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The Arizona starting quarterback position should come down to redshirt junior Anu Solomon’s maturity and experience overcoming the youthful zest and athletic ability of redshirt sophomore Brandon Dawkins when the Wildcats take the field at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale on Sept. 3
If Solomon has the will to keep his starting role in his third season and regain the confidence of Rich Rodriguez and his staff, he must strengthen that trust now with less than three weeks to the season-opener against BYU.
In Rodriguez’s previous 14 years as a head coach at West Virginia, Michigan and Arizona, he had only two quarterbacks who became three-year starters. They were Rasheed Marshall (2002-2004) and Pat White (2005-2007) with the Mountaineers. Never has he featured a four-year starter, which Solomon can become next year in his senior season.
West Virginia’s combined record in 2004 and 2007, the years in which Marshall and White were in their third year as starters was 18-6 (.750 winning percentage). Can Solomon deliver a 9-3 record or better this season? The combined records in Rich Rod’s other 12 seasons: 90-62 (.592).
Here’s a look:
RICH ROD’S PRIMARY STARTING QB’s IN COACHING CAREER
WEST VIRGINIA (2001-2007)
When asked earlier this month about when he will announce his starting quarterback, Rodriguez quipped on the Burns and Gamboa radio show in Phoenix: “When is the kickoff of the BYU game?” It is 7:30 p.m., just in case you need to know.
“It might be 30 seconds before we go out on the field or I might tell them during warmups,” Rodriguez said of his decision between Solomon and Dawkins. “I don’t treat that position much different than anything else. They’re competing against each other but getting better. Certainly, this camp will be big for those two.”
Rodriguez also made it clear that Solomon is not slipping but Dawkins instead is improving, making the starting role a challenging one in fall camp.
“I do feel comfortable that Dawkins can push Anu, but I also feel comfortable with Anu,” Rodriguez said. “Anu Solomon will be a better player than the last couple of years and he’s been pretty good.”
If there is such a thing as a quarterback competition this season, Rodriguez has plenty of experience dealing with that and Arizona’s program has endured some controversy with it over the years. The following is a look at how each Arizona quarterback became a starter since the Wildcats’ Pac-10/12 existence began in 1978:
Jim Krohn (1978-79)
After playing mostly behind Marc Lunsford at quarterback in his first two years, the Amphi graduate was the definite starter heading into Arizona’s first season in the Pac-10 in 1978. Bob Carter was Krohn’s backup but attempted only 38 passes (completing 15 in mop-up duty) during Krohn’s junior and senior seasons of 1978 and 1979.
Tom Tunnicliffe (1980-83)
Tunnicliffe became Arizona’s leading quarterback as a true freshman in 1980 after sophomore starter Mark Fulcher suffered a season-ending knee injury early in the season and coach Larry Smith benched No. 2 quarterback Kevin Ward in the fifth game. Fulcher won the quarterback competition in fall camp over Ward, a highly-touted option quarterback recruited by previous coach Tony Mason. Ward struggled in Smith’s pro-style offense. Ward eventually ended his Arizona career as a split end. Carter, Krohn’s backup, also finished his career as a receiver in 1980 and 1981.
Alfred Jenkins (1984-86)
John Conner won the quarterback competition in 1984 over Jenkins after Tunnicliffe exhausted his eligibility. Smith told reporters after making the decision to go with Conner: “I’m not one to play musical chairs at quarterback.” He was forced to do just that as Conner, a senior, went down with a knee injury in Arizona’s first game against Fresno State. Jenkins, a sophomore, took over and started the rest of the season. By the end of the season, Jenkins led the Pac-10 in passing yardage (2,002) and was second in total offense. After rehabilitating his knee, Conner was impressive enough in workouts for NFL scouts that Seattle drafted him in the 10th round in 1985.
Ron Veal (1987-89)
SMU transfer Bobby Watters, who gained immediate eligibility after the Mustangs were served the death penalty by the NCAA for repeated recruiting violations, was Arizona’s definitive starter to begin the 1987 season. But in Week Three at UCLA, Watters broke his thumb in his passing hand and Veal, a freshman, was forced into the starting role for the rest of the season. Craig Bergman, a pro-style quarterback recruited by Smith, did not fit Dick Tomey’s run-and-shoot offense, so he transferred. That left Veal and fellow freshman Jeff Hammerschmidt as the only possibilities at quarterback in 1987. Watters was granted a medical hardship waiver in 1988 and shared time with Veal throughout the season.
George Malauulu (1990-92)
Veal also shared the quarterback role as a senior with Malauulu in 1990. Malauulu, who started twice as a freshman in 1989, provided Tomey the opportunity to mix more of the pass with the run at quarterback. Veal was efficient at running the option with an occasional pass to catch the defense off guard. Five games into the 1990 season, when asked who would start against Washington State, Tomey, a baseball enthusiast, responded: “I’m not sure if we’re gonna go with the left-hander (Malauulu) or the right-hander (Veal). We’re gonna have to see what kind of lineup they’ve got.” Malauulu attempted 101 passes and Veal 61 in 1990.
Dan White (1993-95)
The Penn State transfer emerged as Malauulu’s successor after battling with Ryan Hesson, Henry Cofer and Brady Batten for the starting assignment. Not one of those quarterbacks completed a pass in college entering the 1993 season season. Arizona finished 10-2 that year behind its Desert Swarm defense. White was also steady, completing 103 of 207 attempts for 1,410 yards, 11 touchdowns and only seven interceptions.
Keith Smith (1996, 1998-99)
As a redshirt freshman in 1996, Smith battled Batten for the starting assignment after White exhausted his eligibility. Once again, Batten came up short, this time to the gritty Smith. After both shared time against UTEP in the 1996 season opener, Smith replaced Batten for good in the second half of the next game at Iowa. Smith led the UA in passing (1,430 yards) and rushing (546 yards) that season.
