Arizona had all three of scholarship quarterbacks at practice Wednesday for the first time since the second week of the season.
“It’s a different feeling,” co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Rod Smith said with a smile.
“It’s been a little bit of a feeling of anxiety the last couple of weeks, because it’s like, ‘What else could happen for god’s sake?'”
Starter Anu Solomon, who suffered a knee injury in practice after the season-opening loss to BYU, might not be “100 percent,” according to coach Rich Rodriguez, but he was able to take reps Wednesday. It sounds like Solomon will at least be an option as Arizona (2-5 overall, 0-4 Pac-12) moves past this bye week and into the final five games of the regular season.
“You could ask any of them if they have been told they’re starting. All three would tell you, ‘Nope,'” Smith said. “They have to understand they have to go out there and whoever practices the best is going to get the nod.”
After Solomon’s injury, sophomore backup Brandon Dawkins took over for the next three-plus games, playing well, but he was forced out against UCLA on Oct. 1 because of a rib injury.
The coaches gave walk-on Zach Werlinger a whirl in that game, but that wasn’t working, so they took the redshirt off 17-year-old true freshman Khalil Tate.
Dawkins returned a week later at Utah, playing somewhat gingerly with that rib injury, before he suffered a hit to the helmet. Once again, coaches summoned Tate.
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Tate last week became the fifth true freshman quarterback in Arizona’s Pac-10/12 era to start a game, but he was gone by the end of the third quarter as USC was coasting to a 48-14 victory. Arizona finished with senior tight end Matt Morin at quarterback.
The big question will be: Who starts Oct. 29 against visiting Stanford?
A couple of things: Rodriguez is trying to win RIGHT NOW. What might happen next year or the year after at the quarterback position is a discussion for another day. And, experience matters.
“Just from being able to game plan, we’re not going to be as limited as we’re going to be with a 17-year-old true freshman,” Rodriguez said of the potential of having Solomon and Dawkins available. “From that standpoint, you have a lot more options, a lot more things you can work on. When you have two guys who have experience, you can really run the whole offense.”
What the coaches will have to determine is if Tate, clearly a talented athlete and a potential spark, can have a role in each game, if he’s not starting. After all, the redshirt is gone.
“Khalil has shown some flashes. He can do some things,” Smith said.
“Is he ready yet? I told you he wasn’t, but at the same time, we were forced (to play him) out of necessity. I know we burned his redshirt, but it is what it is. Now, do we have a package for him as go forward? That will be a decision for (Rodriguez) and our whole entire staff.”
Tate was 7 of 18 passing for 58 yards, with an interception against USC. He rushed for a team-high 72 yards on 14 carries. The Trojans defense often pressured him into making quick decisions.
“He sees what he messed up. He’s taken to coaching and he’s trying to do a little extra,” Smith said.
“Like I told him, when you get against the good teams, you can’t play backyard ball all the time. You have to go through a structure. You have to understand where everybody is, what the play entails. That’s the learning curve he is going through right now.”
Solomon, a junior, completed 20 of 30 passes for 213 yards in the 18-16 loss to BYU, but was intercepted twice. He has 6,673 career passing yards. His previous edge over Dawkins — experience — has been reduced. Dawkins is the better runner.
“He’s probably faster than we thought,” Rodriguez said of Dawkins’ playing time this season. “He has, I guess, competitive speed. We always knew he ran well, but I think he runs faster during games.”
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There has been some speculation about Solomon’s mindset after his practice injury. That was fueled, in part, by TV shots of him during the Grambling State game, sitting by himself near the stands, seemingly disengaged.
Thing is, coaches wanted him off his feet because of the knee injury and he was on the headsets with Smith the whole time.
“He had to get himself healthy, and that’s what he’s doing,” Smith said.
“In the meantime, he’s been supportive of our other quarterbacks. He’s been supportive of our team. I haven’t had a problem with Anu. I don’t know where all this comes from. We’ve always said the kid is a mellow kid. Why all of a sudden are we drawing conclusions like something is wrong with him?
“Not one time has he bitched or complained to me. Not one time. Stuff just gets made up to have something to talk about.”
For sure, with Arizona’s full complement of quarterbacks seemingly restored, we’ll be talking a lot more about the quarterback position in the back stretch of the season.