Boise State is hardly alone with a question mark behind center.
It’s a wild new Mountain West as quarterback battles dot the league, and even ones that are settled have their share of unknowns.
The media’s selection for preseason all-conference quarterback (Utah State’s Chuckie Keeton) has played in nine games the last two seasons, both ending because of knee injuries. College football guru Phil Steele, in his annual magazine, picked a player who has never taken a snap for his team with his first-team nod (Hawaii’s Max Wittek).
“That’s the most interesting thing to me about the conference this year,” San Diego State coach Rocky Long said.
Only three Mountain West quarterbacks return who had more than 895 yards passing last season, and only one of those — UNLV’s Blake Decker, who threw for 2,886 yards — has been named a starter. San Jose State’s Joe Gray (2,305 yards) is in a competition with two other candidates for the Spartans’ starting job. Wittek, a USC transfer, was named starter last month over Ikaika Woolsey, who had 2,538 in 2014.
“That could kind of be a neutralizer, who will emerge at that position, how it plays,” San Jose State coach Ron Caragher said.
The two teams with the most votes in the preseason ballot, Boise State and San Diego State, have yet to name a starter. Nevada must replace Cody Fajardo, but did not have any other quarterback attempt a pass last season. Colorado State lost Offensive Player of the Year Garrett Grayson, and has not named a successor.
“Take out the outliers on the top or the bottom, but the vast majority of the league, we look like each other — our O-lines look the same, our DBs and wide receivers look the same — so then what’s the wild card? The wild card’s the quarterback,” Nevada coach Brian Polian said.
Often in the past, the league has featured big-name quarterbacks from the likes of Kellen Moore to David Carr or ones at least with pro potential like Grayson or David Fales — “that doesn’t exist as we sit here today,” Polian said. Those three returning quarterbacks? They had a combined 39 touchdowns and 40 interceptions last season.
Without notable names at the game’s biggest position, it is not too hard to see why many see the league a bit down.
“I guess it would hurt,” Hawaii coach Norm Chow said. “It probably would affect it quite a bit, because football is quarterback-driven, we’ve said it a million times, and it’s the truth.”
It hardly means there is no talent in the league, of course — Boise State rarely has a hiccup when it comes to quarterback play, Wittek may be the quarterback Chow has never had with the Warriors, and then there is Keeton.
The sixth-year senior was brilliant from 2011 to 2013, throwing for 56 touchdowns with 13 interceptions and running for 1,153 yards. Before his injury last season, however, he had two touchdowns to four interceptions and completed only 55.4 percent of his passes.
“He’s had great years before that, so you would assume he’s the best quarterback coming back in the league,” Long said.
As an established, healthy starter, Decker smiled when he was told he was a rarity in the league. It may prove to be the difference for a team like the Rebels, or like Chow’s Warriors, both looking to get back into bowl contention.
“I think just because a lot of starters are gone, it doesn’t mean the talent isn’t there,” Decker said.
“The nature of it, if you have a quarterback returning, it instills confidence, I think it can help everyone.”