How adversity shaped Arizona’s Anu Solomon into standout Pac-12 QB
This season's most pleasant surprise in the Pac-12 is a soft-spoken redshirt freshman who emerged from a six-man quarterback derby and actually ranks ahead of Oregon's Marcus Mariota, UCLA's Brett Hundley and Oregon State's Sean Mannion — the league's three quarterbacks whom many this summer projected as future first-round NFL picks.
Arizona's Anu Solomon ranks second in the Pac-12 in total offense (his 337 yards per game trail only Washington State's Connor Halliday) and his 25:7 touchdown-to-interception ratio has sparked the No. 15 Wildcats to an 8-2 record despite having just 12 returning starters.
Solomon even has surprised his coaches. Head coach Rich Rodriguez says he doesn't try to force leadership from his players, but he was struck by something Solomon did earlier this season at practice. Rodriguez, like most college coaches, wants his players to dress alike during practice. He noticed that Solomon was wearing blue shorts with a red stripe, which was different from all his teammates on offense.
"Anu, that's not like him, so I said, 'Why don't you have the same shorts as everybody else has?' He pointed and said, 'Well so-and-so on defense had lost his shorts, so I gave him mine. So he wouldn't get in trouble and so I wore these ones with the red stripe.' And he said, 'I know I shouldn't have done that.' I think he thought I was gonna start yelling at him, but I'm like, there's a sign of leadership that nobody would ever notice. I just turned my head and thought to myself, 'This guy has got more leadership than I even imagined.' "
To find out where Solomon's character and leadership stem from, start about 3,000 miles from Tucson. Solomon was raised in Hawaii, but not the part of the state most know as the tropical island getaway. He grew up in Kalihi near Honolulu, an area infested with gangs.
"There was a lot of adversity," Solomon said. "Some days you weren't safe to walk home. You gotta be tough. There's a lot of gangs. As a kid, I stayed away from everything."
Jarrett Solomon, Anu's dad, an old middle linebacker, also grew up in Kalihi and was well versed in the challenges young kids face there. "It's the lower edge of living," he says. "It's all around — gangs, drugs."
His dad taught him if anyone came at him, to stand his ground, Anu said.
"Walking home was the hardest thing I've had to do," Anu said of the 15- to 20-minute, nerve-wracking journey that often meant hustling through a lot of dark alleys between school and their two-bedroom home. "Just seeing everything."
Solomon may have grown up in fear, but his parents were determined to not let him get dragged down to the rough neighborhood he called home. "If you don't keep your kids in any type of sports, especially in Hawaii, they end up not going to school, hanging out with the bad crowd," Jarrett Solomon said.
Anu, whose name is short for Kahanuolaokalani, said his dad, who worked as a bail bondsman, was "very tough" on him. "My dad ... just basically coached us up how to be calm and how to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations. "
That tough love helped Anu tackle challenges head on, which included adjusting to a move to Las Vegas when he was 13 after his mom got accepted to the radiology program at UNLV. Solomon admits he had some struggles with the transition.
"We spoke pidgin," he said, referencing an auxiliary language of sorts that comes out in phrases like "Howyou" or "Whatchedoin?"
"Things (diction-wise) weren't very proper at all, so people couldn't understand me at all."
Because of that, Solomon said he sometimes got picked on in Vegas, and that his "Hawaiian nature" caused some trouble, which got him in a few scraps. Solomon, though, credits his friends and his teachers for helping him to speak proper English. He'd stay after class twice a week for an hour or two to work on it.
Being the oldest of seven kids, Anu also had to be responsible for his younger siblings, cooking them meals and helping out around the house to assist their own transitions.
"Anu was a big help," his mother Jaime said. "He always took care of the younger kids."
Anu said he felt like he was being a leader in the family, helping his parents putting food on the table for his siblings. "It's quite similar to being a quarterback on the team," he said. "Taking on responsibility. Having people rely on you."
That presence and resourcefulness carried over to the football field, where he emerged as a star for Vegas prep powerhouse Bishop Gorman. Solomon got into the private school after his dad sent in his film from an all-star game. The younger Solomon won the starting QB job as a freshman and helped spark the school to four state titles. He landed offers from most of the Pac-12, but felt most comfortable with Rodriguez and Arizona. He knew Rodriguez from the Pat White era at West Virginia and felt the coach reminded him of his dad.
"(Rodriguez) was so laid back during the home visit, he just bonded strongly with my parents," Anu said. "And I thought this guy might be the man."
Solomon redshirted in 2013 and wasn't fazed when Arizona brought in touted former QBs who had started their careers at USC (Jesse Scroggins), LSU (Jarrett Randall) and Texas (Connor Brewer).
"We put a lot of pressure, myself especially, on our quarterbacks in practice," Rodriguez said. "The way we run practice is almost like a game where we're putting them in stressful situations and we want to see how they respond. And in the spring, (Anu) responded better than anyone we had to those pressure situations, so we thought, 'OK, this guy is kind of unflappable for a redshirt freshman.' Then we continued that in August camp. We were really repping four guys in and out the whole time, putting them under a lot of pressure, and Anu handled the pressure better than anybody."
Rodriguez said he suspects that cool and grit comes from Solomon's upbringing. The coach has mentored a bunch of dynamic quarterbacks in his career, from the precision passing of Shaun King at Tulane to the play-making of Woody Dantzler at Clemson to the game-breaking speed of Pat White (WVU) and Denard Robinson (Michigan). Solomon, who describes himself as more elusive than fast, brings a bit different skill set.
"He doesn't run as well as those guys but who does, right?" Rodriguez said. "I mean those guys were as fast as anybody on the field, but I mean he runs well enough to escape pressure sometimes and he's athletic; he's more athletic than you think. The thing that he does really well is he gets rid of the football on the run — he can throw on the run as well as any quarterback I've had. He's very, very accurate and he has kind of got a great field presence about him. The vision, I think, that's his greatest asset."
Solomon's vision and dexterity make him such a good fit for Arizona, where Rodriguez has his QBs practice making "awkward" throws every day.
"Everybody wants to talk about the quarterback having great balance and their feet underneath them," Rodriguez said. "Well, the truth is most of the time when you're throwing a ball, especially in a system like ours, you're throwing the ball off the wrong foot, off the back foot, or running left, or running right and making those accurate throws inaccurate or awkward throws. And he's really good at that and works at it all the time, but you also have to have a feel for it, and he has a great feel for the game."
With a chance to make a run at the Pac-12 South Division title, Solomon knows Arizona still has a lot to play for, especially in tough games at No. 17 Utah and against arch-rival No. 13 Arizona State.
However, there's plenty of reason to think he's up for the challenge.
Bruce Feldman is a senior college football reporter and columnist for FOXSports.com and FOX Sports 1. He is also a New York Times Bestselling author. His new book, The QB: The Making of Modern Quarterbacks, came out in October, 2014. Follow him on Twitter @BruceFeldmanCFB.