Salpointe Catholic’s Justin Holt knows it would be special to play football for the Arizona Wildcats — just like his father, Julius, did.
But that wasn’t why Holt was excited when UA coach Rich Rodriguez offered him a full scholarship last weekend. The 6-foot-2-inch, 285-pound defensive tackle said he likes where the program is heading; the family connection is just a bonus.
“It does have some importance and significance to carry on the tradition, but it’s not the top reason why I would want to go there,” he said. “I really like what RichRod is doing over there. He’s a player’s coach, and he’s really come along in the program. He’s made all the progress that he promised.”
Holt and another Southern Arizona standout — Tucson High defensive back Demetrius Flannigan — were both offered scholarships during the UA’s one-day prospect camp. A third local, Cienega defensive back Terrence Johnson, received an offer months ago.
While Flannigan doesn’t share the Holts’ family ties, he’s close to the UA in another way: Tucson High’s campus sits in the shadow of Arizona Stadium.
“It’s nice to have the option to stay home,” said Flannigan, a 6-foot-3-inch, 180-pound defensive back. “The UA has kind of always been a school I’ve wanted to go to, so it’s a blessing to get my first offer from them.
“As a kid, you go to the UA games, and you get all excited so it’d mean a lot to put on that red, blue and white.”
Since 2004, just 12 players from Southern Arizona have accepted scholarships to play for the Wildcats, not including a pair of incoming freshmen — Cameron Denson and Kaelin Deboskie — who led Salpointe to a state title last fall.
Rodriguez appears intent on landing local players, though it’s never a given that the best will stay home. Sabino’s Andrew Mike chose Florida over the UA in February, and teammate Matt Bushman opted for BYU.
Former UA coach Mike Stoops worked hard to land Salpointe’s Kris O’Dowd only to watch as the center picked USC — and then started four years for the Trojans. Stoops and his staff managed to convince Palo Verde’s Adam Hall, Canyon del Oro’s Ka’Deem Carey and Ironwood Ridge’s Jake Fischer to choose the UA. Both Carey and Fischer were among the Wildcats’ top players last season.
Arizona’s 2014 roster will include seven locals — Denson, Deboskie, Jacob Arzouman and Brogan Kemmerly, all from Salpointe; Ironwood Ridge grad Jake Matthews; Sahuaro’s Drew Riggleman; and Canyon del Oro’s Jared Tevis. Of those, just Denson, Deboskie, Arzouman and Tevis are on scholarship.
“A lot of people underestimate Tucson,” Holt said. “A lot of people don’t realize there’s a lot of talented kids right here in (Rodriguez’s) own backyard. I think he is really taking advantage of that, and he’s noticing there’s a lot of opportunities there.”
As a sophomore, Holt averaged 3.3 tackles in 14 games and had four tackles for loss. One of his most memorable moments came in the Division II state championship game at Arizona Stadium when he helped plug up the middle to stop Scottsdale Chaparral on a crucial fourth-and-goal from the 1. Three plays later, Denson caught a 98-yard touchdown to put Salpointe up by 20 points.
Holt could receive more offers, especially since he still has two seasons of high school football left. Flannigan expects to make his decision before his senior season begins in August, but Holt said he plans on keeping his options open until the end of his junior year.
Holt’s father, Julius, lettered for the Wildcats in 1981 and 1982 and earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree from the UA. He said he “cried like a baby” when his son was offered by his alma mater, but he doesn’t want to be the one making the decision.
“I think it would be a special moment, a special opportunity for my son but, at the same token, I’ve got to let my son make decisions for himself,” Julius Holt said. “I can’t be selfish as a father and tell him that’s where I want him to go or want for him. But we’re very happy, we’re very ecstatic at the fact that they offered him.”