Every year under Rich Rodriguez, it’s the same preseason headline....a quarterback competition.
Even with a quarterback set to begin his third year as the Arizona Wildcats starter, it happened again, and will likely continue through at least the first part of the regular season.
Key losses: Jerrard Randall
Key returners: Anu Solomon, Brandon Dawkins, Zach Werlinger
Key newcomer: Khalil Tate
While it’s true that both Solomon and Dawkins have been splitting first-team reps evenly throughout fall camp, it would be shocking to see someone besides Solomon getting the start in the season-opener barring some sort of injury.
"I know we have two good ones, probably both ready to play," quarterbacks coach Rod Smith said after the team’s final practice of fall camp. Rich Rodriguez has echoed those sentiments throughout the last month as well.
In the spring, Dawkins received a bit of a boost after Solomon missed several practices with a hamstring injury. This allowed the redshirt sophomore to take consistent reps with the first team, and to get more comfortable in the system.
"It’s given Brandon Dawkins a chance to run with the ones for three-quarters of the spring, and not just because Anu’s hurt," Smith said way back in March. "I’d put Brandon in with the ones to create some competition. He’s better than he was in the fall."
The ability for Dawkins to be more comfortable with the first team may prove to be invaluable at some point in the season. Solomon has dealt with injuries in each of his first two years as the starter, which resulted in decreased production at the end of the 2014 campaign, and two missed starts in 2015.
One of those missed starts was the final regular season game against ASU. Jerrard Randall started that game, but Dawkins came in and threw for 305 yards and two touchdowns while trying to lead an Arizona comeback.
That comeback fell short after a couple of late interceptions, but it at least made people wonder if Dawkins was a legit starting threat.
And thus the competition was born.
"The competition is more than what people perceive," Dawkins said about his relationship with Solomon. "People hear ‘Oh we’re best friends and this and that’, and we are, but at the end of the day we’re both out there on the field competing to win this job and do a lot better than we did last season."
But it’ll take a lot for Dawkins to beat Solomon out.
"Obviously the one thing Anu has is he’s battle-tested," Smith added after a spring practice in March. "He’s got a lot of experience, and he’s had a lot of success, plus he understands what we’re doing offensively. It’s going to take someone coming in who’s as smart as Anu, make as smart or better decisions than Anu, and be able to function with what we’re doing on offense and score points."
"Brandon proved to me he could do that against Arizona State," continued Smith. "Some people don’t think he had the greatest game, but for such a tough situation, I thought he came in and played very well, particularly in certain spots. He kept us in the game, and to me he proved he’s worthy to get in the competition."
"Can he overtake it? We’ll see."
For what it’s worth, Solomon was the first quarterback on the field during Arizona’s Beanie Bowl this past Thursday.
Behind the two is highly-regarded true freshman Khalil Tate. Although Tate was on campus during the spring, that’s still not quite enough time to allow himself to get in on the quarterback competition heading into the opener. Several times throughout fall camp, Rodriguez has said that his freshman QB’s head is still spinning trying to piece together the offense.
Tate is so athletic that there’s a slight chance we actually see him at wide receiver at some point this year, but I get the feeling the coaching staff would rather redshirt him instead of burning a year of eligibility for that.
Behind them will be a couple of walk-ons. Redshirt sophomore Zach Werlinger scored a touchdown against NAU last year, and true freshman Gunther Johnson will get serious work with the scout team this year.
But it appears the Arizona coaches feel confident in two guys right now and their ability to win games. Solomon will probably start, but should anything happen, there’s a competent backup waiting in the wings.