- Ivan Maisel, College Football Senior Writer
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Among the returning quarterbacks in the Big 12 Conference are a Heisman finalist, the most prolific passer in the nation and the most efficient passer in the nation. The quarterbacks are so good that a guy like Oklahoma State junior Zac Robinson, one of only three quarterbacks in the nation to rush for more than 800 yards and throw for more than 2,800 last season, can't get a sliver of national attention.
The proven talent at this position goes nine deep in the conference. Yet each of them has something to prove either as an individual or as the leader of a team. If 2008 fulfills its headline as The Year of the Quarterback in the Big 12, it will be because these 12 players have overcome the hurdles that await them.
Chase Daniel, Missouri
The senior from Southlake, Texas, has played his entire career as if he has needed to prove something. He had to prove Texas wrong for not recruiting him. He had to prove that a man of his stature (6-0, 225) could play big-time quarterback. He had to prove that Missouri should be taken seriously on the conference and national stage. Daniel has done all of that. He has thrown for 8,180 yards, 62 touchdowns and only 23 interceptions. Last season, he was named the Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year and finished fourth in the Heisman vote.
Daniel lost his favorite receiver, tight end Martin Rucker (84 catches), but in his place will be Chase Coffman, who caught 52 passes as a second tight end a year ago. Daniel still has Jeremy Maclin, the sophomore whose open-field running made him the most exciting player in the Big 12 last season. With a straight face, head coach Gary Pinkel described Maclin as "faster" this season.
What he and the Tigers haven't done, however, is win a championship. That's what Daniel has to prove, and he is the first to say it.
"It's been a lot more intense," Daniel said. "We don't have to talk about it. It's out there for us."
Graham Harrell, Texas Tech
Like his predecessors in Lubbock, Harrell has stats on steroids. In 2007, Harrell threw for 5,705 yards and 48 touchdowns, both of which led the nation. But, like Kliff Kingsbury, B.J. Symons, Sonny Cumbie and Cody Hodges before him, Harrell has garnered more stats than he has respect. Coach Mike Leach, asked about the latent skepticism, said, "I guess leading the nation in passing is not everything it's cracked up to be."
The skepticism will continue until the Red Raiders challenge seriously for the Big 12 South championship. Leach believes his quarterback has the goods to push Texas Tech to the top. "Harrell is not a guy you say, 'Well, he's just so weak at this. We have to overcome that,'" the head coach said. "I think he's pretty solid overall."
Leach said Harrell has worked on throwing individual routes to receivers not wearing No. 5, which would be a problem for any quarterback when Michael Crabtree is wearing No. 5. "It may not be perfect," Leach said of Harrell and Crabtree, "but one knew what the other was doing."
"Just subtle little things," Leach said. "Crabtree's got a little knack on a dig route, and they're on the same page on this. If the situation's right, instead of coming all the way across, he'll return. When he does that, he's wide open. I think as they're wandering around playing video games, doing whatever they do, some of that is rolling though their head. It brings out some positive things."
Sam Bradford, Oklahoma
Bradford led the nation in passing efficiency as a freshman with a rating of 176.5, which was a tie for the seventh-best single-season rating in history. He threw 36 touchdowns and only eight interceptions, and he completed 69.5 percent of his passes. All Bradford has to prove is that he received his vaccine for a sophomore slump.
"More than anything," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said of his goal for Bradford, "not to feel like there is a next step. Just grow in the system naturally, like he did a year ago. If he can throw for 36 touchdowns again to only eight interceptions, I think we're going to have a really good year.
"I think one of the harder things to coach a young guy in is pocket presence, to stay in the pocket," Stoops said. "Well, he already has that. I think at times he can leave it a little bit more. Some of that will naturally happen as he gets comfortable with it."
Colt McCoy, Texas
In 2006, McCoy surpassed all expectations for a redshirt freshman. He even set a then-NCAA first-year record with 29 touchdown passes. Last season, that number fell to 22, while his interceptions rose from seven to 18.
Coach Mack Brown took the coaches' share of the blame.
"We probably put too much on him [in 2007] because we weren't doing well," Brown said. "We were trying to find something we could do early. We probably gave him too much stuff. And there were tipped balls and unfortunate balls early."
Both coach and quarterback believe McCoy will better handle the responsibility this season.
"Yeah," McCoy said when asked what he had to prove, "I have to play better than I did last year. At the same time, the experience that I gained from last year is so important. I know how to play the game. Honestly, I felt like I became a much better quarterback than what I was."
McCoy, like Matt Stafford of Georgia, can combine the benefit of two years' experience with an easier brand of leadership that comes with age. Brown described the difference.
"He seems to have much better control of the team and who he is and where we're going, just watching him and watching how the kids are responding to him," Brown said. "He's just changed. He's being much more aggressive with the kids."
Josh Freeman, Kansas State
It may be more of a commentary on NFL scouts than it is on Freeman to say that the Wildcats junior already is the subject of draft lust. Not until the second half of last season did Freeman begin to fulfill the potential that he brought to Manhattan. In the last seven games of the season, Freeman threw for 2,044 yards, 14 touchdowns and only four interceptions.
The 6-6 Freeman has dropped 20 pounds to 240. He spent time in the offseason watching video of NFL stars Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. He studied Manning's downfield throws and Brady's pocket sense, "knowing your offensive linemen's strengths and matchups, where in the pocket for each protection that you can step up into."
Freeman knows what has been said about him. He wants to prove it all right, every word of it.
"I've always viewed myself as somebody who could be the best in the country," Freeman said. "This year I want to go out and lead our team to hopefully a Big 12 championship."
