Unhappy ending to 2014 needs to fuel Arizona QB Anu Solomon
TUCSON, Ariz. -- That last play. That danged last play. It won't be easy to forget the final failed play of the Arizona Wildcats' memorable 2014 season, the final seconds ticking off after Anu Solomon did the one thing he absolutely could not do.
The redshirt freshman quarterback took a sack at the Boise State 10-yard line on third down, Arizona out of timeouts, unable to get off another play because Solomon didn't stop the clock. The Wildcats, who had rallied from an early 21-0 deficit and were down 38-20 late in the third quarter, came up short, 38-30.
"It hurt the next couple of weeks," Solomon said Wednesday after Arizona completed its first practice of the spring. "Other than that, that game is done with. Just got to move on."
There are two ways to look at this. Yes, he needs to put that play, plus other late-season struggles, in the past. Can't let it eat at him, tug at his confidence.
On the other hand, he can't ever forget. The loss in the Fiesta Bowl, which came after a blowout defeat to Oregon in the Pac-12 title game, needs to be fuel.
"We've talked. We've met. We've worked," said quarterbacks coach Rod Smith.
"He's not happy. I'm not happy. None of us is happy with the way the last two games ended. So, he better have a little chip on his shoulder, and I think he does. ...
"He should be pissed off that he played the way he did, because we're pissed off that we coached the way we did."
Solomon, by coaches' accounts and just by looking at him, appears to have taken the past two months seriously. He looks leaner and stronger. He says he was timed last week around 4.69 seconds for the 40-yard dash while maxing out at 325 pounds on the bench press and doing 16 reps of 225.
"Just trying to get strong so I can take on those hits from the linebackers and d-line," he said.
No doubt, health was a factor in a second-half slump. A balky right ankle was often in a walking boot during the week and forced him out of two games at halftime. The injury bothered him for much of the final seven games.
Solomon's first seven games: 200 of 316 for 2,430 yards and 20 touchdowns.
Solomon's final seven games: 113 of 224 for 1,363 yards and eight touchdowns.
And without a hint of a running threat from the quarterback position, Arizona's offense weakened down the stretch.
"You don't want to make excuses obviously because it is what it is," Smith said. "But he wasn't 100 percent like he was at the beginning. But, still, your brain is sometimes your biggest asset. His brain wasn't hurt."
That goes back to the final play, and head coach Rich Rodriguez doesn't seem to mind saying, albeit now with a smile, that "I didn't talk to him for a couple of weeks after the bowl game because I was mad. I sent him a text."
If it sounds like Rodriguez and his assistants are very demanding of their quarterbacks, that's because they are. Even more so now. Given Solomon's two years in the system and one full season of starting experience, he is unlikely to be beaten out by senior Jarrard Randall (who transferred in last fall) or redshirt freshman Brandon Dawkins. But at no point can Arizona afford Solomon to ease up.
"I told him today, 'Don't get comfortable,'" Smith said.
"We know what Anu can do, because he's battle-tested, but no one is anointing anything. He still has to come out and earn his spot. And I told them all today, 'I want you to unseat him.' I said, 'Your job is to take his job. Make him feel uncomfortable.'"
Solomon seems to get that. His 3,793 passing yards were the most in the country for a freshman. His passing efficiency rating of 130.7 was fourth nationally among freshmen. But the 2015 Anu Solomon looks back at game video of the 2014 Anu Solomon and shakes his head.
"I say to myself, 'Man, you look sloppy at times,'" he said.
There is plenty of good to draw upon, too. Not many quarterbacks can claim a game-winning Hail Mary throw (vs. Cal) and a victory at Oregon. Solomon accomplished both in back-to-back games early in the Pac-12 season.
"I like the first part of the season, and parts of the middle," Smith said of Solomon's freshman year.
"I want to say for stretches, he played like he is capable of playing. And that is what he has to get to -- he has to get more consistent. I'm not saying he had a bad year. I'm not saying that at all. He actually, from a statistics standpoint, wasn't bad, particularly for a first year.
"But he set the bar high and now he has to continue to excel past that."
Solomon said his spring goals were to improve his pocket presence, his passing accuracy and his leadership.
He added one more thing.
"And most obviously, clock management," he said.
That should be potent fuel for spring ... and beyond.
Rodriguez said junior DaVonte' Neal, making the move from slot receiver to cornerback, will still be in the mix to reprise his role as punt returner. Neal worked mostly with the second-team defense Wednesday. ... The first-team offensive line for much of the first day was, from left: Freddie Tagaloa, Cayman Bundage, Carter Wood, Jacob Alsadek and Lene Maiava. ... A couple of potential key mid-year junior college additions -- safety Paul Magoire and defensive end Anthony Fotu -- worked with the second unit. ... Arizona's practice field has new signage on the old outfield wall of Sancet Stadium. It reads: 2014 SOUTH CHAMPIONS.