Don’t count freshmen out in Arizona Wildcats’ multi-player backup QB battle
It’s a ritual of training camp: Reporters ask veteran players which newcomers have stood out the most.
The reflexive response is to cite a player from the same position. Safeties pick safeties. Linebackers nominate linebackers. They’re around one another the most. It makes sense.
Arizona Wildcats receiver Shun Brown ran a different route when asked that question late Saturday night.
“I like the quarterbacks,” the senior said. “The quarterbacks are looking good.”
Brown specifically referenced “Jaboo and Kev” — freshman quarterbacks Jamarye Joiner and Kevin Doyle. Arizona has yet to conduct a practice in pads. But Brown has worked with them in players-only workouts and two no-pads camp practices. He’s been impressed so far.
“I feel like they’re more developed coming in,” Brown said. “They’re hungry. They ask me questions. They always want to throw, do extra stuff. They want to win. That right there speaks for itself.”
Whether Joiner or Doyle can climb the depth chart to become the next-best option behind junior starter Khalil Tate remains to be seen. They are competing with second-year players K’Hari Lane and Rhett Rodriguez. The four have one career passing attempt among them.
As with most personnel decisions, making that determination is an arduous process. Although every snap is scrutinized, UA offensive coordinator and QB coach Noel Mazzone told his young quarterbacks Saturday that the competition won’t really being until “some point in the next week, week and a half.” By then, Mazzone explained, he can “bring the young kids up to speed so everybody’s on a level playing field.”
As prepared as they might be upon arrival, freshmen Joiner and Doyle have a lot of catching up to do and a short time to do it.
“It’s hard to say anything about the young guys yet, because they’re still trying to figure out where the locker room is,” Mazzone said.
“At this point right now, the hard thing for quarterbacks is just the terminology. When you’re a tempo offense and you don’t huddle, reading signals, getting the other 10 guys on the same page. It’s just the mechanics of the position.
“I’m really not that concerned right now if they’re making some wrong decisions in the course of the play.
“The first step is, can we get them lined up? Can we get everybody going in the right direction? And then, do you know your assignment?”
Mazzone did say that Joiner, Doyle and another freshman — walk-on Luke Ashworth from Phoenix Arcadia High School — all look the part. “They’ve all got a really good skill set,” Mazzone said.
Doyle is the only scholarship quarterback Mazzone recruited, having worked his East Coast connections to add Doyle to Arizona’s 2018 class and boost the depth at football’s most important position.
“He’s tall. He’s got good arm strength. He’s smart,” Mazzone said of Doyle. “The same with … Jamarye. They’ve just gotta play more football.”
Joiner starred as a two-way threat at Cienega, where he also excelled in track. UA coach Kevin Sumlin quickly and decisively shot down any notion of Joiner shifting to another position, saying: “Those guys are all playing quarterback right now.”
Lane, who generally has been the second man up during the portion of practice open to the media, looks more like a quarterback now. The 6-1 redshirt freshman could have passed for a fullback or linebacker a year ago, when he was listed at 245 pounds.
He’s now 222.
“K’Hari’s a guy that worked hard at it over the summer to be that guy, because he needs to,” Mazzone said. “What he’s trying to be now is just a more consistent player. It can’t be great play, great play, average play, bad play, bad play.”
Rodriguez also transformed his body. The 6-footer from Catalina Foothills is now listed at 201 pounds, up from 186 a year ago.
The arrival of the newcomers and the improvement of the holdovers has created the effect Mazzone was seeking.
“I like it,” he said, “because there’s competition in the room.”
Arizona’s offense under Mazzone will be similar in some ways to what the Wildcats ran under Rich Rodriguez. It’ll still be an up-tempo spread scheme. There won’t be as much zone read, but when there is, the concepts will remain the same.
Brown doesn’t expect his role to change much; he’s Arizona’s top slot receiver, as well as its No. 1 punt returner.
But one difference in the offense is that it could lead to crisper execution in the passing game.
“It’s more locked-on routes,” Brown said. “Last offense, we had more read routes. Now it’s more like, if you have a corner route, run a corner; if you have a go, run a go — rather than run a go route and turn it into a curl.”
In Rodriguez’s scheme, the quarterback and receiver often had to read the defense on the fly. If they didn’t see the same thing, it could result in a miscommunication.
The last pass Tate threw last season was an interception. Needing to score in the final minutes to tie or take the lead against Purdue in the Foster Farms Bowl, Tate overthrew Brown. At Pac-12 Media Day last month, Tate described the play as “just me and Shun Brown on the wrong page.”
In Mazzone’s system, that should happen less frequently, at least in theory. Said Brown: “If the routes are locked, (the quarterback) knows where you’re going to be, and I know where I’m supposed to be, and that’s it.”
Transfer Robert Congel played in five games for Mazzone and Sumlin at Texas A&M as a freshman last year. Congel’s ability to play center “really helps us,” Mazzone said. “It means we don’t have to subtract from one of the other positions to fill the center spot. It gives us more depth. It gives us a little more flexibility.”It remains to be seen whether Congel will be eligible this season. He was a walk-on for the Aggies.Senior receiver Shawn Poindexter was one of the players who caught Mazzone’s eye when the team reported for camp. The 6-5 Poindexter added six pounds of muscle in the offseason, going from 212 pounds to 218. “He’s one guy I really noticed when we showed up a couple days ago,” Mazzone said.After a day off Sunday, the Wildcats are scheduled to practice six straight days. Their first full-pads practice is slated for Wednesday.