-- Eight years ago, Kliff Kingsbury had only begun to learn the art of whispering to quarterbacks. He worked as a quality-control assistant at Houston, sharing an apartment with offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen as they cooked up schemes for coach Kevin Sumlin.
Kingsbury, at age 29 and fresh out of the professional ranks, knew a thing or two about great quarterback play, though, and as he peered over the landscape, he marveled at the passers in the Big 12 -- seven who topped 3,000 passing yards in 2008 and five who led their teams to more than 40 points per game.
It was the dawn of a prolific era in college football, on the wings of which Kingsbury has refined a passing empire at Texas Tech in three seasons. The coach recalls with fondness his view of the Big 12 quarterbacks. No group was better nationally.
And Kingsbury issues these words of wisdom about the current crop of QBs in the conference: It's just as good. If not better.
Big 12 quarterbacks experienced a renaissance in 2015 -- from former walk-on Baker Mayfield at Oklahoma, fourth in the Heisman voting, to breakout stars Patrick Mahomes at Texas Tech, Seth Russell at Baylor and Oklahoma State's Mason Rudolph. Every team but TCU returns its primary starter this fall. While QB battles will rage in August at Texas, Kansas State and Kansas, elsewhere in the conference, players at the position are set to solidify the Big 12 as the best league for quarterbacks nationally.
Last month at SEC media days, Chad Kelly of Ole Miss labeled himself at the best QB in the nation. While the Big 12 quarterbacks declined to refute Kelly's assessment, they were clear on their feelings about the league as a whole.
"Offensively, this is the best conference in the country," Mayfield said. "It's home to the best quarterbacks."
The stats back him up.
Among returning quarterbacks in the Power 5, the top three in yards per attempt reside in the Big 12. Three of the top six and five of the top 10 in passing yards play in the Big 12. Its quarterbacks fill four of the top seven returning Power 5 spots in touchdown passes, four of the top six in yards per completion and two of the top five in completion percentage.
In total QBR, the metric designed to measure a quarterback's complete performance, Russell ranked first nationally in seven games before suffering a fractured bone in his neck. Mayfield is fourth among returning QBs from the Power 5 and Notre Dame; Mahomes is sixth and Rudolph is ninth.
"As defensive guys," TCU coach Gary Patterson said, "we've got our hands full."
Patterson credits the spectacular quarterback play to their upbringings in this era after the likes of Colt McCoy, Sam Bradford, Graham Harrell and Chase Daniel lit up the league.
"The philosophy in other conferences is not to go vertical 60 times a game," Patterson said.
Such aerials are fine in the Big 12.
"They're kind of a different animal," Kansas linebacker Joe Dineen said. "They're the offensive weapon, where maybe in a different league it's another position. In the Big 12, it's the QB. He's the one who runs the show."
Polled at Big 12 media days last month on the quarterback with the most irreplaceable traits, league players praised Mayfield for his competitiveness, Mahomes for his athleticism and versatility, Russell for his poise and arm strength, and Rudolph for his skill and precision.
"The guy who stands out -- and I think he's the guy that stands out to everyone -- is Baker," Dineen said. "Baker isn't very fun to play against. He makes a lot of plays. But honestly, in the Big 12, they're all like that."
"The one I think people have been sleeping on is Seth Russell," Kingsbury said.
Mahomes, in fact, earned the most praise from Big 12 players and coaches. The 6-foot-3 junior threw for 4,653 yards and 36 touchdowns last year while rushing for 456 yards and 10 scores.
"His ability to be able to keep the play alive and throw that thing 70 yards downfield, I've never seen anything like it," said Holgorsen, the sixth-year West Virginia coach, "If Kliff can get him to make a routine play, he could be one of the best in the country."
Iowa State receiver Allen Lazard described Mahomes as the "epitome" of a quarterback who makes a play when nothing appears available.
"If there's a dead play," Lazard said, "he's not dead."
Pride among Big 12 quarterbacks is tangible, Mahomes said. He attended the Manning Passing Academy in June with Mayfield, Russell and Rudolph.
"You could see it when we were around those other quarterbacks," Mahomes said. "We were all like, 'We have the best quarterbacks. I don't know why you are all talking like you do.'"
Mahomes' connection runs deep with Mayfield, who began his career at Texas Tech. Mayfield hosted Mahomes on his recruiting visit, and the Oklahoma quarterback visits Lubbock to spend time with Tech receiver Zach Austin, a friend from Lake Travis High School in Austin.
Mayfield vacationed in Destin, Florida, over spring break in 2015 with Rudolph.
Russell underwent surgery last fall at WVU Medicine Spine Center. While in Morgantown, he heard from Howard, a senior out of Fort Worth, Texas, who threw for 3,145 yards in his first season as the full-time starter.
"I was there for him if he needed me," Howard said. "We communicated. I knew what he was dealing with was difficult, so I just wanted to show my support."
Occasionally, the Big 12 quarterbacks share a Snapchat session, according to Rudolph.
"We're going through the same thing at different schools," he said, "so there's a lot of common ground -- things to talk about. We keep up.
"But I'm not really concerned with their production. I'm trained to be effective against the defense, so nothing they do will bother me."
As camps open this week and the focus shifts from camaraderie to competition, the Big 12 quarterbacks continue to agree simply that, as a group, they're unmatched. At least, in today's game, they're unmatched.
The Big 12 class of 2008 might have a say. Regardless, Kingsbury said, he's anxious to study this collection for another season.
"You go on and on and on," he said. "It's loaded with talent."