Pac-12 Year of the Quarterback: Anu (Solomon) Day for Arizona Wildcats with Frosh Named Starting QB

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h/t @territorialcup for the headline

Once I started outlining these Pac-12 quarterback features and transcribing quotes, I had no intention of including Arizona. And why would I?

The Wildcats enter the 2014 season one of just two Pac-12 teams not returning a starting quarterback. Furthermore, head coach Rich Rodriguez presided over one of the more muddled quarterback pictures in all of college football, with a foursome of Jesse Scroggins, Anu Solomon, Connor Brewer and Jarrard Randall all jockeying for the job–and Rodriguez not tipping his hand on any of them in the offseason.

That changed abruptly Monday, when Rodriguez unexpectedly named 4-star 2013 recruit Anu Solomon Arizona’s Week 1 starter against UNLV.

“He’s played the best over the last three weeks, and he’s earned the right to start,” Rodriguez said Tuesday on the Pac-12 coaches teleconference call.

After months of playing the decision close to his vest, Rodriguez was very matter-of-fact about the choice. Arizona faced a similar situation a year ago, with a starter not being definitive until B.J. Denker took the field for the first snap against Northern Arizona.

That naming of a starter was quite a bit more suspenseful than Rodriguez’s approach with Anu Solomon. But, in naming Solomon the starting quarterback a few days shy of the opener, Rodriguez is giving the redshirt freshman something of a public vote of confidence.

Solomon is the first freshman to start the season opener since Arizona joined the current Pac-12 in 1978. As such, Rodriguez anticipates growing pains.

“He’s still a young guy and will make mistakes, but I told him, ‘You don’t have to look over your shoulder for every little thing you do wrong,'” Rodriguez said.

The above sentence speaks volumes. Anu Solomon will have an opportunity to learn and grow on the job, which suggests an investment in Rodriguez’s long-term plan with the quarterback.

His situation is not unlike that of the last freshman to start any game for the Wildcats since Oct. 2005. And that similarity inspired this post.

During the 2005 season, I was a wet-behind-the-ears student reporter covering the football program for the Arizona Daily Wildcat. Coming off a surprising performance against top-ranked USC, Arizona face-planted against one-win Stanford the following week, as quarterback Richard Kovalcheck fumbled twice and threw two interceptions.

Excitement surrounding freshman Willie Tuitama that season was high well before Kovalcheck’s brutal outing, but the disappointing loss to Stanford ratcheted up the anticipation.

I vividly then-head coach Mike Stoops, in his second year and cleaning up a monumental mess left by predecessor John Mackovic, nonchalantly strolling up to the podium at his weekly press conference and in his opening statement, naming Tuitama without naming him the starter.

“We’ll get Willie ready to play. How much … we’re going to see,” he said.

Stoops didn’t have much of a poker face. Tuitama was getting the job, which he did. And he held it throughout the formative years of Arizona’s rebuild under Stoops.

Tuitama personified hope in a new era, offering hope after years of ineptitude. By 2005, the program’s streak of consecutive seasons without a bowl appearance extended to seven.

After just a few weeks in the starting role, USA Today featured Tuitama in a piece that demonstrated to the nation just how important the freshman quarterback was to Arizona’s future.

The Wildcats played nationally ranked Oregon within a score, beat Oregon State on the road and routed a Top 5-ranked UCLA team that season, with Tuitama behind center. His inspired play and what it signified for Arizona’s football future kept focus on the program in November–quite an accomplishment in the basketball-mad city of Tucson.

Tuitama never quite reached the heights envisioned in the fall of 2005; a concussion sustained on a late, helmet-to-helmet hit at LSU the next season had a lingering impact on Tuitama for the remainder of his career.

Nevertheless, he left the program with numerous records and in his senior season, guided Arizona to its first bowl game since 1998. The Wildcats beat a Top 20 BYU team in the Las Vegas that year, and Tuitama won Most Valuable Player.

The Stoops era peaked the following season when Arizona squandered an opportunity to play in its first Rose Bowl, and Stoops was shown the door in 2011.

But Stoops left Arizona football in much better shape than when he arrived. Rodriguez has been able to build on that foundation in his first two seasons.

When Anu Solomon takes his first snap Friday against UNLV, it marks the beginning of the next phase in Rodriguez’s reconstruction project in much the same way Stoops turning the offense over to Tuitama in 2005 marked a milestone.

The long-term payoff with Arizona’s last freshman starting quarterback was the end of its bowl drought. Perhaps the endgame this time is the end of its conference championship drought.