Arizona Football

Arizona Wildcats Football: A look at how UA freshman QBs fared in first collegiate start in Pac-10/12 years



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Anu Solomon's last football game was in 2012 at Las Vegas' Bishop Gorman High School (YouTube video capture)

Anu Solomon’s last football game was in 2012 at Las Vegas’ Bishop Gorman High School (YouTube video capture)

When the Arizona Wildcats host UNLV Friday night, Anu Solomon will become the 11th freshman quarterback to start at Arizona since the Wildcats joined the Pac-10 in 1978.

Solomon, who prepped at Las Vegas’ Bishop Gorman High School, will be the first freshman quarterback to start in a season opener for the Wildcats in that span.

The last time a freshman quarterback started at Arizona was nine years ago when Willie Tuitama took off his redshirt and looked like Superman at Oregon State eight games into the 2005 season.


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Mike Stoops could not wait any longer to replace embattled starter Richard Kovalcheck and removed Tuitama from his redshirt status in the first half of the previous game against Oregon at Arizona Stadium. Tuitama’s first career start at Oregon State on Oct. 29, 2005, was memorable as he engineered a 29-27 win by completing 13 of 22 passes for 335 yards. He had two touchdown passes and no interceptions.

“I wasn’t nervous at all,” Tuitama was quoted as saying by the Associated Press. “I went out there calm.”

Solomon, nicknamed “Chill” because of his cool, calm and collective demeanor, does not have a previous game like Tuitama was afforded to settle whatever nerves he might encounter in his first career collegiate start. At least he is playing at home and not somewhere like Oregon.


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“Chill, that’s the word they use a lot,” Solomon said earlier in camp to Tucson sports reporter Anthony Gimino. “But that’s just my personality. I’m just the chill guy in the back. But then, you know, when the lights turn on, you have to flip the switch and be that hungry guy who just wants it all.”

Tom Tunnicliffe, who also wore No. 12 like Anu Solomon, was the first freshman starting quarterback for the Wildcats in their Pac-10/12 existence in 1980 (University of Arizona picture)

Tom Tunnicliffe, who also wore No. 12 like Anu Solomon, was the first freshman starting quarterback for the Wildcats in their Pac-10/12 existence in 1980 (University of Arizona picture)

Solomon has to his advantage a year in Rich Rodriguez’s system as a redshirt freshman. Tuitama and three other Arizona freshmen quarterbacks were in their first year in college when they got the call.

Jeff Hammerschmidt, George Malauulu, Keith Smith, Ortege Jenkins, Ryan O’Hara and Richard Kovalcheck were the other redshirt freshmen to make their first collegiate start with the Wildcats.

Other than Tuitama, the true freshmen quarterbacks to start a game for Arizona in the Pac-10/12 years were Tom Tunnicliffe (1980), Ronald Veal (1987) and Kris Heavner (2003).

Here is a look at how each freshman quarterback became Arizona’s starter:


He made his first career start in the sixth game of the 1980 season against No. 2 Notre Dame at Arizona Stadium. 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. Ward struggled in Smith’s pro-style offense and eventually ended his Arizona career as a split end.

Arizona finished with only 166 total yards against the Fighting Irish and didn’t score a touchdown in a home game for the first time in 15 seasons.

Smith kept the play calling conservative with a series of short passes for Tunnicliffe, who compiled only 95 passing yards on 15 completions in 26 attempts. He threw two interceptions.

In the next weekend, Tunnicliffe led the Wildcats to an upset win over No. 2 UCLA at Arizona Stadium.


Bobby Watters, an SMU transfer 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 was forced into the starting role for all but one game (at Stanford) 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 Hammerschmidt as the only possibilities at quarterback in 1987.


Keith Smith was the closest freshman quarterback to start a season opener in 1996 before Anu Solomon this season (University of Arizona photo)

Keith Smith, another No. 12, was the closest freshman quarterback to start a season opener in 1996 before Anu Solomon this season (University of Arizona photo)

Hammerschmidt, who backed up fellow San Diego Helix High School standout Chuck Cecil as a redshirt freshman safety in 1987, was called into duty by first-year coach Dick Tomey five games into the season at Cal because of injuries to Bobby Watters and Ronald Veal. Mostly used as a running quarterback, “Hammer”, as he was called, made his first and only start at Stanford, in the ninth game of the 1987 season.

Hammerschmidt ran for 135 yards against in his first game against Cal in relief of Veal in a 23-23 tie. Veal managed to play in the remaining games through the pain of his injuries but Hammerschmidt provided insurance mostly with his quickness and toughness as a runner.

In his start against Stanford, Hammerschmidt only passed once in the first quarter, an 18-yard completion, before Veal replaced him in the second quarter. Veal passed for 274 yards and a touchdown in the 23-13 win over the Cardinal (highlighted by Cecil’s four interceptions) and he remained the starter the rest of the season.


