B.J. Denker grabbed his helmet and starting running sprints with the North Torrance High School football team during summer workouts.
He was 9 years old.
Denker just loved football. Wanted to be around it. Wanted to play quarterback. Dreamed of playing college football. He was in Pop Warner football — the Torrance (Calif.) Panthers — often playing running back because he was the fastest player on the team.
He peaked early, B.J. Denker did.
“When I was 5 to 8, I was the kid who had all his motor skills and eye coordination down,” he said this week.
“I played every sport and I was a stud because I was so much more coordinated than everybody else. And then everybody else grew and matured.”
He hung around the high school practices enough that summer that the team invited him to be its ball boy.
“There he was, this little guy with his Pop Warner helmet on, sometimes just running on his own,” said North Torrance coach Todd Croce. “We knew back then, he was going to work his tail off to be good.”
That’s the start of a theme. Denker was no football prodigy. He had to work. He needed time. He had to battle confidence issues, naysayers and his own body, which ignored his efforts to put on weight. He had to switch Pop Warner teams because the Panthers wouldn’t let him play quarterback.
No use. Eventually, his new youth team agreed. Denker, as an eighth-grader, was relegated to wide receiver for eight plays a game — the minimum required by a participation rule.
“I would just run down the field and run back and go to the sideline and that would be it,” Denker said. “They wouldn’t let me play quarterback and didn’t think I could play anywhere else.
“Yeah, it’s been a bit of a battle my whole life to play quarterback.”
Just a bit.
* * *
Denker, a senior for the Arizona Wildcats, is unlike any other starting quarterback in the Pac-12, probably any in major college football.
Five of the other starters in the league were four-star recruits, near the top of their QB class. Five others, including Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, were three-star prospects, according to Rivals.com. ASU’s Taylor Kelley was a two-star recruit.
Two stars? Denker didn’t even get one recruiting letter. Not from a Division I team. Not from a Division II team. Not from a Division III team.
“None,” he said. “I didn’t talk to one coach. I had no idea how the recruiting process worked. I had nothing. Nothing.”
He’s the Sesame Street of Pac-12 quarterbacks — One of These Things is Not Like the Others — and as he’s preparing to start his fifth career game for the Wildcats, this Saturday at Washington, it’s understandable that the same ol’ whispers are there.
Denker can’t pass. He’s not good enough. Not big enough. He’s not a Pac-12 quarterback.
“Everybody told me, ‘You’ll never play D-I football,” said Denker, who started against Colorado last season.
“When I went to a JC, people were like, ‘Why is he going to a JC, he’ll still never make it.’ When I got here at Arizona, it’s, ‘Oh, he’s not going to start.’ And now that I’m starting, it’s like, ‘Oh, he’s not going to win.’”
Now that he’s 4-0 as a starter, it’s, “Yeah, but the competition is going to get a lot tougher.”
“The underdog thing has been thrust upon me,” Denker said. “And I love it.”
* * *
Denker got his chance to play quarterback as a freshman at North Torrance High, not usually one of the area powerhouses.
In his first appearance with the freshman team, the left-hander drove the team 80 yards for a touchdown in the final minutes, capped by a two-point conversion as he sprinted and dived for the left pylon. North Torrance won 8-7.
“As a freshman, he was pretty small and he was pretty short, too,” Croce said. “After his freshman year, he started to sprout.”
Denker started on varsity for a couple of years, once throwing for six touchdowns in a game. Croce claims Denker’s signature moment came in a game against El Segundo. Denker threw three interceptions in the first half but then rallied his team from a 21-0 deficit to victory.
“That kind of showed his grit and determination,” Croce said.
There is a fire that burns beneath Denker’s sometimes goofy exterior — “a lot goofy,” Croce corrected — which explains why a kid who admits he was “probably around 140, 150 pounds” as a high school senior was determined to keep playing quarterback in junior college.
“Once people started telling me I couldn’t do something, I got a little chip on my shoulder, got a little pissed off,” he said.
