Desert QB, Island Mentality: Is Arizona's Anu Solomon the Pac-12's next dual-threat star?
TUCSON, Ariz.—There are many ways in which Arizona expected Anu Solomon, its kinetic starting quarterback, to improve after a prolific redshirt freshman season in 2014. None of them involved rice, Hot Cheetos, cookies or ramen. This is not lost on Solomon. There are things he can control: the daily visits to the weight room, the diligence to meet with trainers to work on his ankles, knees and shoulders, his study habits and understanding of an offense that leaves precious little time for thinking. There are also things he cannot control, and an inability to give up junk food rates very highly among them.
"For some reason, I have this obsession with Hot Cheetos and rice," Solomon says. "Not together. But like at 10 o'clock, I drink milk every night. Then I need cookies or cereal. If I can't fall asleep, I'll find Hot Cheetos. I have this crazy logic saying, if I eat this junk food throughout the night and let it rest, and then I do some exercises, I'll burn it off."
As ever, compromised decision-making leads to quarterback snacks. But these are indulgences Arizona can stomach. Solomon has been conscientious in the ways that matter to a program aiming to finish atop the grueling Pac-12 South, all while doing so without a single weekend off this fall. (Arizona plays 12 straight weeks without a bye.) That gauntlet requires reliability from the man driving the operation, and so far Solomon's refined approach to mental and physical preparation has produced a 3–0 record and 778 passing yards with 10 touchdowns and no interceptions, which neatly continues the trajectory he established last year. Heading into this Saturday's showdown with No. 9 UCLA, the 16th-ranked Wildcats are averaging 54.3 points per game, third in the nation.
In 2014, before he even comprehensively knew what he was doing, Solomon churned out more than 4,000 yards of total offense for an Arizona team that finished 10–4. The end—a bitter coda involving an arch problem in his plant foot and some regrettable decisions that undermined his team's Fiesta Bowl comeback in a 38–30 loss to Boise State—permitted the Wildcats staff to demand much more. Should they get it, the Pac-12 may have its next dazzling dual-threat quarterback. In turn, Solomon may pick up where another all-purpose signal-caller of Hawaiian descent left off.
"When you sit back and look at the kind of year he had as a redshirt freshman, first year as a starter, it was pretty phenomenal," Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez says. "It wasn't all bad. In fact, most of it was pretty good. The encouraging part about it is that he's competitive enough to make sure the next one is better."
Upon arrival at the Wildcats' football facilities, Solomon seems almost unaware of his wardrobe selection for the day: A black T-shirt with oversized white letters that reads DEFEND HAWAII. His listed hometown is Las Vegas, where he starred as a four-year starter for prep powerhouse Bishop Gorman High. But before that Solomon was a resident of Kalihi, Hawaii, an area near Honolulu, for the first 10 years of his life. Everyone on the family tree besides his mother, father and brothers still lives on the islands.
How much he identifies with Hawaii depends on the day, or his appetite. Some weeks, the surge of academic and football responsibilities buries any memories of those early childhood days, and then a Facebook or Instagram message from a family member stokes some nostalgia for the place. Alternatively, he might literally hunger for the first home he knew. A craving might hit for kalua pork, or maybe some lau lau, a traditional Hawaiian dish involving tea leafs wrapped around meat. Then it's off to a supermarket that specializes in Asian food, about 20 minutes from Arizona's campus, where Solomon can get the rice he needs or the leaves required to make a stew.
This is not precisely the island-to-lower-48 route of a Marcus Mariota; Solomon had years for, as he puts it, "coping with the culture and atmosphere of the mainland." Over time, a pidgin accent faded, and there is but a trace of it now when he speaks. Defend Hawaii? If that mindset isn't quite as persistent as Solomon's shirt suggests, there is enough of a connection that Arizona's quarterback can comfortably assume a mantel left behind by former Notre Dame linebacker and Heisman Trophy finalist Manti Te'o and then Mariota, Oregon's Heisman-winning quarterback in 2014. "It's kind of like an inspiration-motivation kind of thing," Solomon says. "As a Polynesian, you like to see other people succeed, but you want to see your own culture succeed, too. With the success they're getting, and being from the same island, if they can do it, why can't I?"
Should he manage it, there should be no asterisk that Hawaii shaped Solomon less than it did Te'o or Mariota. Kalihi is an area noted for gang activity, and the lessons Solomon learned while moving briskly through treacherous neighborhoods in a way shape how he performs now.
So, yes, it sounds a bit glib to suggest that walking away from gangs or potential threats of trouble is somehow commensurate with completing a third-down pass against a blitz. But Solomon draws a line from there to here. "You can't freak out at a wrong place, because they'll see your reaction and react to that," he says. "It'll help me stay comfortable in uncomfortable situations and not freak out when all hell breaks loose."
This frame of mind served Solomon well following last December's Fiesta Bowl loss to Boise State. The Wildcats dug a three-touchdown deficit by the middle of the first quarter, but scraped all the way back to a goal-to-go situation in the final minute. They were eight yards and a two-point conversion away from improbably sending the game to overtime.
A 51–13 loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 title game on Dec. 5 had already soured Solomon—he was a mere 6 of 12 passing for 34 yards against the Ducks—and the injury to the arch in his foot was limiting his ability to plant, muting the explosiveness fundamental to his game. This, though, was a chance for some healing. Solomon had amassed 335 passing yards against Boise State to that point, with two interceptions, including a pick-six. Still, what would haunt him is the throw he didn't make.
