Denker pushing ahead in Arizona QB race

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Arizona quarterback B.J. Denker launched the ball from his end zone, and it took a pretty arc 40 yards downfield and landed softly into the outstretched fingertips of Trevor Ermisch.

It was a nice pass and catch, probably the best moment of the Wildcats' scrimmage on Saturday. It also seemed meaningful.

First, it spoke to the biggest questions about Denker -- his arm strength. No, he can't quick-release rockets like former QB Matt Scott could a year ago. But his arm just might be strong enough.

Second, it was the highlight of the night for the QB who was most efficient during the scrimmage. Denker, who led the No. 1 offense, made plays with his arm and his feet and, most important, he protected the football.

The takeaway for reporters? Denker is closing in on the starting job. Coach Rich Rodriguez, while yielding little, admitted that there had been some "separation" in the competition of late.

However, with all due respect to those esteemed scribes, Denker wasn't too moved by reporters telling him he'd become the frontrunner.

"No offense sir or sirs, but if you write I'm the best quarterback in the state of Arizona, I have to go out and play like it. It doesn't matter what you guys say," he said. "It doesn't matter what you guys think. All that matters is what the head ball coach up there in the office thinks. If he tells me I'm the best quarterback for the team, I'll believe him. Until he says to me, 'You're my guy for game one; you're my guy for game two,' that's all that matters."

Denker's top competition, Jesse Scroggins, a junior college transfer who originally signed with USC, seems like he's still figuring out the offense, and that is holding him back. Some of that's just bad luck with injuries. He missed spring practices after foot surgery and also sat out some of preseason camp after suffering a concussion. He made some nice plays in the scrimmage, in fact showing more running ability than previously thought, but he also threw a goal-line interception.

Rodriguez is in no hurry to announce a pecking order, though it figures that will happen naturally during the final week of preseason camp before the opener against Northern Arizona. One of his catchphrases is wanting his players to be "comfortable being uncomfortable." That includes plenty of yelling and trying to make his QBs stressed and insecure. Denker termed this, "trying to break me."

"He likes to yell," Denker said. "He'll get right in my ear, right in my face and tell me what I did wrong."

The idea is to build mental toughness, to make game-day pressure seem like a relief after the pressure of practice.

Denker, a 6-foot-3, 173-pound senior, is the only QB on the roster with game experience in Rodriguez's system. He started for Scott against Colorado last year and finished the season with solid numbers: 25 of 37 passes for 259 yards with three TDs and one interception and 74 yards rushing with one score.

Still, the Wildcats' schedule gives them what amounts to a preseason. Their first three opponents look like easy outs -- Northern Arizona then at UNLV in Week 2 and UT San Antonio in Week 3. That means Rodriguez could play more than one guy and see who answers the bell when plays are for real.

"We might not decide until the season," he said.

Of course, Denker is trying to win the job outright and end all doubt so he doesn't have to share anything.

"As a competitor, as a quarterback, the reason is I play this position is because there's only one guy on the field," he said. "Obviously, if I had my way I'd love to play all four quarters and be the guy. But if that's what he feels like is best for the team, then I have to respect his decision. He's a lot smarter than I am."

Rodriguez has a strong history with quarterbacks. He's coached all-conference players at the position during each of his coaching stops. While Denker might be hard-pressed to win All-Pac-12 honors in a conference deep with experienced quarterbacks, the real question is whether he can be efficient enough to make the Wildcats a factor in the South Division.