Ortege Jenkins (1997, 2000)
Similar to how he mixed Veal and Malauulu, Tomey switched between Smith and Jenkins from 1997-99. Batten once again came up short as a senior in 1997, injuring his collarbone. Jenkins emerged as the leading quarterback in 1997 after Smith suffered a sprained right shoulder. Jenkins was highly efficient as a freshman, throwing 19 touchdown passes compared to only five interceptions. Smith and Jenkins each passed for more than 1,000 yards in 1998 and 1999 with Smith getting most of the reps. Jenkins struggled as a senior in 2000, looking as if he missed Smith. He completed only 123 passes in 261 attempts for 1,647 yards with nine touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Tomey was forced to resign after that season.
Jason Johnson (2001-02)
The transition to the unsuccessful John Mackovic regime was not smooth and that included the battle at quarterback. Johnson, a junior, earned the starting nod over redshirt freshmen John Rattay, a transfer from Tennessee, and Cliff Watkins. Rattay voiced his displeasure after the season and announced he would transfer. He returned to the Arizona program in 2003 after attending junior college but suffered a knee injury. Johnson passed for 3,327 yards as a senior in 2002, completing 239 of 410 pass attempts. Going with Johnson as the starter was probably the only sound decision Mackovic made during his brief tenure from 2001-2003.
Kris Heavner (2003)
The loss of Johnson, who exhausted his eligibility, exposed Mackovic for not developing an adequate replacement, one factor that contributed to his dismissal that season. Mackovic rotated redshirt freshman Ryan O’Hara, sophomore Nic Costa and Heavner, a true freshman who became the regular starter by default. Heavner tried the best he could but threw 15 interceptions that season compared to only seven touchdowns. He showed a decent passing touch, however, completing 121 of 237 pass attempts for 1,501 yards.
Richard Kovalcheck (2004-05)
Heavner retained his starting role in 2004 over Kovalcheck, a freshman who was a standout from San Diego. First-year coach Mike Stoops, frustrated over Arizona being last in the Pac-10 in total offense, permanently replaced Heavner with Kovalcheck six games into that season. Kovalcheck struggled in his two years as a starter, throwing 18 interceptions compared to 16 touchdown passes. He was replaced by Willie Tuitama as the starter late in the 2005 season. Kovalcheck transferred to Vanderbilt, where he attempted only 65 passes as a third-stringer in 2006 and 2007.
Willie Tuitama (2006-08)
He emerged as the definite starter his last three seasons at Arizona but backup Adam Austin was forced into duty in 2006 after Tuitama suffered a concussion at LSU. Austin became injured, suffering ligament damage in a knee. Heavner also played, completing 21 of 30 passes as an emergency replacement. Tuitama shook off the cobwebs as a junior and senior and became Arizona’s career passing leader with 9,211 yards.
Nick Foles (2009-11)
Tuitama’s replacement came down to Foles, a Michigan State transfer, and Scott, a sophomore. Scott became the No. 1 quarterback out of fall camp but struggled early. He was permanently replaced against Iowa, three games into the season. Foles finished the season completing 260 of 409 pass attempts for 2,486 yards with 19 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He remained the starter the rest of his career, breaking Tuitama’s mark with 10,011 yards.
Matt Scott (2012)
Rich Rodriguez was blessed to have Scott as his starter in his first season after the Scott decided to redshirt during Foles’ senior season. Scott completed 301 of 499 passes for 3,620 yards with 27 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.
B.J. Denker (2013)
Rodriguez’s first true quarterback battle at Arizona occurred in 2013 with Denker competing against former USC quarterback Jesse Scroggins, who came to Arizona from junior college, and redshirt freshman Javelle Allen. True freshman Anu Solomon, whom SI.com claimed was the No. 1 recruit who could make an instant impact in 2013, was also in the mix but was not considered a realistic candidate to start because of the time needed to grasp Rodriguez’s offense. Denker, who started in place of Scott against Colorado in 2012 after Scott suffered a concussion, emerged as the starter in the opener against NAU in 2013. He kept that role for the entire season and became the most productive rushing quarterback in Arizona history. He rushed for 949 yards on 181 carries and also passed for 2,518 with 16 touchdowns and only seven interceptions. Allen was dismissed from the team after that season for violating team rules. Solomon redshirted and Scroggins bided his time.
Anu Solomon (2014-now)
Solomon worked with the No. 1 offense shortly after fall camp started in 2014 following his redshirt. Jerrard Randall (an LSU transfer) and Connor Brewer (a Texas transfer) each started to work out in the spring. Scroggins reportedly improved in the spring but did not distinguish himself from the group as the lone senior. Rodriguez indicated he wanted to narrow the most snaps to two quarterbacks by the week of the season opener against UNLV. Rodriguez utilized Solomon with the No. 1 unit and Scroggins with the No. 2 offense. Solomon took the inside track to be the starter despite Scroggins, Brewer and Randall each transferring to Arizona from big-time programs. Scroggins had limited reps as a fifth-year senior reserve. Dawkins redshirted similar to Solomon in 2013 because of his raw skills.
After starting all 14 games in 2014, Solomon was the clear starter going into last season and that may have led to a subpar showing in Rodriguez’s eyes without serious competition. Concussion problems did not help either. Through 25 games in his career, Solomon has completed 518 passes out of 869 attempts for 6,448 yards with 48 touchdown passes and only 14 interceptions. If he’s able to start and play most of the games this year and next he is on pace to throw for more than 12,000 yards, which would break Foles’ school-record 10,011 yards from 2009 to 2011. Dawkins and freshman Khalil Tate will be waiting eagerly over the next two years to step in if Solomon falters or God-forbid becomes injured.
ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.