On a third-and-goal with 14 seconds left, Solomon scrambled around seeking an open receiver in the end zone. Instead he took a sack, Boise State's eighth of the night. Arizona could not run another play before regulation time expired. "I can see it in some peoples faces, fans and some of our players—they want to say something to me, like, 'Why didn't you throw the ball?'" Solomon says. "Maybe it's the way I am, maybe I overthink things. But it's just like, man, I'm sorry."
His father, Jarrett, a bail bondsman notorious for his exacting standards and withering postgame critiques even after victories, reserved judgment this time. In this case, Jarrett laughed. He asked Anu if he knew what he did wrong, then gave him a nudge before breaking into one of his incomparable renditions of "Let It Go."
This nevertheless served as the moment that set the conditions of Solomon's off-season, not least because Rodriguez wasn't exactly humming a tune in the aftermath of the loss. The Arizona coach said he teased some fans at one point that he didn't talk to Solomon for two months after the game. This was not true.
It was more like two weeks.
"The truth is, he made some decisions he wouldn't have made earlier in the year," Rodriguez says. "He really took it to heart. Anu is calm and collected, but it's a lot more important to him than sometimes he lets on."
Rodriguez wanted the hurt to sink in a bit with Solomon—actually, he wanted all of the Wildcats to feel that hurt—and the irony of a disappointing ending to 2014 was that it was just what the coaches needed to goose their talented quarterback along. "He didn't finish like he should have," Arizona co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Rod Smith says. "I met with him specifically and told him, you need to come out and play next season with the biggest chip on your shoulder, ever. Because you didn't have a bad year. You had a good year. But you fizzled. And people are questioning you."
The process by which Solomon could provide answers was not complicated. The first step was simple fitness, and improving that was easy enough: Solomon just followed All-America linebacker and workout fiend Scooby Wright III, joining a core group that added voluntary weekend strength training to the standard weekday program. With 12 consecutive weeks of games from Sept. 3 to Nov. 21, Solomon had to take all precautions against nagging injuries. He is listed at 205 pounds on the Arizona roster, the same as last fall, but his coaches' eyes discerned a difference. Solomon was off-limits for defenders during spring practice but "built to take a hit," in Rodriguez's estimation.
"I thought, damn, he finally trimmed off the baby fat," Smith says. "Which means he took his nutrition and his social life a little more serious. We asked him to kind of calm that down a little bit. Not that he was a problem. At the same time, you're getting a lot of attention. There has to be some priorities. That's part of the growing-up process."
His maturity in processing Arizona's offense, and what defenses were doing to it, was even more critical. Smith instructed Solomon to "steal" 15 or 20 minutes of football study when he had down time. He noticed Solomon spending more time in the film room, even on weekends, while also taking ownership as a mentor to the younger Wildcats quarterbacks. These were all auspiciously good decisions, and above all, good decisions are what Arizona is after.
The standard for signal-callers in Rodriguez's offense is an 85% success rate on all decisions, in every facet of the operation, from reading the defensive end on a zone-read play to deciphering what the safety is doing in a Cover 2. As a first-time starter in 2014, Solomon was not regularly hitting that mark. Arizona's coaches even made route adjustments for receivers from the sideline, a duty normally assigned to the quarterback, should he be capable of managing it. "You understood it," Smith says, "because of the s---storm he was in as a [redshirt] freshman."
By the end of 2015 spring practice, though, Solomon "didn't have one or two practices that were below 85%," according to Smith. That success has continued into the fall. Solomon threw for 229 yards with four touchdowns in a 42–32 season-opening win over Texas-San Antonio on Sept. 3, and torched Northern Arizona for 285 yards with four scores in a 77–13 blowout victory last Saturday.
Arizona's offense doesn't offer a quarterback time to "comprehend," as Smith puts it, so the person running the show must make confident, reliable choices. Solomon still hasn't been tasked with play-calling responsibilities, but if his execution is efficient enough, the numbers will pile up—and the poor decisions that doomed the end of the 2014 season might be buried, far out of sight.
"To me, if we don't finish strong, everything didn't matter," Solomon says. "If you don't win the last game of your season, everything we started, everything that happened before that last game doesn't matter. It was all a waste."
This is a fairly stark perspective for an easygoing guy, but there is more raw ambition in Solomon than one would expect. Two springs ago, aiming to prod an incoming quarterback out of his shell, Smith made a declaration. The Arizona assistant told Solomon he would not longer refer to him by his given name. He would give him another one, at least for the time being.
"I told him, 'Your name is Doo-Doo,'" Smith says. "'You're not Anu, you're 'Doo-Doo' until you can prove to me that you can play quarterback here.' I wouldn't call him Anu for the longest time."
Smith chuckles at the memory, but Solomon was predictably exasperated as the days went on and his coach kept his promise. Come on, coach, Solomon would say, but the name stuck until he un-stuck it. Today he is again Anu Solomon, and he takes being Anu Solomon very seriously. The questions are fewer and fewer by the day as Arizona rides a player who hopped across an ocean before he started thriving in the desert, and who looked at the great ones who came before him and decided he might as well be next in line.