Tomey used Malauulu, an ambidextrous quarterback, to relieve Veal if Veal was banged up or needed to sit out for most of the 1989 season. In the eighth game against Pacific, Tomey opted to start Malauulu for the first time. He played Malauulu in the first and third quarters and Veal in the second and fourth.

Malauulu, efficient completing 5 of 7 pass attempts for 110 yards and a touchdown in the 38-14 win over Pacific, started again in the following game at Cal. He suffered a knee injury in that game and Veal took over the rest of the way.


Smith was the closest to start the season opener as a freshman quarterback in 1996 before Solomon. As a redshirt freshman in 1996, Smith battled Brady Batten for the starting assignment in fall camp. Batten started the opener against UTEP and kept that role in the following game at Iowa.

Smith, who first played a season of pro baseball in 1994 before attending Arizona in 1995, took over for Batten against Iowa and kept the starting role the rest of the season. Smith led Arizona in passing (1,430 yards) and rushing (546 yards) that season.

His first career start was against Illinois at Arizona Stadium in the third game of the season. Arizona won 41-0 behind Smith’s nine carries for 143 yards and a touchdown. He completed seven of 14 passes for 31 yards and a touchdown with one interception. His 73-yard run for a fourth-quarter touchdown gave Arizona a 19-0 lead.


When Smith suffered a shoulder injury against UCLA in the fourth game of the 1997 season, Jenkins made his first collegiate start Oct. 4, 1997, against San Diego State at Arizona Stadium. Jenkins, who later played his only season of basketball for Lute Olson in 1997-98 as a reserve, was impressive in the 31-28 win over the Aztecs.

Ortege Jenkins looks at the camera after his "Leap by the Lake" winning touchdown against Washington in 1998 (YouTube video capture)

Ortege Jenkins looks at the camera after his “Leap by the Lake” winning touchdown against Washington in 1998 (YouTube video capture)

Jenkins completed 17 of 32 passes for 285 yards and three touchdowns, two to future NFL veteran Dennis Northcutt. Jenkins did not throw an interception.

“OJ played phenomenal tonight,” Tomey was quoted as saying by the Arizona Daily Wildcat. “He was cool. He was poised. He was absolutely terrific.”


O’Hara, a high-profile John Mackovic recruit, started only once in 2003, the fourth game into that 2-10 season, replacing faltering sophomore Nic Costa at Purdue. The Boilermakers won 59-7 as O’Hara threw for only 39 yards, completing 7 of 15 passes.


Heavner, a true freshman in 2003 who was also recruited by Mackovic, made his first collegiate start after the Purdue game. Heavner fared well in the 13-10 overtime loss to No. 19 TCU at Arizona Stadium. He completed 14 of 29 passes for 279 yards, but he threw three interceptions with one touchdown. Mackovic was fired the next day.

Heavner remained the starter in the last seven weeks under interim coach Mike Hankwitz. He set the Arizona freshman record with 1,501 yards passing, 101 completions and 237 attempts.


Stoops’ patience with Heavner was exhausted by the seventh game of the 2004 season when Heavner had only four touchdown passes with four interceptions at that point. That’s when Kovalcheck, another Mackovic holdover, took over.

Kovalcheck made his first start against No. 7 Cal at Arizona Stadium on Oct. 23, 2004. Arizona lost 38-0 as Kovalcheck completed 13 of 32 pass attempts (a high number of attempts at that point for an Arizona quarterback) for 159 yards. He was intercepted once.

Willie Tuitama was the last freshman to start at quarterback for Arizona in 2005

Willie Tuitama was the last freshman to start at quarterback for Arizona in 2005


After Kovalcheck could not get Arizona’s offense to click in the following season, throwing 11 interceptions compared to 10 touchdowns, Stoops called on Tuitama in the first half of the Oregon game and named the true freshman the starter against Oregon State.

“He’s way beyond his years,” Stoops told the Associated Press of Tuitama after Tuitama’s impressive performance in the win over the Beavers. “He has a great feel for the game.”

Tuitama finished his freshman season completing 82 of 142 pass attempts for 1,105 yards with nine touchdowns and five interceptions.


Solomon entered this year’s fall camp on a reportedly even plain with challengers Jesse Scroggins, Jerrard Randall and Conner Brewer. Solomon soon emerged as the leader in the camp’s first week, playing mostly with the first-team offense. He has held that edge throughout the remainder of camp.

“He’s earned the right to start the first game,” Rodriguez said Monday afternoon.

“It’s my first college game … I just have to fight the butterflies,” Solomon said after Monday night’s practice. “I gotta do what I gotta do.”

Rodriguez is banking on “Chill” becoming hot against UNLV.

Look at it this way: Solomon will do something never done before at Arizona, start the season opener as a freshman quarterback in the program’s Pac-10/12 existence. He’s already ahead of the game. publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He also writes articles for Bleacher Report and Lindy’s College Sports.


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