In the days after Arizona’s 31-13 loss to Washington earlier this season, quarterbacks coach Rod Smith was a battered and beaten man — and it had nothing to do with B.J. Denker’s struggles against the Huskies.
“I had a severe herniated disc, and it was impinging on my nerve,” said Smith, who had to have surgery during one of the UA’s bye weeks. “From my shoulder down to my arm, I was in pain constantly. I couldn’t sleep, sit, stand; nothing would relieve the pain.”
Smith, who played quarterback for Rich Rodriguez at Glenville State in the mid-1990s, had a different type of discomfort Saturday night at Arizona Stadium.
This one was related to his pupil.
Smith watched helplessly from the coaches box as Denker threw two straight incompletions and then an interception on Arizona’s final drive in a 31-26 loss to UCLA on Saturday night.
“It wasn’t good execution on our part,” Smith said. “The last play, we had man coverage, we had Nate one-on-one on the out-cut, and B.J. was late on the throw. He probably should have kept it in the pocket a little longer.
“We just didn’t execute and do what we were supposed to do as players or coaches.”
It was a rare bad decision from Denker. The senior has had a lot of different issues this season, but throwing the ball in the wrong spot typically hasn’t been one.
“He has so many decisions to make and it happens so quickly that it’s hard to be perfect,” Rodriguez said. “He’s gotten good at it for the most part, but there were a couple of critical situations, third and fourth down ones and goal line ones that you really have to be on the mark.”
The Star stole some one-on-one time with Smith this week to talk about Denker, the UA offense and the future of the quarterback position at Arizona:
How did you grade Denker’s game against UCLA?
A: “I thought he was average in the fact that he made most of his reads correctly, but there were a couple that he didn’t. Not necessarily on the actual play, but seeing the defense and getting us into a different play or allowing us to get him into a different play. That’s where he missed some things. It wasn’t a bunch, but it was at crucial times where we have to be smarter. If he’s not seeing it, he has to let us help him out. We missed a couple of them. If it wasn’t for that, he would have played pretty well. But at the same time, I expect him to see some things and help us in that regard to make some decisions.”
And he’s been pretty good with his reads this year, right?
A: “He’s been very good with his reads. Everyone makes mistakes. But on a consistent, he’s done well. He’s progressively gotten better, and that’s not just on him, that’s due to the whole collaboration of all of our skill guys starting to jell a little bit. He understands a wideout a little better, and they understand him better and the light switch has started to go on for all of them.”
What do you want to see from Denker moving forward?
A: “I just want to see him continue to get better. Continue to be consistent with his reads and continue to work on his accuracy and ball placement. He’s done a pretty good job with that this year with the exception of last game. You take that interception away and give us a chance, he’s done a pretty good job of taking care of the ball. I just want him to keep coming and keep seeing the defenses, and put our offense in good situations to score.”
Are you surprised B.J. won the job outright in fall practice and has kept it through the season?
A: “No. I saw it last year when he was a backup. I saw he could do some things for us. B.J. is an intelligent kid. What B.J. had was a lack of playing experience. B.J. had to settle his feet down, and learn how to trust the pocket a little more and how to trust his timing and technique a little more. We don’t want him to play helter-skelter, which he did early on. Those are some negatives of a first-time starter. I knew he could do it. What it does, by him playing, is allow you to develop Anu (Solomon) and allows those other guys to grow and see B.J.’s mistakes, see B.J.’s success, so when it’s their time, it’s not brand new to them.”
How important has it been to be able to redshirt Solomon and give him a year to develop and learn the offense?
A: “It’s huge, in my opinion. Johnny Manziel didn’t play as a true freshman. Jameis Winston didn’t play as a true freshman. Those guys had a year to sit and get stronger, absorb the system, take reps, to see the guy in front of them. That’s huge. It’s like being a little brother and seeing how the big brother does things and say, ‘I saw what he did and I’m not gonna do what he did. I’m not gonna make that mistake.’ That’s huge, rather than being thrown into the fire as a freshman. I think it’s going to help him. Jesse Scroggins is the same way. Jesse is an older guy, but this is his first year with us and he’s a junior, but he’s a freshman in our eyes. So he’s got a chance to be pretty good. I’m hoping the light kicks on for him this spring. This spring is going to be a good battle, I think. We have time to worry about that. But right now, I’m happy with how it’s unfolded so far.”