I consider quarterback Willie Tuitama the most significant Arizona football recruit of the last 15 years.
The quarterback from Stockton, California, delivered the Wildcats and this community from evil – last place in the Pac-10 – and was the single biggest factor in keeping Arizona from spiraling into a decade (or more) of bad football.
Before Tuitama became a starter late in his true freshman season (2005) the Wildcats had lost 38 of their last 50 games.
Tuitama set school records in passing yards (8,727) and touchdown passes (67) and to rousing victories over No. 7 UCLA, No. 8 Cal and against No. 17 BYU in the 2008 Las Vegas Bowl, Arizona’s first bowl appearance in 11 seasons.
In Tuitama’s sophomore year (2006) Arizona averaged 55,798 fans at Arizona Stadium, a virtual season sellout.
By the time Tuitama left the QB job to Nick Foles and Matt Scott, the Wildcats had restored their reputation as a winning program and regained the community’s confidence.
Now, all these years later, Arizona is again at pre-Tuitama lows. But it’s possible that Rich Rodriguez has recruited a Tuitama-like program-changer.
When RichRod last week announced that soon-to-be 27-year-old QB Donavan Tate of Cartersville, Georgia, will enroll at Arizona, it came off as total desperation. Donavan hasn’t played football since 2008.
The former minor-league outfielder was twice been suspended for substance abuse and treated for addiction issues during his baseball career. He also had a series of injuries: a concussion, an Achilles tear, shoulder problems and a sports hernia.
Why add this man to your football roster?
First, RichRod has little to lose. If Tate is a bust, so what? The San Diego Padres are paying his tuition.
Second, this isn’t new territory for RichRod. He has been a bring-me-your-poor-huddled-masses outlet for bounce-back QBs, among them Jesse Scroggins of USC and Jerrard Randall of LSU. Scroggins rarely played; Randall was at times electrifying, rushing for 702 yards in 2015.
There is precedence that this might work, and not just work, but over time revive Arizona’s football program.
In 1997, Florida State added 26-year-old ex-minor-league baseball player Chris Weinke to its football roster. He had played six years in the Toronto Blue Jays system. After learning the FSU offense in 1997, completing just seven passes, Weinke became a star, passing for 9,757 yards in three years. He won the Heisman Trophy in 2000.
In 2007, Oklahoma State added 24-year-old ex-baseball player Brandon Weeden to its football roster. He redshirted in ’07 and rarely got off the bench in ’08 and ’09. But in 2010-11, Weeden passed for 9,004 yards and 71 touchdowns. After he turned 27, Weeden led the Cowboys to a 23-3 record.
Tate has a football pedigree; his father, Lars Tate rushed for 71 yards and scored Georgia’s only touchdown in a 1985 Sun Bowl tie against Arizona. In addition to a pedigree, Donavan Tate now has a second chance.
There are, of course, many variables that must work: Tate must adapt to RichRod’s scheme, stay healthy and walk the straight and narrow.
It could be nothing. Or it could be the football story of the year in Tucson.