Brandon Dean Denker Jr. is a SoCal kid, growing up during a time when neither Arizona nor Arizona State was doing anything to be on his football radar.
“I didn’t know anything about either team,” said the Arizona Wildcats senior quarterback.
“I was a UCLA-USC guy. But once you get here, you learn quickly what this game means and how important it is. On my official visit here, I was taught what Bear Down was and why we don’t like that school up north.”
B.J. Denker — turning ASU into the School That Must Not be Named — gets his one and only chance to write his chapter in the storied rivalry, this Saturday from Tempe, starting at 7:30 p.m.
The left-hander has come a long way in his only season as the starter, coming off his best performance of the season in a stunning 42-16 victory over fifth-ranked Oregon. If he follows with a victory at Arizona State, how’s that for a legacy?
“Sometimes I think about it,” he said.
“I only have one year as a starter, so I’m never going to have a career record or be known for having a long-standing starting spot, so I have to make my mark as quickly as possible.
“The win over Oregon is a great start. And if I have a great performance and win the Territorial Cup, that’s a big plus. That’s two big back-to-back wins. Hopefully, I will be remembered for those two.”
In a matter of a couple of months, the quarterback discussion at Arizona has gone from “I can’t believe we don’t have anyone better at quarterback” to “I wish he had another year of eligibility.”
“It’s a shame he’s a senior,” said Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez, “because I can see him getting better and better and better all the time.”
Denker tip-toed into the season after spending last season as Matt Scott’s backup. He was merely the Ka’Deem Carey caddy through the non-conference season, then sloshed to a low point in a jittery league-opening loss at Washington.
That’s a far cry from last Saturday. With a then-Heisman candidate quarterback on the other side in Marcus Mariota, Denker completed 19 of 22 passes for 178 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions, also running 14 times for 102 yards.
Rodriguez called it Denker’s “cleanest performance.”
The difference, he said, was how Denker attacked the line of scrimmage.
When he wasn’t handing off to Carey 48 times, Denker was usually on the move to his left, challenging the defenders to make an early decision.
If they stuck with the UA receivers in man-to-man coverage, then Denker would keep for a good gain. If they came off the receivers, then Denker would hit a quick, short pass. In that way, Arizona steadily moved the chains and marched down field.
“There are so many different aspects to our offense that we can do,” Denker said.
Denker is the leading rushing quarterback in the Pac-12, averaging 73.7 yards per game. He has completed 201 of 327 passes (61.5 percent) for 2,066 yards, with 14 touchdowns and four interceptions.
He arrived at Arizona in the summer of 2012 as something of a recruiting afterthought from Cerritos College. He’s been overlooked at every step, receiving no recruiting interest from any team on any level out of North Torrance High School in California.
Rodriguez joked that Denker, at about 145 pounds as a high school senior, must have looked like a cross-country runner and not a quarterback.
But what might appear to be weak resume became a Denker strength. He has had to prove people wrong his entire football career. So, when the coaches hounded Denker to get better early in fall camp, he didn’t wilt, didn’t shrink from the pressure, didn’t pout.
“We needed to accelerate his process,” Rodriguez said.
“We could not take time. B.J. didn’t have time to say, ‘OK, it’s another year to learn, be a backup.’ We had to push him to be the guy right away. We put a lot of pressure on him in practice, and some guys that were less strong mentally might not have made it through with his confidence intact.
“We tried to do it in a way where sometimes we’d give him a little bit of confidence, but the first couple of weeks, I wasn’t worried about his confidence at all. I was just worried about him playing better.”
Funny how things work out. Denker, the target of so much criticism early in the season — from fans and coaches alike — is now worried about hearing too many atta-boys.
“To me, the most important thing is how I handle the praise this week,” he said.
“So many people wanted to take my picture and have my autograph after the game and tell me, ‘Great job, you’re awesome,’ and all that stuff. That can be even more deadly than the ‘You sucks.’”
The legacy awaits. He could help lead Arizona to a nine-win season that ends with wins over fifth-ranked Oregon, 13th-ranked Arizona State and in a bowl game. If so, he becomes one of the great one-year wonders at Arizona.
Or … well, maybe the chapter ends in disappointment.
Either way, Denker has been a successful bridge from Scott to the highly-rated quarterbacks Rodriguez has and will bring in to Tucson.
He’s been RichRod’s kind of tough guy. When the coaches absolutely had to have Denker respond a few months ago, he did. Rodriguez mocks those who whine.
“People are like, ‘Oh, woe is me’ and ‘Feel sorry for me’ and ‘I don’t have this going on,’” he said.
“I mean, Bear Down, right? Bear Down.”
That’s something Brandon Dean Denker Jr. now knows all about.
From September: B.J. Denker’s incredible journey to Pac-12 starter