Arizona Wildcats quarterback Brandon Dawkins has his share of detractors. Much of the criticism, particularly about his accuracy as a passer, is valid.
But it’s inaccurate to portray Dawkins as turnover-prone. The three interceptions he threw against Utah on Sept. 22 marked a career high. They were his first picks of the season. Only twice previously had he thrown two interceptions in a game: against Utah last year and against Arizona State in 2015, his first extended playing time as a collegian.
Dawkins generally has managed games well. The Utah game — a six-point loss in which he also fumbled — stands as the exception.
But taking better care of the ball — a basic tenet of football since its birth — has been a huge point of emphasis for Dawkins and the Wildcats since the Utah game ended and preparations for Colorado began.
“We have to value the football to the point where you understand, that is our program,” Rod Smith, Arizona’s co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, said Tuesday. “You are holding the program in your hands. You don’t carelessly let that thing go.”
Smith and UA coach Rich Rodriguez acknowledged that sometimes plays simply don’t work. Sometimes the offensive play call just isn’t right; sometimes the opposition calls the perfect defense.
What Smith and Rodriguez want Dawkins to avoid is making a bad situation worse.
“We don’t need to make it a bad, bad play by a wrong decision or poor fundamentals,” Rodriguez said.
That’s where it all starts for Smith — fundamentals. The Wildcats spent the bulk of their bye week working on the basics.
Dawkins completed a career-high 24 passes against the Utes, but it took a career-high 42 attempts to get there. Many of his misses were high.
Smith compared passing to shooting a basketball. When you’re struggling with your shot, he said, you head to the foul line.
“You start all over,” Smith said. “If you’re not in a rhythm (as a quarterback), you go back to the free-throw line per se.
“It all starts with those guys having good technique, good timing. And it goes from there.”
Arizona spent part of its extra practice time striving to make its pass-game timing more precise.
Dawkins and his fellow quarterbacks worked on a different sort of three-and-out — dropping back three steps and getting the ball out of their hands. Receivers worked on making sure they hit their marks on 5- and 10-yard routes.
“I can tell from the last couple weeks that we’ve gotten more in the flow and everybody’s starting to (get) on the same page,” tight end Trevor Wood said. “That’s something we’ve really focused on. I think you’ll see it’s come together.”
The proof lies in the play, of course. Dawkins’ performance has been inconsistent. As he goes, so goes Arizona.
Dawkins did not turn the ball over and rushed for multiple touchdowns in lopsided victories over Northern Arizona and UTEP; he committed multiple turnovers and missed some makeable throws in close losses to Houston and Utah.
The coaches can live with the occasional missed pass. Unnecessary turnovers that lead directly to points are another story.
Dawkins’ mishandling of a snap deep in UA territory led to a safety against Houston — the Cougars’ only points in the second half of a three-point game. His forced throw late in the third quarter against Utah resulted in a pick-six.
Rodriguez stressed that he doesn’t want Dawkins, or any of his quarterbacks, to “play scared” or be “afraid to make a play.” But they have to be smart and have a sense of situation.
No one was open on the interception that the Utes returned for a touchdown. Arizona had the ball at its 12-yard line. The Wildcats trailed by three points. A sack and a punt wouldn’t have been the worst outcome.
“It needs to be better decision-making on Brandon’s part,” Smith said. “When that play is broken, I can’t force it. That’s where we as the quarterbacks have to handle the ball better. I gotta understand when a play’s good and a play’s not good.
“That’s game management. That’s part of the quarterback development. But he’s been here long enough that those are the mistakes that he can’t make.”
On Tate’s role
Rodriguez has made it clear that Dawkins is Arizona’s starting QB. But the staff wants the other quarterbacks to push him, and the return to health of backup Khalil Tate should help in that regard.
Tate hurt his throwing shoulder in the Sept. 2 opener against NAU. He played in the fourth quarter against Houston the following week but was limited in practice until the bye.
Tate’s return gives Rodriguez an experienced alternative should Dawkins get hurt or struggle against Colorado.
“We want competition,” Smith said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s Game 1 or Game 10. Hopefully we have enough depth at every position where they’re constantly competing – that nobody feels comfortable.
“We don’t want them ever looking over their shoulder, thinking if I make a mistake I’m going to get pulled. That ain’t the case. But you don’t want them getting stale. We want to make sure we’re constantly getting better at our craft.
“And if we’re not seeing production and we’re not getting better … what’s happening? What’s going on? Where’s the breakdown at? Do we need to get a spark? Do we need to get somebody else? That’s the decision we make as we go forward.”
- Wood is back to full strength. The redshirt junior injured his left ankle and knee in the opener. He missed two games, then played sparingly vs. Utah with a brace on his knee.
- Colorado Mike MacIntyre on Arizona: “When they get to running the football, you really can’t stop them. Their running backs are dynamic, and their QB can fly.”
- Rodriguez on Colorado QB Steven Montez: “I’ve been really impressed. He’s making all the throws. He’s a tough guy. And for a big guy, he can run.” Rodriguez said Montez does a good job of keeping plays alive and is more apt to scramble and throw than scramble and run.
- Rodriguez said Arizona added some new wrinkles during the bye week but that there’s a danger in doing too much. The staff will scale back the game plan over the next few days.
- Rodriguez still isn’t satisfied with the number of three-and-outs the Arizona defense is forcing – even though the Wildcats are one of 23 teams in the country forcing five or more per game.