It’s hard to quibble with any decision Arizona Wildcats quarterback Brandon Dawkins made at UTEP last week.
Only one of Dawkins’ 21 pass attempts could have been intercepted. He completed 18 of them. He passed for three touchdowns and ran for three. He controlled the game.
But if you were to nitpick, you could point to some of the decisions Dawkins made as a runner. A handful of times he could have avoided hits. Instead, competitor that he is, he took on tacklers.
More often than not, those decisions result in big gains. Sometimes, they produce touchdowns. Dawkins is that gifted.
But by doing so, Dawkins puts himself — and his team — at risk. He missed time last season — including crucial snaps against this week’s opponent, Utah — because of a rib injury and a concussion. He also missed most of two series in the fourth quarter against Houston in Week 2 because of various ailments.
The next step in Dawkins’ development is finding the proper balance between aggression and discretion.
“I like when he runs a long ways,” UA coach Rich Rodriguez said Monday. “I cringe every time he or any of the quarterbacks get hit. We’ve talked to Brandon a little bit … about the end of the runs, what you’re doing to protect yourself.
“There are times he probably could not take as many shots.”
Rodriguez has a basic mantra when it comes to quarterback running, which is a staple of his offense: “Touchdown, first down, get down.”
If the goal line or first-down marker are within reach, the quarterbacks are encouraged to go for it. If they aren’t, it’s better to live for another down.
Two examples stood out in the UTEP game. On second-and-8 in the second quarter, Dawkins ran toward the right sideline. Instead of scooting out of bounds, he tried to stiff-arm Miners linebacker Dante Lovilotte, who drove him into the ground. The impact of the hit propelled Dawkins past the first-down marker.
Later on that same drive, on second-and-4, Dawkins advanced into the secondary. Six yards downfield, Dawkins jumped into linebacker Julian Jackson rather than hitting the turf. For a tall runner (Dawkins is 6-3) who has had rib injuries in the past, it was an unnecessary move. As QB coach Rod Smith put it earlier this summer: “There’s a time and place to when and how you get down.”
But when you can do what Dawkins did later in the first half, you understand why he doesn’t give himself up.
On third-and-goal from the 3, Dawkins ran to the right. Encountering two defenders, he reversed field. Dawkins switched the ball from his right arm to his left and successfully stiff-armed cornerback Nik Needham. Dawkins then put the ball back in his right hand so he could extend it over the pylon for a touchdown.
Rodriguez often has described Dawkins as a “competitive runner” and said that tag applies to all of Arizona’s current quarterbacks.
“They enjoy running, which is really neat,” Rodriguez said. “Sometimes you’ll have one guy or two that are like, ‘The last thing I want to do is run.’ Not the dudes we got. Every quarterback on our roster enjoys running the football.
“We want to enjoy watching you run, but be smart at the end of the run. Those guys will get that.”
Dawkins vowed to become a smarter runner in the offseason. During training camp, he said he needed to “understand when I need to take hits and I don’t need to take hits.”
He added that as a young player starting for the first time last season he ended up “taking some hits I didn’t need to.”
On the other hand …
“It’s a contact sport,” Dawkins said. “I didn’t sign up to not get hit. It’s all part of the game.”
So what’s the solution then?
“Run harder and smarter at the same time,” Dawkins said.
Rodriguez said he’s unsure whether senior “Stud” DeAndre’ Miller will be able to return for Friday’s game vs. Utah.
Last week Miller finally shed the boot he had been wearing since having foot surgery in July. He has yet to practice. When healthy, he is Arizona’s best pass rusher.
“We’ve missed him for a few weeks,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t know if he’ll be available this week or not. He’s worked really hard. He’s in great shape. … Hopefully he’ll be able to practice a little bit.”
Even in a limited capacity, Miller would boost a pass rush that remains a work in progress. If he sits out, he’d have an extra two weeks to heal with Arizona on a bye after the Utah game.
- Rodriguez expects tailback Nick Wilson to be a full participant in practice this week. Wilson played against UTEP after missing the previous week because of an ankle injury.
- Rodriguez said backup quarterback Khalil Tate (shoulder) could have played last week and will be “ready to go this week.” But Rodriguez also acknowledged that Tate was still “nicked up” vs. UTEP and that Rhett Rodriguez was the No. 2 quarterback.
- Rich Rodriguez denied being angry with Rhett Rodriguez after a second-half fumble. The coach blamed the miscue on an errant snap.
- Rich Rodriguez said the staff is trying to figure out how to get freshman slot receiver Gary Brightwell more involved in the offense.
- Rodriguez said Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley reminds him of Dawkins. Arizona hasn’t faced a QB as athletic as Huntley. Rodriguez added that this might be the most athletic team Utah has fielded since he’s been at Arizona.
- With another Friday game coming up, Arizona has altered its schedule. The team met to go over corrections Saturday and held a longer-than-usual practice Sunday. The Wildcats were set to meet again Monday ahead of their usual Tuesday-morning practice.
- Rodriguez said the team was especially enthusiastic Sunday. “You would have thought we were practicing the day before the Super Bowl,” he said.