, including eight passes for 181 yards and a score to Doss, in his Division I debut, a 35-17 loss at San Diego State. The following week, Maier threw for 369 yards and three scores in a 35-7 domination of San Diego, the eventual Pioneer Football League champion who decimated NAU in Flagstaff for a first round victory in the FCS playoffs.
The former junior college standout proved the debut was no fluke, instead throwing for more than 300 yards and three touchdowns in a win over Porltand State, 415 yards and four touchdowns as Davis ripped defending league champion North Dakota 48-24, and 367 yards along with two touchdowns in a narrow 41-38 loss to Gubrud and EWU. The Eastern signal caller threw for 452 yards and six scores in that win.
Maier also lost his heads up matchup with Cookus, throwing for 164 yards and a score compared to Cookus’ 293 yards and two TDs in NAU’s 45-31 win. But he bounced right back, throwing for a career-high 459 yards and four touchdowns in a 31-28 rivalry win over Cal Poly, the first of four straight games with at least 317 passing yards to end the season.
“In this conference, I believe you have to be different and unique game to game,” Maier said. “You have to attack your opponents different, throw some curveballs in there so you have to break tendencies and you can’t be predictable. Hawk (head coach Dan Hawkins) is awesome at that. I think he has pure joy playing that role in our offensive meetings. He’s always challenging us to be more creative and do things more differently than they’ve ever been done.”
He finished the season with gaudy numbers, completing 68.6 percent of his passes for 3,669 yards and 26 touchdowns.
“Really, to me, his leadership and ownership has grown since last fall,” Hawkins said. “He came in last year as the new guy, didn’t want to overstep his bounds a bunch but he has really taken our team’s heart and soul in the off-season, running our football team, great command of the offense and what we are doing schematically. He is unbelievable.”
Montana and Montana State will have much publicized quarterback competitions in with the departures of two of the most exciting young quarterbacks in the West. MSU junior Chris Murray, the 2016 Big Sky Freshman of the Year despite starting just five games and the league’s leading rusher in 2017, will sit out the 2018 season to concentrate on academics.
On the other side of the Great Divide, Bobby Hauck enters his first season back at his alma mater since leaving in 2009 with a question mark under center as well. After a contested quarterback competition during the spring between incumbent Gresch Jensen, an FCS Freshman All-American despite making just seven starts operating former UM head coach Bob Stitt’s spread offense, and former UNLV and Fort Scott Community College dual-threat Dalton Sneed. Less than two weeks after spring football, Jensen left the Griz program.
Weber State, Southern Utah and Idaho will all chase playoff berths despite uncertainty among their field generals.
The Vandals, back in the league for the first time since leaving for the FBS in 2016, have more familiarity with their candidates. Matt Linehan etched his name in the Idaho record books — prestigious company for a school that produced all-time great Big Sky gunslingers John Friesz and Doug Nussmeier during its first stint in Division I-AA. Linehan, the son of Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator, threw for 10,752 yards and 62 touchdowns in his four years as a starter, including 3,184 yards and 19 scores in leading Idaho to a 9-4 record and a bowl win as a junior in 2016.
As a senior, Linehan battled injuries throughout, managing 2,056 passing yards and missing three full games and parts of more than half Idaho’s other contests as the Vandals stumbled to a 4-8 record their final year in the FBS.
Mason Petrino, the son of Idaho head coach Paul Petrino, started three games last season and appearend in nine. He threw for 248 yards and three touchdowns overall as the Vandals lost a collection of close games.
The one game Mason Petrino or Linehan did not start came when freshman Colton Richardson started in Idaho’s 24-10 win at Georgia State. The former Idaho Player of the Year from Lewiston threw for 228 yards and a touchdown.
“Mason and Colton both had good springs, both are working hard and hopefully, it continues through fall camp,” Paul Petrino said at the Big Sky Kickoff. “The better they can both get, the better off we are going to be as a team because you never know this day in age, you might need them both to win anyways. Whenever it happens and they separate, we will make that decision and if they don’t, they will continue to compete.”
Richardson is a 6-foot-4, 255-pound throwback who stands in the pocket and fires the ball. Petrino is a 6-foot, 190-pounder with enough athleticism to earn himself a few snaps at wide receiver last season, where he caught three passes.
“It’s going to be interesting,” senior running back Isaiah Saunders, UI’s leading returning rusher, said. “They both are great quarterbacks. They both bring different things to the table. They are both great at what they do.”
Although Cantwell did not put up the prolific numbers of the Big Sky quarterbacks who earned nods to national awards lists, he was perhaps the steadiest quarterback in the league. During his senior year, he threw for 2,978 yards and 25 touchdowns, managing games as well as anyone in the FCS as Weber seven straight games and 11 games overall before falling to No. 1 James Madison in the quarterfinals.