Todd Reesing, Kansas
The Jayhawks went 12-1 last season in no small part because of Reesing. He is listed at 5-11, which must be in his platform cleats, yet Reesing threw for 3,486 yards, 33 touchdowns and only seven interceptions. He also proved, as Texas Tech coach Mike Leach has said all along, that the spread offense doesn't need tall quarterbacks, only smart ones.
When coach Mark Mangino speaks of Reesing, he uses the word "continue" a lot.
"He needs to just constantly work, getting his reads, and continue to get rid of the ball quickly," Mangino said. " He's going to get a lot of looks. They're going to try to fool him. He has to continue to be a good student of the game."
Reesing enters his junior season with the same burden as his team. They must prove they aren't one-year wonders, and must do so against a schedule that includes road games at South Florida, Oklahoma and Nebraska.
Cody Hawkins, Colorado
Like the Buffaloes themselves, the sophomore needs to prove he can win more than half his starts. Late last season, Hawkins significantly cut back on his mistakes. In the final four games of the regular season, Hawkins threw six touchdowns and only one interception in 120 attempts.
Then came the big stage. On the Buffs' first offensive snap of the Independence Bowl, Hawkins threw it over the middle right to Alabama linebacker Rolando McClain, who returned it 17 yards to the Colorado 15.
When Hawkins got to the sideline, his father, head coach Dan Hawkins, looked at him and smiled. Cody said, "I know. Never throw the ball late down the middle."
Hawkins threw for 322 yards and three touchdowns and nearly brought the Buffs back from a 27-0 deficit before they lost 30-24. The second half of that bowl game is what Colorado and Hawkins need to use as a springboard for 2008. In the first scrimmage of the preseason Monday, Hawkins went 17-of-26 for 268 yards and three touchdowns. Yeah, something like that.
Zac Robinson, Oklahoma State
Cowboys coach Mike Gundy repeated it constantly at Big 12 media days last month: Robinson is one of three players to rush for more than 800 yards and throw for more than 2,800 yards last season. One of the other ones won the Heisman Trophy.
Robinson took over at quarterback after Bobby Reid got hurt early in the season. Robinson, a junior, might have received more attention last season had Gundy's postgame media rant not sucked up all the bandwidth in the state of Oklahoma for several weeks. Cowboys offensive coordinator Larry Fedora slowly adapted the offense to Robinson's gifts; by the end of last season, Robinson ran many more zone-read plays out of the spread, and the Cowboys' tempo picked up.
This season, the show belongs to Robinson. Fedora has become the head coach at Southern Mississippi. Co-coordinators Trooper Taylor and Gunter Brewer have kept Robinson as the focus. Robinson has had a spring, summer and August in which he has earned the majority of the reps. He's a year smarter, stronger and faster. He'd better be smart. No other quarterback has taken a snap.
Joe Ganz, Nebraska
Ganz stepped in last season after Sam Keller suffered a season-ending shoulder injury and threw for more than 400 yards in each of three starts.
New coach Bo Pelini would like the offense to tilt a little more toward tailback Marlon Lucky. But he thought enough of what the Huskers did last season to keep offensive coordinator Shawn Watson. That makes Ganz's job easier. All he has to show is that he can perform over the course of the season the way he did in the last three games of 2007.
"He's a dynamic leader, somebody who plays with a tremendous amount of confidence and that toughness about him," Pelini said of Ganz, calling him "the kind of guy you want leading your offense."
Stephen McGee, Texas A&M
For McGee, the task is simple. The senior must prove he can prevent losing his starting job to sophomore Jerrod Johnson. That's life with a new head coach and a new pro-style offense.
McGee established himself as a future star in 2005 when he stepped into the starting lineup against undefeated Texas and led an Aggies team that pushed the No. 2 Longhorns before losing, 40-29. Three years later, McGee remains a future star. He has surpassed 2,900 total yards in each of the past two seasons, but didn't pass as well last season as he had in 2006.
McGee underwent shoulder surgery during the offseason, and there's good news for the joint: He won't be asked to run for 899 yards, as he did in 2007. But he has only last spring's experience in taking snaps under center, and he doesn't have Johnson's arm, either. McGee must prove he can drop back and throw, and do so well enough that he can put off Johnson's arrival in the starting lineup for one more season.
Austen Arnaud, Iowa State
Arnaud is Ames' own version of Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers. The redshirt sophomore replaces Bret Meyer, who started the past 48 games that the Cyclones played. Arnaud is 6-3 and 230, and he's shown the ability to run and pass effectively dating back to his Gatorade Player of the Year performance at Ames High in 2005. Entrusted with a first-quarter drive against Kansas State, Arnaud took the Cyclones downfield for a touchdown in the 31-20 victory.
Arnaud is homegrown and has Cyclones bones. His dad, John, started in the Iowa State secondary from 1980 to 1982. As if enough isn't expected of Arnaud, the hometown hero, Dad went 3-0 against Iowa.
Kirby Freeman, Baylor
The fifth-year senior transferred from Miami in December, before the rule change went into effect to no longer allow transferring graduates to be eligible without sitting out one season. Freeman, who will play for his third coaching staff in three seasons, has to prove that he will be more comfortable in his native Texas than he ever looked at the U, where in three seasons he started seven games and put up mediocre numbers (92 completions-197 attempts-16 interceptions, 1,311 yards, 12 touchdowns).
Freeman has to prove that he can convince new coach Art Briles that spending one year on him instead of giving the job to freshman Robert Griffin is the right foundation to lay for the future.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at firstname.lastname@example.org. His new book, "The Maisel Report: College Football's Most Overrated and Underrated Players, Coaches, Teams, & Traditions," is on sale now.
The proven returning talent projects 2008 to be The Year of the Quarterback in the Big 12, but all of the signal-callers enter the season with something to prove.