Notes From Wonderland: All things quarterback

One only needed to watch the UofA football coaches at the Nike NoCal Combine in Palo Alto to see that this is a totally different regime than that of Dick Tomey. We all knew that Mackovic would bring in an offense first philosophy that was a 180-degree change from that of Tomey. The key to the Mackovic offense is a great quarterback and the Wildcat coaches have done everything they could to recruit these types of players.

I don't know what the Tomey philosophy was, but it appeared that after the team dumped the Wishbone/Run and Shoot hybrid that they rarely tried to attract the top tier quarterbacks. It seemed like they shied away from trying to lure the top guys to Tucson and instead looked towards talented but flawed players or transfers. Even after shattering Pac-10 offensive records the Wildcats recruited the likes of Steve Flemming and Cliff Watkins and invited Kyle Slager to walk-on.

Tomey's staff did uncover some pretty good players. After George Malauulu finished his eligibility, the Cats went to war with Dan White and fared pretty well. The Cats lured White to campus after he couldn't win the job at Penn State. Although he was one of the better Wildcat signal callers, he was essentially a Joe Paterno reject. Following White was Keith Smith. If Smith were 6-2 he would have been a superstar. In reality he was 5-10 and a former minor league baseball player. If he were 6-2 he would have played at UCLA. Following Smith was Ortege Jenkins, another player who came to Arizona because other schools did not want him. Although Jenkins had a lot of intangibles, most schools saw an All-American defensive back or linebacker. The Wildcats promised him a shot at quarterback and he came to Arizona and had one of the most up and down careers of any Arizona player.

Tomey did recruit Jason Johnson, who has turned into a pretty good quarterback, but never seemed sold on the young passer. One defensive player confided in me that in 2000 many on the team had lost faith in Jenkins but that the staff never even gave Johnson a chance to win the job.

With Johnson on campus, Tomey went after a number of quarterbacks that fit the old Tomey mold. They brought in Watkins who was essentially a strong-armed option quarterback. They fought hard to land Erik Garcia, an undersized, speedy JC transfer who washed out after one redshirt year. On paper the biggest coup was landing John Rattay. Rattay was a top-15 rated senior who originally attended Tennessee but made no headway after an early Spring Practice and came to Arizona. After the coaching change Rattay failed to beat out Johnson and is now at a junior college in California.

Mackovic will not settle for undersized gems and athletic tweeners. He is chasing the big boys. He's chasing the players who usually go to UCLA, USC and Oregon. He has already landed two top-20 quarterbacks and wants to add a highly rated passer in every class. With only a few months to recruit after getting the job, Mackovic landed Nic Costa and was in the hunt for Joe Mauer. While credit must be given the Tomey staff for the initial interest of these two players, the fact is that Mackovic nabbed Costa from the likes of Purdue, Notre Dame, UCLA and ASU. Mauer signed with Florida State, but took MLB money and signed with the Twins.

The next season, Mackovic's first full year recruiting, Mackovic landed an early commitment from Ryan O'Hara. Although by the time the final recruiting rankings came out he had dropped, all O'Hara did was earn an invite to the prestigious Elite 11 camps, play in the California/Florida All-Star game and spearhead one of the best recruiting classes in Arizona history. Despite committing very early, O'Hara was pursued by Pac-10 coaches until the end.

Arizona will not rest with the quarterbacks that they have. While Costa and O'Hara have the physical tools to be among the school's best passers, Mackovic wants to have a stocked cupboard. They are chasing some great passers in this latest recruiting class. No one will be handed the job, it will have to be earned. If O'Hara does indeed lead Arizona to their first Rose Bowl, it won't be because he was next in line for the job, it will be because he was the best player for the job.

The Arizona coaches scrutinized the passers at the Palo Alto camp. Coach Rick Dykes watched every drill that the top guys competed in. He watched footwork drills, agility drills and arm strength drills. He took notes and if he doesn't know everything he needs to know about the guys he's recruiting, then I get the feeling he is close to finding it all out.

The evaluation was even more intense during one-on-one drills. Coaches Rob Ianello and Marty Long joined the group and watched the quarterbacks, wide receivers and defensive backs battle it out. There seems to be no question that this staff wants to have good quarterbacks on the roster.

Of the top-10 quarterbacks at the camp, at least five have Arizona on their lists. The Wildcats are in good status with the likes of T.C. Ostrander, Johnny DuRocher, Leon Jackson, Michael Affleck and David Dixon. The Wildcats are also in the hunt for a number of talented Texas signal callers.

The Tomey era relied on defense and timely offense. The game plan was designed to keep scores down and field position close. The Wildcats in the 90's were more concerned with pinning their opponents deep than making the big play on third and long. That changed a bit with the emergence of Smith and Jenkins.

Both players were victimized by Tomey's loyalty. Frankly Smith was the better passer. He was fast, elusive and found receivers. He was the ultimate possession passer. He completed over 68% of his passes in 1998 and just a hair under 60% for his career. He was tough, gutty and should have been the guy. Unfortunately he got hurt his sophomore season and Jenkins became the ultimate victim of his own success.

Jenkins had a solid freshman season. Although he completed less than 50% of his passes, he threw for a record number of touchdowns. The problem is he never got much better. Jenkins had the arm pro scout drool about, but lacked the touch and ability to make decisions that he needed. His freshman year he was aided by gifted receivers who were able to haul in his long bombs and take underneath routes to the house. Rarely were the touchdown drives the result of Jenkins picking apart defenses.

Jenkins would probably be in the NFL today if he had made the move to defense. Smith would be immortalized as the best quarterback since Tom Tunnicliffe to wear a Wildcat uniform. Instead the two shared the job, had some success, but never realized their potential.

You get the feeling that the same thing won't happen with Mackovic at the helm. He prides himself on his complex offense and it seems that he is looking for the best player to run the system. That could be a freshman or a senior. He could be 6-6 or 5-10. The only thing you can count on is that Mackovic and his staff want to have enough players to make the best decision.

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