DALLAS — The quarterback position has never been more living-and-breathing vital in the Big 12.
Or more fun to play.
The leaguewide move to spread offenses puts more of a premium — and pressure — on the quarterbacks, who are more and more tied to producing points and winning games with ball control and dominant defense a think of the past.
“There's just been an evolution of the position the past few years,” said Oklahoma's Landry Jones, one of five Big 12 quarterbacks on both the Davey O'Brien and Manning Award watch lists. “It's become a pass-heavy league and a pass-heavy sport. And there's a lot more pressure on that guy to lead your team and to put your team in the right spot.
“So it's a great time to be a quarterback in this league. It's exciting and it's a huge honor for me to be a part of this time period.”
TCU's Casey Pachall is new to the Big 12, but not to recognizing its signal callers.
“The Big 12 has always had a lot of good quarterbacks,” said Pachall, one of the conference's five early award candidates at the position.
Last season, the Big 12 produced four of the nation's top seven passers and a fifth among the top 13, including Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III of Baylor. Another, Kansas State's Collin Klein, ran for 1,141 yards — third among all QBs — and set an FBS record with 27 quarterback rushing touchdowns. Klein also passed for 1,918 yards and 13 scores, leading the Wildcats to a surprising second-place finish in the conference.
And don't peg Klein as a throwback, he insists he can fling the football, too.
“Actually, I was a pro-style quarterback in high school,” Klein said. “And we threw more than we ran. That's what I was originally recruited to Kansas State to do.
“Last year took on a little bit of a shape of its own to where, ‘I'll do whatever I have to do to win.' I ended up running the ball, a lot. But whatever I need to do, I'll do it.”
Like its quarterbacks from series to series and snap to snap, the Big 12 just seems to reload at quarterback.
Griffin III, Texas A&M's Ryan Tannehill and Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden have moved on, first-round draft picks all. Still, the Big 12 returns three from the top six of the NCAA passing rankings, with the addition of West Virginia's Geno Smith, the Preseason All-Conference pick at quarterback.
Smith, Jones and Klein are involved in the early 2012 Heisman buzz, while Pachall and Doege join them on the other watch lists.
“It's definitely been a strong quarterback league here for a great number of years,” said OU coach Bob Stoops. “I don't need to go back through them all for you, but we've had a lot of excellent quarterbacks in this league and still do.
“So it's something we've become used to.”
Why the Big 12? And why now?
“Maybe the area you grow up in,” Jones said. “I know a lot of the quarterbacks are from Texas and Texas does great 7-on-7 (passing league) stuff. I think that's just becoming more and more prevalent in this part of the country, those leagues. That and running the shotgun when you're a little kid growing up.”
The emphasis has shifted for defenses, too.
“The nature of the game in the Big 12 has changed,” said Iowa State linebacker A.J. Klein. “There's a lot more spread offenses. Not a lot of people line up and try to run the ball on you with two backs in the backfield. Everybody's playing fast. It's a fast league. And to try to adjust to that is tough.”
The increased emphasis on passing creates an enhanced reliability on the quarterback.
The position has always been in focus, but more wins and losses are more directly tied to the position now, particularly in the Big 12.
Behind Weeden, the Cowboys won their first Big 12 championship and the Fiesta Bowl in 2011. On his run to the Heisman, Griffin III directed one of the greatest seasons in Baylor history. Jones ranks among OU's winningest quarterbacks. At West Virginia, Smith set passing records in establishing the Mountaineers as a national contender for 2012.
“There's no question it's the most important position on the field,” said Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads, who is seeking improved quarterback play in hope of moving up in the Big 12 pecking order. “In these times, with these offenses, when you're throwing the kind of balls that we do, you better be completing them.
“And we completed 51 percent. That's nowhere close to being good enough.”
In the Big 12, it's becoming all about being good enough at quarterback.
So, who's the Big 12's best? Is there another Heisman in the conference's future?
Or even some surprises?
“Even though a lot of us are already being ranked or talked good about,” Pachall said, “come Saturdays during the season is when it's really going to be showing. And we're going to find out who really has prepared and who wants it the most.”
Armed and Dangerous
Geno Smith, West Virginia: Should flourish in Year 2 under Dana Holgorsen.
Landry Jones, OU: Rewriting the school's passing record books.
Collin Klein, Kansas State: Improved passing would make him a true dual-threat.
Casey Pachall, TCU: Didn't flinch in replacing Andy Dalton a year ago.
Seth Doege, Texas Tech: Numbers are strong, except for the win column.
Back in the Pack
David Ash/Case McCoy, Texas: Position could lift or sink the Horns … again.
Nick Florence, Baylor: Nobody in the league (nation?) has bigger shoes to fill.
Steele Jantz/Jared Barnett, Iowa State: Improved QB play key to moving up.
Dayne Crist, Kansas: Notre Dame transfer helps, but how much?
Wes Lunt, OSU: True freshman inherits high-powered offense; high expectations.