Dear Mr. Football: When did Utah become a better football program than Arizona?
A: It begin to shift in the fall of 2001, when new Arizona coach John Mackovic chose not to recruit Helix High School quarterback Alex Smith.
Arizona football has no greater pipeline in football recruiting than to Helix; it produced All-Pac-10 defensive backs Chuck Cecil, Allan Durden, Brandon Sanders and Jeff Hammerschmidt, as well as three-year safety starter and current Philadelphia Eagles assistant coach David Fipp. A generation earlier, Helix — located in San Diego’s east county — produced UA lineman Dennis Underwood, one of the marquee players from Arizona’s memorable 8-1-1 team of 1961.
Smith had gone 25-1 at Helix, and Arizona had no QB of the future. What’s more, Smith’s father, Douglas, was the principal of Helix. They all were aware of the Arizona-Helix connection.
But Mackovic deemed Smith a nonprospect, and chose to sign Kris Heavner, Nic Costa, Ryan O’Hara and Richard Kovalcheck. All were busts, Mackovic was fired and Arizona went on a QB-needy nose dive — 8-26 the next three years.
As if to rub it in, Smith and the Utes, then of the lowly Mountain West Conference, whipped Arizona 23-6 in 2004. The game pitted the Utes against Mackovic’s leftovers as Mike Stoops began to rebuild. A few months later, Smith was the No. 1 overall selection in the NFL draft.
Smith was the triggerman for Utah’s emergence as a football power; the Utes went 22-2 with Smith, and have won 128 games since he became their QB. Arizona has won 84 games in the same span.
Dear Mr. Football: Has the Helix pipeline run dry?
A: UA true freshman safety Scottie Young Jr., a Helix Scottie grad (how’s that for an appropriate name connection?) has been a revelation as a three-game starter. Pro Football Focus, one of the leading analytics sources in the game, lists Young as the No. 8 most effective defensive player of all college freshmen. Alas, Utah freshman safety Jaylon Johnson is No.1.
Dear Mr. Football: Why has Rich Rodriguez begun to follow the “Go East, Young Man” trail?
A: Utah has become a feared and successful football program because it leads the nation in the recruiting of Polynesian prospects. The Utes have 32 players of Polynesian descent on their roster; Arizona has two.
The Utes even came to Tucson to successfully recruit Pima College guard Jordan Agasiva, who has become a full-time starter; Arizona did not recruit Agasiva.
But apparently Arizona has learned that it missed out on a potential mother lode of Polynesian recruits and staged a first-ever Polynesian camp over the summer.
Go East, Young Man?
That comes from the list of 53 finalists for Polynesian Player of the Year among high school ballplayers; 11 are from Utah, and four are from Salt Lake’s East High School, the defending state champions. Arizona has offered scholarships to all four East Leopards: linemen Junior Angilau, Sam Taimani, Moa Heimuli and Paul Maile.
The UA has also offered scholarships to Utah linemen Salua Masina, Tennessee Pututau and Penei Sewell.
Dear Mr. Football: When did Arizona abandon its pursuit of the top Polynesian prospects?
A: In 2002, Mackovic’s first season, Arizona beat Utah 23-17. On that night, the Wildcats had five Polynesian starters: Joe Siofele, Young Thompson, Makoa Freitas, Keoki Fraser and Fata Avegalio. By comparison, Utah had just four Polynesian starters.
Now the Utes start nine Polynesians and have 18 on their two-deep depth chart. Arizona’s only Polynesian on the depth chart is freshman reserve guard Michael Eletise.
To his credit, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham has taken advantage of one of the most dramatic shifts in college football recruiting the last 15 years as the Salt Lake valley has probably tripled in Pac-12 type prospects. The Utes have taken advantage of all of it.
Dear Mr. Football: Is Utah’s new offensive coordinator, Troy Taylor, the flavor of the month in college football coaching?
A: The Utes switch OCs about as often as a college football team changes its helmet color.
Taylor was in the right place at the right time a year ago at Eastern Washington. He inherited QB Gage Gubrud and receiver Cooper Kupp, who were essentially the leading players in all of the FCS division. EWU passed for more than 5,100 yards. Taylor got the credit.
So the Utes hired Taylor, a former Cal Golden Bear who has made a career of frustrating UA football fans.
From 1987-89, each time as an underdog, Taylor directed Cal to 29-28 and 10-7 victories over Arizona, and to a 23-23 tie. In his four Cal starts against Arizona, he passed for 871 yards and six touchdowns; at the time, he was the most prolific QB ever to play against Arizona.
But Taylor was also a man then, as now, in the right place at the right time. The Arizona teams he played from 1987-89 had QB problems of historic depths: The UA started Hammerschmidt, SMU transfer Bobby Watters and freshman George Malauulu in those games; Malauulu tore his ACL in the first half of that 1989 game.
Taylor’s four Cal teams went 14-27-3, yet he was perceived as an Arizona killer.
Dear Mr. Football: Is good fortune again on Taylor’s side?
A: When he was hired in January, Taylor knew the Utes had QB problems. Utah’s 53 percent completion rate ranked 11th in the Pac-12 (Arizona’s 51 percent was last).
So when Taylor examined the roster he discovered Florida’s 2015 Gatorade Player of the Year, Tyler Huntley. What are the odds that Florida’s player of the year is sitting idly at Utah?
Florida, Miami and Florida State did not recruit Huntley. But Utah did. Does that make any sense? It does for the Utes; Huntley has completed 72 percent of his throws in three games, and comes off as Brandon Dawkins with a bit more speed, elusiveness and accuracy.
If Huntley is that good — if Utah’s veteran defense and front-line push has the smaller Wildcats backpedaling — there’s not much of a chance Arizona can win. But will Utah play “not to lose” as is often the case with Whittingham’s teams?
Close one. Utes 30, Wildcats 28.