- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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Arizona quarterback B.J. Denker isn't going pass the sight test. His throws don't sizzle through the air. He's listed at 6-foot-3, 184 pounds, but even those middling measurements for a Pac-12 quarterback are wishful thinking.
Denker is not going to be All-Pac-12. He is not going to have an NFL career.
Denker is as aware of his shortcomings -- and the perception of his shortcomings -- as anyone else. Yes, he's heard the criticism, despite his trying to block it out. And, yes, he admits it sometimes gets to him.
"You try to block it out as much as you can but this day and age -- with Twitter and social media -- it's hard," he said. "So yeah, I've heard it since week one. Since the summer. Since the spring. The, 'We can't win with Denker. We need another guy to step in.' After that Washington game, it was tough, coming back to my phone and seeing some of the stuff people were saying to me or about me. It's hard to block it out. You try your best. You try not to look at it, try not to read it. But it's human nature. It's kind of like watching a car accident. You don't want to watch but you can't look away."
But that impending car accident that was Denker has taken a last-second and unforeseen swerve. After he threw two of his three interceptions this season in a dreary loss in a downpour at Washington, and then started slowly the next week at USC, he started doing something few foresaw: He started to not just become an adequate quarterback for the Wildcats, but he transformed into a pretty darn good one.
In his last three games, he's completed 63 percent of his throws with six touchdowns and just one interception. He's also rushed for two touchdowns.
Last weekend at Colorado, he had 457 yards of total offense in Arizona's 44-20 win, the sixth best total offense total in team history. He rushed for 192 yards on 15 carries -- the best rushing total by a QB in team history -- averaging 12.8 yards per tote. He completed 21 of 32 passes for 265 yards with a 44-yard touchdown. He accounted for eight plays that gained 20 or more yards, including six pass completions and two rushes.
And he was named Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week. So, what the heck happened after the Washington game?
"Since then, I've been calming down, not getting nervous before games," he said. "I'm 100-percent confident now in myself and my teammates. We're running the system."
Arizona had two big preseason questions: 1. The defense; 2. Replacing Matt Scott at quarterback. The Wildcats defense might be the most improved unit in the Pac-12, as it ranks among the Pac-12 and national leaders in several categories, including scoring (19.9 points per game).
Denker, who prevailed in a QB competition in which his challengers never put up much of a fight, remained a lingering question well into the season, particularly after the Washington game.
Denker's numbers in that game were horrible -- 14-of-35 for 119 yards, a measly 3.4 yards per completion -- with two picks. But, in his defense, the game was played in practically a monsoon. Huskies QB Keith Price, a three-year starter who's used to playing in rain, only completed 14 of 25 passes for 165 yards with two TDs and an interception. Still, the judgment from the peanut gallery afterwards was that coach Rich Rodriguez should bench Denker.
"That was my first big road test," Denker said. "I had some nerves coming into that stadium and that team. They were highly ranked and I think I made the game bigger than it actually was. That was the first thing. Mentally, I was a little nervous. The butterflies were there. And I just didn't execute. I didn't trust the system. I didn't trust my eyes. I was making the wrong reads."
The good news is Denker had Rodriguez to help him see the error of his ways. Rodriguez has ridden Denker hard, and the Washington game featured several moments when TV cameras caught him giving his QB an earful. Those were not atypical interactions.
"That's what you sign up when you play for coach Rodriguez," Denker said. "He's a fiery guy. He's competitive. That's why he does it. He wants to win and he wants to make you the best player you can be. That's what you've got to realize and take in when he's yelling at you. It's not because he doesn't like you as a human being or as a player. It's because he's disappointed in the decision you made because he knows you can make a better decision. You can't let it break you down. You've got to say, 'Yes, sir. No sir.' And make sure it doesn't happen again, so he's not yelling at you again."
Said Rodriguez, "[Denker is] tough mentally and he's also very competitive. I think his competitiveness has allowed him to get better every week."
So given credit to Denker not breaking. Give him credit for getting better. The 5-2 Wildcats can become bowl-eligible with a win on Saturday at California.
"He's really improved," Cal coach Sonny Dyke said. "He's probably improved as much as anybody in the league. I think he's playing with a lot of confidence. That's probably the biggest difference. His decision-making is faster. He's getting the ball out more quickly on screens and run-pass concepts."
In the preseason, the Wildcats looked like a bowl team, largely based on a forgiving schedule, even with Denker piddling along and deferring to All-American running back Ka'Deem Carey. But with Denker now ranked 25th in the nation and fifth in the Pac-12 -- and gaining! -- in ESPN.com's Total Quarterback Rating, the potential season endgames are more diverse. In fact, there's still reasonable hope that the Wildcats can eclipse UCLA and Arizona State in the South Division race (Arizona also needs USC to lose another conference game).
The real tests, of course, are ahead. UCLA comes to Tucson on Nov. 9, and Oregon visits on Nov. 23. The season finale at Arizona State figures to be meaningful to both teams, even beyond the fact that the programs -- and coaches -- can't stand each other.
Denker was once a question, even part of the problem for Arizona. Now he might just end up being a more than adequate answer.
1dKevin Gemmell and Erik McKinney