B.J. Denker was a late bloomer in junior college. Arizona now needs him to flourish late in his first season with the Wildcats.
With Matt Scott doubtful to play Saturday because of a concussion, Denker is set to make his first career start and try to push UA into bowl eligibility with a win over Colorado. The Cats are 5-4 overall and 2-4 in the Pac-12 heading into Saturday’s 11:30 a.m. kickoff.
“This is what I have been working toward all year,” Denker said.
“They are not doing to cut down any of the offensive playbook. We’re going to run the same stuff. It’s about making the right reads and executing properly.”
That Denker is here at all, starting one game (at least) for Arizona, is quite an unlikely underdog story.
The left-handed Denker had a fine senior season out of North Torrance High School in California in 2008, but he was a scrawny kid — “tiny,” he said — who failed to fit anyone’s vision of a major college quarterback. The left-hander went to Cerritos College, played sparingly as a freshman … and then offensive coordinator Dean Grosfeld made a decision.
Denker was going to redshirt in 2010. No arguments.
“I have been coaching for 20 years and that was one of the toughest things I have ever done, because he’s such a passionate kid who wants to play,” Grosfeld said Friday in a phone interview.
“I almost had to pull it from a father’s point of view, not a coach’s standpoint. I didn’t give him an option. I just told him this is what he was going to do. He needed some physical maturity and just some general maturity.
“You can’t leave a decision like that to an 18-, 19-year old. They are going to do whatever is best for them in the moment, not the long-term. His family was 100 percent on board. I went to them first.”
This was the moment of reckoning for Denker. Would he rebel against the decision? Would he pack up his cleats and play somewhere else?
“He literally opened his arms and said, ‘What do I need to do?’” Grosfeld said.
Grosfeld was right. Denker began to mature physically. Arizona lists him at 6-3, 177 pounds — still light for a college quarterback — but he said he’s added a few inches of height and about 40 pounds since high school.
While nature took its course, Denker took an advanced course in quarterbacking, attacking his football studies with renewed vigor, charting every play, almost serving as an assistant to Grosfeld.
“I’m not going to tell you that he never missed a practice, I’m going to tell you that he never missed a minute of anything we did, knowing he could never play,” Grosfeld said.
“He used a redshirt for what every college student-athlete should use a redshirt for. He developed in every way — physically, mentally, emotionally. He matured at a greater rate than anybody I have ever seen.”
At the start of the 2011 season, Denker was ready to run Cerritos’ pro-style offense. Nothing was given to him. He split time for a couple of games before the other quarterback faltered, Grosfeld said.
“He was like a shark in the water,” Grosfeld said of Denker.
“He smelled blood and attacked. He took the team on his shoulders. This is the hardest conference in the United States of America, and he was the (offensive) player of the year in our conference.”
Denker completed 160 of 286 passes for 2,319 yards, with 31 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He also ran for 430 yards and seven scores.
He was now ready to launch into major college football. It was all set. He was going to transfer to Indiana at the semester break. At the last minute, Grosfeld said, Indiana added an additional academic requirement — above and beyond the normal qualifications — which nixed the transfer.
“My coach kept telling me to be patient, something is going to happen,” Denker said.
The Cerritos coaches were pitching Denker to various schools, including Arizona, where Grosfeld knew Rich Rodriguez’s read-option system would fit Denker’s athleticism. One problem: UA didn’t have its coaches and recruiting plan in place in time to take a mid-year quarterback.
When the Cats got more organized in the spring, they started to pursue Denker. They had competition. New Mexico and Maryland were among the other schools involved.
“Other schools called me when I got back from my visit from here,” Denker said. “But by that time I was already an Arizona Wildcat. I would have chosen this place anyway.”
Denker arrived in the summer and quickly claimed the backup job to Scott in fall camp.
He has appeared in five games, almost all in mop-up time, completing 13 of 23 throws for 123 yards, with one touchdown and one interception. He lost a fumble when he came in for Scott in the third quarter of last week’s 66-10 loss to UCLA.
Coaches have praised Denker’s work in practice through the fall, but it’s anybody’s guess as to how he responds to a full week of practice as the starter and his first college start.
“He probably picked it up as quickly as we would have hoped in fall camp,” Rodriguez said. “He had a good camp and he’s a sharp guy. He’s going to run what we run.”
Grosfeld, who said his first impression of Denker out of high school was that he was a “gunslinger,” is in contact with his former quarterback a couple of times a week. Denker is grateful for the decision Grosfeld made a couple of years ago about redshirting.
“He said if you trust me and you do everything you need to do, you’ll be a big-time quarterback,” Denker said. “I trusted him. He never let me down.”