“Last year, we had a guy who no one was talking about but Stefan stepped up and was one of the best players in the league,” Weber State third-year head coach Jay Hill said. “You just never know who it was going to be. Last year, it was Stefan and Jake Maier. A couple years before, it was Cookus. You just never know who it’s going to be.”
Cantwell came out of nowhere to replace Jadrian Clark, a dynamic leader and tough dual-threat quarterback who led the Wildcats to the playoffs in 2016. Now Hill is hoping he can find the next surprise with whoever emerges from the battle between senior Rathen Ricedorff and redshirt freshman Kaden Jenks.
The 6-foot-1, 190-pound Ricedorff was the Arizona small school Player of the Year in 2010 at Show Low High after throwing for 4,413 yards and 55 touchdowns during a state championship run. He initially started his career at Arizona State but not before spending several years on an LDS mission.
He sat out the 2014 season after returning from his mission, then played the 2015 and 2016 seasons at Mesa Community College. He earned a ranking as the No. 6 junior college quarterback in the country and earned a shot with Boise State but could not beat out Brett Rypien. He transferred to WSU in the spring of 2017 and used his redshirt to set up his final opportunity to serve as a Division I starter.
Ricedorff will have to hold off the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Jenks, a Royal City, Washington native who led his high school to 27 straight wins and two straight Washington 1A state titles before also redshirting at Weber State last season.
“I think competition is good at all levels and all positions,” Hill said. “Last year, we had a battle and it made Stefan Cantwell elevate his game and as the rest of the team watched him battle, it made everybody better. Right now, we are in the same thing and I’m not willing to name a starter because I want to see these guys battle and I want to see the sweat and blood and tears that they put into this fall camp so they can prove to me that they are the guy.”
Southern Utah joined the league in 2012 with one of the best signal callers in the country in future NFL Draft pick Brad Sorensen. Since then, the Thunderbirds have searched for consistency at quarterback, finding it in spurts with Ammon Olsen on the way to the 2015 Big Sky title and again finding it with Tyler, a former junior college quarterback who set the tone for the entire team much like Cantwell did at Weber State.
“I haven’t not had a heated competition, so it’s normal for us,” Warren said as SUU enters its third fall camp under his guidance. “It would be nice not to be worried about that but I’m getting used to it. It’s Year 3, the third quarterback battle we’ve had. And it hasn’t really affected us negatively.
“I think Pat Tyler set a tone of how you handle position battles. You help that guy out, try to get him as good as you can get him even if it means he passes you up. That set the tone for the whole team.”
Southern Utah has cultivated a strong pipeline of dropdown quarterbacks from BYU, from Sorensen to Olsen to McCoy Hill. Aaron Zwahlen came to Cedar City as a 6-foot-3, 220-pound former 4-star recruit from Modesto, California who began his career at Hawaii.
Zwahlen was ranked as the 11th-best quarterback in the country coming out of high school. He earned a collection of offers, including from Mike Leach at Washington State and Norm Chow at Hawaii, two of the great passing game minds college football. Zwahlen ultimately chose Hawaii before going on an LDS mission. During his redshirt freshman year, in 2016, Chow as fired.
The big-armed quarterback initially tried to transfer to Murray State, but his scholarship was pulled abruptly. He had no landing spot as of January 3, 2017. Warren offered him a walk-on spot and the chance to compete with Hill and Tyler.
“I hope one day I can be the starter at SUU — I don’t know when that’ll be, but it’s something I’m reaching for,” Zwahlen told Ryan Miller of the Spectrum newspaper in April of 2017.
To win the job, Zwahlen will have to fend off Chris Helbig, a 6-foot-4, 201-pound transfer who threw for 1,661 yards and 16 touchdowns last season at Butler (Utah) College and freshman Tyler Skidmore, a 6-foot-2, 210-pound freshman fellow LDS missionary who graduated from Roy (Utah) High in 2015. Skidmore threw for 2,875 yards and 23 touchdowns while leading his high school to the Utah 4A title game as a senior.
“I think Aaron is doing that now, helping those guys become better, making that competition tighter and it’s helping our whole team understand that with competition, we are one team but we are going to fight our asses off to be the starter at our spots,” Warren said.
Whether in flux, in transition or cemented, the quarterback positions in the Big Sky will be a fascinating follow in August and throughout the rest of 2018. The elite national talent combined with the fast-rising new challengers are sure to all put stress on Big Sky defenses as an unpredictable race to the postseason commences.
“It’s very challenging playing against these guys,” NAU senior safety Wes Sutton, a first-team All-Big Sky selection last season, said. “I wouldn’t’ want to go against any other quarterbacks besides the best in the country.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez and contributed.