“I love the game of football; that’s why I play. But I also play to shut people up and prove to everyone that I can play quarterback.”
* * *
Denker (6-2, 184) has completed 31 of 55 passes for 326 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions, in three easy wins this season.
The Cats are 117th out of 123 FBS teams in passing (108.7 yards per game), but they are fifth in rushing (322.3). How those numbers change, in either direction, as the Pac-12 schedule begins and the games tighten, remains to be seen.
“I have really been pleased with the last four or five weeks, how he has even taken another step, not just with what we do but how teams are defending us,” coach Rich Rodriguez said. “B.J. is a pretty sharp guy.”
That was the book on him out of Cerritos College.
Denker’s path, of course, was unconventional.
He was still that too-skinny kid, playing sparingly as a freshman, when offensive coordinator Dean Grosfeld made a decision that changed the quarterback’s football life. Grosfeld told Denker that he would redshirt in the 2010 season to get bigger, stronger and more mature in every way.
“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 told TucsonCitizen.com in an interview last year.
“I didn’t give him an option. I just told him this is what he was going to do. …. He literally opened his arms and said, ‘What do I need to do?’”
Whatever needed to be done, Denker did it. It might have been the most valuable year of his life.
“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 matured at a greater rate than anybody I have ever seen.”
Denker won the starting job early in the 2011 season and became the conference’s offensive player of the year. He completed 160 of 286 passes for 2,319 yards, with 31 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He rushed 92 times for 430 yards and seven scores.
“I was telling myself I was good enough, but I never knew,” said Denker, whose plan to transfer to Indiana after his sophomore season hit an academic snag.
“I was probably the best quarterback on the field every game I played — I would think so, just so multi-dimensional — but I didn’t know if that transferred to the Pac-12 level. … Growing up, with all these people telling me, ‘You can’t do it, you’re not good enough,’ you start to believe it.”
As Rodriguez and his staff got settled into their new jobs a month or two after the 2012 Signing Day, they were eager to add an older quarterback, having only senior Matt Scott on scholarship in the spring. They came across Denker and started gathering information.
Denker arrived in Tucson for a recruiting trip in early April. He looked around, loved what he saw and asked the coaches, “What took you so long?”
He committed on his recruiting trip.
“I was like, if Coach RichRod thinks I can play football, who else do I need to listen to, you know what I mean?” Denker said.
“If he thinks I can run this offense, that’s the biggest thing for me. After I stop playing and someone asks, ‘Well, how good were you, I’ll say, ‘I played for coach Rich Rodriguez, so I guess I was pretty good back in the day.’”
* * *
Denker’s running skills have been a good fit for Rodriguez’s zone-read offense. Harkening back to his days as a running back in Pop Warner, he has sprinted for touchdown runs of 30, 35, and 35 yards in the first three games.
“That play he scored on in the opening game where he spun about 45 times through the end zone, that looked just like a high school play,” Croce said. “That was the same kind of running he did for us.”
The rest of it is still a mystery.
Can Denker and a young receiver corps muster enough in the passing game to beat Washington and USC and the other conference opponents that follow?
“I can’t worry about what people think,” Denker said. “I’ve worked too hard to not believe in myself here.”
The next several weeks will determine if Denker is the right guy at the right time for Arizona, or if he is merely a guy — a placeholder after Scott and before Rodriguez develops another all-star college quarterback.
For now, he’s a mix of the starry-eye 9-year-old who ran sprints with the high school players and the steely-eyed young man who refused to let his football dream die.
“You hear a lot of kids talking about how their dream is to go to the NFL,” Denker said. “My dream has never been to go to the NFL. My dream has always been to play in college.
“Now, I’m living it. Sometimes, I’ll be on my way to class and I’ll be like, ‘Wow, this is real life. I’m really playing Pac-12 football and I’m the starting quarterback.’ That’s nuts. That’s nuts.”