Rich Rodriguez knows the Arizona Wildcats’ quarterback play has to improve. And he knows it has to improve soon.
Arizona should be able to defeat UTEP on Friday regardless. But Pac-12 play begins the following week. The schedule is only going to get harder.
“We’ve got to get better in a hurry,” Rodriguez said Monday in response to one of several questions about the quarterbacks. “There’s a lot of football left, but we want to start playing better right now.”
Despite some decent overall numbers, the passing game didn’t quite click in Arizona’s 19-16 loss to Houston on Saturday night. Rodriguez took it a step further, saying: “We didn’t execute well at all in the passing game.”
Unfortunately, this is not a new problem. It dates to last season, and maybe even the season before that.
Rodriguez has been shuffling quarterbacks for a variety of reasons since 2015. He has yet to zero in on a solution.
Starter Brandon Dawkins has flashed game-breaking ability, especially as a runner, but consistency has eluded him as a passer. Backup Khalil Tate is no longer a raw 17-year-old freshman, but he’s still learning. The other two quarterbacks who conceivably could play — Rhett Rodriguez and Donavan Tate — ARE freshmen.
Asked to assess the current state of Arizona’s quarterbacking, Rich Rodriguez said: “I still feel good. We’ve got talented guys. … I have high expectations for the quarterbacks that we have. But I always have high expectations for the quarterbacks in this system.
“We have talent there that can play at a high level, and they have, and that’s what we expect going forward.”
Rodriguez defended his quarterbacks — Dawkins in particular — because they have put in the work. They just haven’t achieved the desired results on a regular basis.
After Dawkins misfired on several passes vs. Houston — including a certain touchdown to Tony Ellison — Rodriguez and his staff doubled down on fundamentals during Sunday’s team meeting and light practice. Sometimes, Rodriguez said, Dawkins’ competitive nature gets the best of him in the heat of a game. Likewise Khalil Tate.
“You just want to make a play, and you forget about the fundamental part of it,” Rodriguez said. “We’re working on that.”
Focal points include timing, footwork, hip alignment and eye placement. It’s fair to question whether Dawkins should be further along in those areas as a fourth-year junior who has started 11 games.
“Everybody wants to be consistent,” Rodriguez said. “He’s trying. He’s conscientious enough to keep working on it and get better at it.”
Although he said the quarterbacks aren’t solely to blame for the passing game’s ongoing struggles, Rodriguez recognizes that they’re going to receive the most scrutiny. They have to face whatever criticism comes their way.
“That’s part of the deal,” he said. “They have to handle that part of it.”
As for the quarterback plan against UTEP, Rodriguez did not reveal where he’s leaning. The presumption is that Dawkins will continue to start if he’s healthy. But he got banged up in the Houston game, as did Tate in the season opener. Neither appeared to be 100 percent when they walked off the field at Arizona Stadium on Saturday night.
“Before anybody asks about a controversy or all that, that’s always nice water-cooler talk,” Rodriguez said. “But we try to get everybody ready to play. And then whoever I feel gives us the best chance to win or succeed on that particular drive or series or half or game, that’s what I go with.
“I’ve got two guys in (Khalil) and Brandon that have got a little bit of experience — Brandon a lot more — and then I’ve got two freshmen that keep progressing and pushing them as well.”
Whether Rodriguez has one quarterback who can lead the Wildcats back to the postseason remains to be seen.
The UTEP game is the first Arizona will play on the road. A reporter asked Rodriguez whether it could be beneficial to get away from Tucson after the Wildcats received a smattering of boos Saturday. Rodriguez only seemed to be vaguely aware of them.
“You want your home fans to cheer for you, not against you,” he said. “The ZonaZoo’s been terrific. Our fans for five years-plus have been terrific. I’d rather play all games at home, if I could. I don’t think they’ll let us do that.”
Arizona will bus to El Paso on Thursday morning. The Wildcats will fly home after the game.
- Rodriguez said tailback Nick Wilson “just tweaked his ankle a little bit” last week and “hopefully he’ll be better for this week.” The oft-injured Wilson suited up for the Houston game but did not play.
- Rodriguez said the coaches are getting more confident in freshman tailback Nathan Tilford, who did not get any backfield snaps against Houston. Rodriguez implied that it’s only a matter of time before Tilford becomes a bigger part of the game plan.
- Tight end Trevor Wood still had a boot on his left foot Monday afternoon. He did not play against Houston because of an ankle injury.
- Rodriguez said he “felt a little better” about the Wildcats’ performance after watching the film of the Houston game. “We weren’t as far off on things as I thought,” Rodriguez said.
- Arizona tried three short snappers with starter Nick Reinhardt out. It appears that starting center Nathan Eldridge will handle those responsibilities moving forward, with Donald Reiter snapping on punts.
- Rodriguez said the Wildcats had “three or four missed assignments” on the Cougars’ 81-yard kickoff return. “We lost contain,” he said. “It was just bad. It should never happen.”
- Rodriguez said the two biggest adjustments this week are having one fewer practice and prepping the defense for UTEP’s old-school rushing attack.
- Several UA players and staffers are from Florida and/or have friends and family who live there. Rodriguez said they’re all safe in the wake of Hurricane Irma, as far as he knows.