In his final two basketball games as a North Torrance High School Saxon, B.J. Denker scored 32 points, grabbed 14 rebounds, delivered 12 assists and was credited with 15 steals.
It wasn’t a quadruple-double, not over two games, but it was close enough that when Denker arrived at nearby Cerritos (Calif.) College, his identity as a quarterback was somewhat blurred by his basketball reputation.
It would take Denker more than two years to become the Cerritos Falcons’ starting quarterback. The recruiting market for a lefty with a good jumper, a QB who would run first, pass second, was such that football-needy Indiana and Maryland waited until long after letter-of-intent day to seriously pursue him.
This is the man who, at 23, is undefeated, 4-0, as Arizona’s starting quarterback.
Is this good? Bad? There is yet no book on B. J. Denker. He is the Mystery Man of Pac-12 football.
The stigma of a JC quarterback isn’t what it used to be in the Pac-12. After Oregon found Akili Smith and Jeremiah Masoli in the California Community College Association, and upon Butte College QB Aaron Rodgers’ emergence at Cal, the CCCA is now a circuit recruited by more than middle-tier FCS schools looking for a sleeper.
Denker has been Arizona’s QB of record against four undistinguished defenses — Colorado last season, and NAU, UNLV and UTSA this year. He has not been required to beat anybody with a pass, especially a long, down-the-field, or critical third-and-long pass.
Those games, and his identity, lie immediately ahead.
But Denker reacts with annoyance when it is suggested Saturday’s game at No. 16 Washington is apt to be a separating-the-men-from-the-boys moment of truth, as if the first 1,293 yards and 131 points of Arizona’s season have been window dressing and no more.
“There are no pretend games in football,” he said Monday. “Yes, this is Pac-12 play and we understand this is a bigger deal and this is going to be the best team we will have played. … You can’t just go out on the field and expect a victory, because somebody will come and smack you in the mouth.”
If anything, unproven Arizona is the one viewed as the designated smackee this week.
Can Denker rise to the occasion on national TV, before a capacity crowd of about 71,000? He says the most compelling game of his career was Cerritos’ territorial showdown with JC power Mount San Antonio College. (Cerritos lost, 17-14).
By comparison, playing in Husky Stadium will be like going from a tremor to the damaging end of the Richter Scale.
“Normally, you like to build from the high school level and develop them through the program,” UA coach Rich Rodriguez said Monday. “But with (Matt Scott) being the only scholarship guy, we were looking for an older guy and a guy who had a little bit of experience, whether it was a transfer or a junior college guy.
“So, B.J. was a late signing. Talking to his coaches, they told us that B.J. was really intelligent and picked things up well. He’s athletic and he could come in, make some throws and learn quickly. He’s very, very intelligent and very sharp.”
It is not without precedent that JC transfers perform well at Husky Stadium.
Before Cal’s Rodgers, and Oregon’s Masoli and Smith, the most productive JC quarterback of the Pac-12’s last 50 years was Washington’s Warren Moon, a West Los Angeles College grad who took the Huskies to the 1978 Rose Bowl.
After that, for 35 years, it has became unusual for a Pac-12 team to start a JC quarterback. ASU regularly started just one in 50 years, Todd Hons, in 1982-83.
Arizona has been even less enthused about giving its QB job to a JC transfer. The Wildcats went 7-20-1 in a three-year period, 1965-67, when their QB-of-record went from Cisco (Texas) JC’s Phil Albert to Pierce College (Calif.) JC’s Mark Reed to American River (Calif.) JC’s Bruce Lee.
Those three seasons got Arizona coach Jim LaRue fired.
Since then, until Denker became the full-time starter this season, across 46 seasons, the only JC transfer to win Arizona’s QB job was John Conner of Foothills (Calif.) College in 1984.
How’d that go? In his debut, Conner threw a first-half interception against Fresno State and tore up his knee while tackling the Bulldog defensive back. Arizona lost 27-22. Conner never regained his starting job.
Enter Denker, an upbeat, personable and nervy fifth-year senior who doesn’t seem to mind the odds of his first road start.
“I like to silence the crowd,” he said Monday.
You can be sure the Huskies are listening.