The Birth of a New Gunfighter

In the bad old days of the Great American West, men such as Billy the Kid, Jesse James and Frank Bonney made their living and their reputation with quickness and their strong right (or left) arm. More important than the physical was their ability to make lightning -fast decisions.

As these and other famed gunfighters stalked through the arid deserts and dusty towns of Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and California over a century ago, there was always the threat, howsoever small, of that unknown boy- that farm kid practicing with his father's old revolver, that stable hand with the freakish hand-eye- quickness on popping up out of nowhere to challenge the acknowledged masters and getting in that one kill shot. This then would herald the birth of a new gunfighter.

The modern day Football Quarterback is today's gunfighter- he too stalks his territory- the gridiron- with swagger and confidence and his success, his very reputation depending on his quickness of arm, his instantaneous decision-making and lightning fast delivery. And like the gunfighter of old, there is always that unknown boy, that farm kid throwing hundreds of passes through an old tire, the salesman's son perfecting his deliver on a deserted stretch of beach- ready to step in and grab his share of the glory.

Over the past twenty years, Arizona football has had its share of gunfighters- some good, some great, others simply awful. Perhaps the greatest of them all was the legendary Bruce Hill of the famed "1-2-3" backfield of the early 70's. Bruce had a lethal combination of pure speed, foot quickness and a cannon arm, and together with Fullback Jim Upchurch, Halfback Willie Hamilton, slotback T Bell, Split End Scott Piper led Arizona to consecutive 9-2 seasons. Going back a few more years, the best QB of the early 60's was Eddie Wilson. He did not have the physical talents that Hill had but made up for it with smart play calling, a cool head and was amply complemented by the backfield of Bobby Lee "The General " Thompson and "Jackrabbit Joe" Hernandez. The best season that this lethal combo produced was a spectacular 8-1-1 way back in 1960.

Fast forward to the late 70's and early 80's and one name stands out- Tom Tunnicliffe. Looking at him, you would say the following- short and slow. Forget it. But, he was THE MAN and his ability to get the ball to playmakers like Vance Johnson, David Eldridge and Brad Anderson was uncanny. The 70's also saw the ONE Arizona QB ever to start an NFL Game make his career- Bill Demory (ex New York Jet). The 90's saw a lot of promise and hype go up in smoke for some of Dick Tomey's QB's. This era suffered from identity complex s. Tomey first tried to install an offense that combined the run and shoot offense with the wishbone. He recruited heavily for guys who could run first like Ronnie Veal and George Malaulu. It is ironic that two of Tomey's QB's were transfers from other programs- Bobby Watters from SMU and Dan White from Penn State.

The best Tomey era QB was Keith Smith of Newbury Park, CA. Short, stocky and built for speed, Smith was simply another running back on the field and his talents helped Arizona beat the Nebraska Cornhuskers in that magical 12-1 1998 season.

The greatest enigma in UA QB history was Ortege Jenkins. He was a latter day Bruce Hill, blessed with a tremendous amount of raw talent and a cannon arm, as evidenced by his record 19TD passes in his freshman year, but suffered with poor coaching and unimaginative play calling in what should have been a stellar senior campaign.

Prowling the sidelines, clipboard in hand during the Smith-Jenkins era was a tall, lanky kid from the Pacific Northwest. Few knew then that his bloodlines ran deep into the football gridiron- that his grandfather was the famed coaching genius Frosty Westerling. Few really thought of Johnson as anything but a space on the bench. Coach Dick Tomey described Jason Johnson as "cerebral" which may have appeared to be a backhanded complement to some, as he obviously wasn't blessed with the sprinter's speed of a Keith Smith, or the howitzer arm of Jenkins or Bruce Hill. He saw very limited action in his first two years, and many forgot about him. A lot of Arizona fans were facing the 2001 campaign knowing that new Coach John Mackovic, with his complex spread multiple-attack offense had given "the keys" as it were to JJ.

Many of us were used to the Keith Smith 75-yard sprints up the middle, or still clung to memories of OJ's "Leap by the Lake" in 1998. No way Johnson could be anything but a guy on the field. It can be know said after two Arizona games, and incidentally two Arizona victories, that Jason Johnson's role as the new Arizona quarterback of the Mackovic era need never be underplayed. He has showed poise, and has kept a cool head under fire, and most importantly has shown the ability to quickly grasp the intricacies of Mack's complex attacking scheme. And as far as pure ability… who can forget his composure as he stepped back into his own end zone and launched a missile to Brandon Marshall at midfield that the former JC All America carried into the end zone, some 99 yards later? How about 2 consecutive games with a 60%+ passing percentage?

The season is still young; Arizona still has a lot of kinks to iron out and tons of mistakes to rectify. But September 22 marks a watershed day for this season, for this is when young Jason Johnson faces perhaps his deadliest foe in USC transfer Jason Thomas of UNLV. Thomas is in the Daunte Culpepper mold- huge (6-4) 240 lbs and fast. He is a TRUE Gunfighter and will come at as with guns blazing. HE is the acknowledged master and a bona fide Heisman Candidate. Can young Jason Johnson, former ballboy, grandson to a football dynasty take him out? The Idaho game saw something special- the birth of a new type of gunfighter in Arizona QB history. Jason Johnson- the "Smart Gunfighter"

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