To an outsider, Arizona’s football training camp was a lot like an old “Seinfeld” episode. Nothing happened. Twenty-eight days. No noise. Nothing.
There should have been a quarterback controversy to carry the summer but Rich Rodriguez didn’t let it develop. Just when you’d think it was B.J. Denker against Jesse Scroggins, life or death on the daily sports page, the coach would toss Javelle Allen and Nick Isham into the mix.
That’s not a QB controversy. It was code for “don’t expect Joe Montana.”
RichRod so defused the situation that after Friday’s season-opening 35-0 victory over NAU, Denker said he had never been told he was the starter.
“On the first play of the game, I ran onto the field and they didn’t stop me,” he said, smiling.
After Arizona’s one identifiable player, Ka’Deem Carey, was tossed into RichRod’s gulag seven months ago, a veritable news blackout ensued. The Tucson Padres’ exit to El Paso generated more chatter.
It’s not that the expectations for the 2013 Wildcats are historically low — on first review, this looks to be a .500 team or a bit above — it’s just that there’s no hook. Not yet.
Arizona has such a back-loaded schedule that Friday’s trouble-free victory was about No. 3 on the night’s list of conversational topics. Carey’s suspension got the most attention, followed by the size (full) and volume (rowdy) of the Zona Zoo, which might’ve been the night’s most positive development.
About 8,000 of the 9,000 Zona Zoo force actually stayed until the second half. They didn’t have time to get bored; NAU’s strategy was to kill the clock and it worked. It limited Arizona to 47 plays; the Wildcats averaged a school-record 81 plays last season.
The game was over, mercifully, in 2 hours 58 minutes, one of the shortest games of the last decade.
Those big-money souls who paid for a roof over their Sands Club heads, the sweetest suites in the new Lowell-Stevens facility, stayed out of the traditional opening-night rain but could only guess what Arizona’s lopsided victory means.
It was five years ago that the Wildcats clobbered Idaho 70-0 on opening night and then lost to New Mexico two weeks later. I’m not sure that the second-best team in Tucson on Friday night wasn’t Salpointe Catholic.
Denker came off as B.J. Football, elusive as a runner (71 yards) and accurate as a passer (9 for 13). But the Lumberjacks are too slow and too small to make the Wildcats uncomfortable, which is the clearest way to reveal a team’s ability, or lack of it.
Here’s some historical context: Ten years ago, Kris Heavner made his first college start, passing for 276 yards in Arizona’s 13-10 overtime loss to a pre-vintage TCU squad. In 2003, it was hailed as the coming-out of the school’s next star-level quarterback.
When the competition improved, in the Pac-10, Heavner struggled mightily. A year later he transferred to Baylor. So let’s wait to see how Denker survives a Sept. 28 game at Washington before anointing him as a one-year wonder.
Give him this: He would be a runaway pick as the All-Big Sky quarterback.
Ultimately, Friday’s biggest winner was RichRod. His decision to suspend Carey for the night was a show of discipline and character in a game trending too much to the Johnny Footballs and the money-is-no-object Oregon Ducks.
Carey’s transgressions seem minor, or sub-minor. If all he did was bark at a McKale Center security guard, he was ticketed for driving 56 in a 55 mph zone. But because Ka’Boom became the face of the program, RichRod dropped the hammer.
“He goes by a higher standard,” RichRod said. “Once you make a mistake, you’re held to an even higher standard.”
The other 84 scholarship players on Arizona’s roster surely got the message: If you embarrass the program, you won’t merely sit out the first half against Rice, which was the way Texas A&M chose to “discipline” the Heisman Trophy winner, Johnny Manziel, for his turbulent off-season.
The loss of playing time is the greatest motivator in football.
Even better, RichRod didn’t turn Carey into a months-long controversy, puff out his chest and declare himself an all-powerful, I’m-the-boss frontier sheriff. It was handled in-house and not available for Q&A.
Let’s move on.
Carey’s replacement, senior Daniel Jenkins, made the most of his opportunity and then some. Next week at UNLV, it’s likely Rodriguez will deploy both simultaneously. One will be a tailback and the other an OW — offensive weapon.
It’ll be one of the best backfield situations in Pac-12 football; Jenkins knows he’s too good to keep off the field.
“I’m happy to have him back,” he said of Carey.
Rodriguez was in an unusually chipper mood after Friday’s game. It doesn’t mean he’ll step off the gas and take it easy this weekend; that’s not his style. But he loves winning with such a zeal that even a walk-over victory against NAU seemed to make the 16-hour days of training camp worth it.
“We’re going to have a lot of games where we have to scrape and claw to win,” he said.
At least he knows what he’s getting into. The Big News awaits.