Rich Rodriguez’s zone-read offense is all about the quarterback’s choice to hand-off, pitch or keep. When Rich Rod popped back on the college football scene, the presumption was that it would take him a recruiting class or two to stumble upon the ideal athletes for his system. After his overreliance on diminutive quarterback Denard Robinson ended with the Michigan quarterback being ground into a pulp, Rodriguez had to find a tailback to split the carries and share the physical punishment.
The choice was clear on who would fill the tailback role after he stumbled upon a 5-10, 196 pound gem in tailback Ka'Deem Carey. As he led the nation in rushing, Zona fans began referring to the sophomore as Kaboom Carey because of his ability to hit the hole with sonic boom quickness paired with the paralyzing effect of his devastating stutter-step.
Chip Kelly’s no-huddle zone-read offense remains king in the Pac-12 for now, but Rodriguez is the progenitor of its success. Although, the shotgun zone read is closely associated with the prodigious rushing offenses it has produced, success begins with the quarterback position.
Playing quarterback in a Rich Rod offense is akin to MI-6 giving secret agents a right to kill. It’s the golden (shot)gun gadget offense and Rodriguez is Q. The brains behind the brawn.
The primordial goo of Rodriguez’s shotgun zone-read option began 22 years ago on at Glenville State practice field. The way Rich Rod tells it, quarterback Jed Drenning bobbled a handoff, read the defensive end pinching inside to follow the running back, kept it, stumbled for a five-yard gain and an offensive revolution was born.
Two years later, Glenville State would advance to the NAIA title game. Meanwhile, Shaun King, Woody Dantzler, Pat White, Denard Robinson and Matt Scott would reap the benefits of Drenning’s accidental discovery.
After sitting four years on Mike Stoops’ sideline, Scott bared more of a resemblance to the balanced Shaun King-run Tulane offense than White and Robinson’s run-first zone read in his first year as a starter by passing for 3,600 yards, rushing for just over 500 and leading the nation’s 15th-ranked scoring offense.
Reading is fundamental in ‘Zona’s offense. The zone-read concepts have evolved over the years
Rodriguez’s version of the shotgun zone-read offense is forever linked with the run, but despite Scott’s 4.56 speed, Arizona’s run-pass ratio skewed more towards the pass than it had in any of Rodriguez’s 14 seasons as a playcaller on the FBS level. Not only was 2012 the first time that a Rodriguez offense ran the ball fewer than 50% of the time, but Arizona's quarterback threw more 157 more passes than Rodriguez's previous-high. It goes without saying that it was a stark contrast from the zone read offenses that chugged the ball for tough yardage between 70 to 76% of the time with White and Shoelace Robinson at the helm.
Whomever wins the ‘Zona job will not only have to identify the defensive end’s actions, but also creeping safeties and make downfield throws in the passing game. Carey is harder to tackle than cactus, but if ‘Zona’s next starting quarterback can’t keep up his end of the bargain, defenses will clamp down on Carey.
USC junior transfer Jesse Scroggins, B.J. Denker and Anu Solomon are locked in a three-way graple. Scroggins is the pure pocket passer who is more Warren Moon that Pat White, and has been going neck-and-neck since spring with Denker aka @VanillaV1ck7, the 6-3 left-handed JUCO dual threat.
Denker has the most experience after playing in spot duty last season, but true freshman Anu Solomon is the young phenom out of Vegas. Solomon isn’t the most highly touted quarterback in the class of 2013 freshman, but he’s the perfect system quarterback for Rodriguez. In prep school, Solomon started for four straight state championship-winning teams at Bishop Gorman, won 57 of 60 games, threw for over 10,000 yards, 138 scores and just 17 interceptions.
Not only did Gorman have a similar offense installed, but it was also one of the most potent in the nation. The only question about Solomon isn’t if, but when he’ll be ‘Zona’s starter. He starts out as a longshot after missing spring practices while he finished high school, but if their 6-1 freshman lives up to his Russell Wilson 2.0 projections, he should be able to leap into the starting role at some point this season and play through his growing pains.
However, the more cautious route would be for him to redshirt much like Pat White, Marcus Mariota, UCLA’s Brett Hundley and Johnny Manziel did as true freshman. Thus far, Denker appears to be the Tate Forcier to Solomon’s Shoelace. He’s on pace to be the placeholder starter, but he shouldn’t get too comfortable. The Wildcats kick off their season in just over two weeks on Friday, Aug. 30. It’s almost time for Rich Rod to make his choice.