Jake Plummer is the best quarterback to play at Arizona or ASU since the teams were admitted to the Pac-10 in 1978, a Rose Bowl-worthy QB who was affectionately called “Jake the Snake” by fans and media.
He was big enough (6 feet, 2 inches, 200 pounds), fast enough — clever and intuitive — that you’d have thought anyone called “Snake” created his legacy by scrambling for big plays.
Yet in his Sun Devil career, Plummer averaged -0.4 yards per carry, or minus-113 yards.
He wasn’t a snake at all. He was a drop-back passer protected by Juan Roque, the league’s most feared offensive lineman.
The Sun Devils reached the 1997 Rose Bowl because Plummer was never seriously injured; he started 42 consecutive games from 1993-96.
Keeping your quarterback healthy is the single most important factor in college football. It is the No. 1 reason Rich Rodriguez was hired by Michigan in 2008 and Arizona in 2012 and has been paid in excess of $20 million by those schools.
From 2005-07, RichRod coached West Virginia to a 33-5 record and he did so with the anti-Snake, Pat White, a quick, tough and elusive quarterback who operated Rodriguez’s read-option offense with historic effectiveness and, more importantly, no injuries.
If you look back on it now, it’s astonishing that White was able to start 49 consecutive games at West Virginia without serious injury. He carried the ball 684 times for 4,480 yards, a number that surpasses the 4,239 yards running back Ka’Deem Carey gained at Arizona.
Here’s the bonus: White, 6 feet and 200 pounds, was also an able (or more) passer, throwing for 6,048 yards and completing 65 percent of his throws.
Any coach that has a quarterback like that, a once-in-a-career healthy quarterback like that, will become a millionaire many times over.
On Monday, Rodriguez again answered that junior Brandon Dawkins will be Arizona’s No. 1 quarterback when it plays Saturday at Colorado.
“I still think he’s our starter,” the coach said, “but Khalil (Tate) is healthier now, so he’ll continue to push him.”
Dawkins, 6-3 and 210 pounds, rivals Keith Smith as the most athletic quarterback of Arizona’s 40 Pac-12 seasons. Dawkins has already gained 1,474 rushing yards, the most by any UA quarterback in history. He is such a capable runner that he is on pace to rush for 1,323 yards during the regular season; he already owns the school record by gaining 944 yards a year ago.
What separates the Dawkins of 2017 from the Pat White of 2005-07 is that Dawkins has been oft-injured and has a career pass completion percentage of 57 percent. In the fourth quarter of recent losses to Utah and Houston, Dawkins’ percentage dropped to 53 percent.
There’s little question Dawkins is a big-play machine, capable at any time of becoming the most-feared player on the field. But you wonder if he has the durability to move Arizona back to Pac-12 respectability and develop a more consistent passing touch.
The read-option is a risky business for quarterbacks; when White retired from the Canadian Football League at age 29 in 2015, he told West Virginia reporters “I had another traumatic concussion.”
Dawkins is averaging 13 carries per game, the most of any QB in the league. Oregon’s Justin Herbert broke his collarbone last week; he averages six carries per game. Washington State’s Heisman contender Luke Falk averages five carries per game. Undefeated Washington limits Jake Browning’s vulnerability; he averages three carries per game.
None of those teams runs the read-option, in which the QB’s running production is essential.
Arizona’s most-successful seasons under Rodriguez came when modestly talented Anu Solomon started all 14 games in 2014, and when B.J. Denker, who was not a big name, stayed healthy the entire 2013 season and rushed for 949 yards.
Solomon eventually broke down and has since left football. Denker, who was made for the read-option and was smart enough to make it work, is now one of the UA’s offensive assistants, working closely with Dawkins.
The Pac-12 quarterback most like Dawkins is Colorado’s Steven Montez, who is 6-5, 225 and unafraid to run.
He averages 11 carries per game and ran 15 times for 108 yards last week at UCLA.
If you watched the game, you saw Montez take a half-dozen hits that appeared to leave him woozy, or cause him to limp or rise slowly from the turf.
“I’m healthy,” he said after the game. “It’s football. Football is a physical sport.”
Montez’s health will determine how far the Buffaloes can go this season; same with Dawkins at Arizona.
Prior to Rodriguez, Arizona’s run-first quarterbacks all dealt with serious injuries: Jim Krohn, Ronald Veal and Keith Smith all ran for more than 986 yards as Wildcat QBs and took serious punishment.
Once, after a UA practice in 1997, I asked Smith about his oft-injured shoulder.
“It’s not my shoulder,” he said, “It’s my toe. It hurts to walk.”