Jeff Scurran had just finished coaching his Catalina Foothills High School football team to a 14-7 home win over Casa Grande last Friday night when someone pulled him aside and gave him the news: his star quarterback from two years ago, Rhett Rodriguez, was in action for the Arizona Wildcats in their game at Utah.
Rather than loiter around the school, Scurran got to the nearest sports bar in order to watch the player who helped lead his Falcons to the 2016 Class 4A state title game.
“I got to see the whole second half,” Scurran said. “The Rhett that I saw reminded me of the old Rhett that I know in many, many ways. It looked like he’d been there a million times before.”
Thrown into the fire after starter Khalil Tate re-injured his left ankle and true freshman Jamarye Joiner was ineffective, Rodriguez saw the first significant action of his college career against Utah. The sophomore—and son of former Wildcats coach Rich Rodriguez—threw for 226 yards and a touchdown on 20-of-38 passing, making a strong case to start Arizona’s next game if Tate couldn’t go.
Coach Kevin Sumlin made that switch official on Tuesday, announcing Rodriguez would start Saturday’s game at UCLA. In doing so, he will make Rodriguez the first Tucson-area quarterback to start for Arizona since 1991.
The last to do so was Rincon graduate Bill Prickett, a former walk-on—and now the team’s orthopedic consultant, who watches home games from the sideline—subbed in for an injured George Malauulu in consecutive October games as a senior.
The first was at UCLA, a 54-14 loss in which Prickett threw three interceptions in 14 pass attempts.
Last year RhettRod became the first Tucson-bred QB to throw a pass in a game for the Wildcats since Pueblo graduate James Molina—albeit as a punter—was incomplete on one attempt in 2003.
Sumlin has frequently praised RhettRod’s play during weekly press conferences, noting how he had gone 6 of 7 in mop-up duty against Houston and Southern Utah earlier this season. After the Utah loss he praised Rodriguez for his poise “in a tough situation and really tough environment.”
Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, who hasn’t spoken to the media since the season began, noted during training camp that Rodriguez was “a pretty smart guy” who needed to translate his football IQ into playing “within his abilities of what he can do as a quarterback.”
The 6-foot, 207-pound Rodriguez’s skill set is a sea change from that of Tate, whose combination of mobility and arm talent were something Arizona hadn’t had in a long while. Rodriguez ran for 15 touchdowns as a senior at Foothills (in addition to throwing for 2,996 yards and 30 TDs) but was more known for his headiness and field awareness than pure athleticism.
“Knowing everything that’s going on, seeing the whole field, being patient in the pocket,” said Scurran, who started RhettRod on varsity as a freshman and says that the majority of Foothills’ wins during his tenure wouldn’t have been possible with his play. He said RhettRod threw only seven interceptions and lost one fumble in his prep career.
“That understanding is what makes a quarterback successful,” Scurran said.