Rhett Rodriguez is a coach’s son, first and foremost. But there’s more to the sophomore quarterback than meets the eye.
Rich Rodriguez was fired as Arizona’s head football coach on Jan. 2, 2018 in the wake of sexual harassment allegations and a poor finish to the season.
His son, Rhett, is slated to make his first career start for the Wildcats at the Rose Bowl against the UCLA Bruins on October 20th.
The last time Rodriguez took control of the reins of an offense for the first time was as a 14-year-old freshman at Catalina Foothills High School.
Playing under legendary Tucson football coach, Jeff Scurran, Rodriguez quickly established himself as one of the game’s brighter minds, much like his father.
There was something else though that spoke volumes to Scurran, and Rhett’s Foothills teammates.
Rodriguez appeared almost immune to pressure. And Scurran likely helped make him that way.
“It’s one thing to have pressure. But I always reminded my team, by telling them about all of the other things," Scurran said. "The clinics, the travel, my family … we just had a little discussion that in the end it's just football."
Even as a freshman immersed in a new environment for the first time, no longer enjoying the simplicities of youth football, Rhett Rod rose to the occasion of being named the team’s starting quarterback.
“Rhett was my only four-year starter in my 46 years of coaching,” Scurran said.
In his first season under the esteemed head coach, Rodriguez excelled in a limited capacity – not in terms of playing time, but rather the responsibilities that he would eventually take head-on – helping his team reach the playoffs, and occasionally convincing his coach to take a look at some neat play-design or possible audible at the line of scrimmage.
One moment that Scurran recalls as demonstrating Rodriguez’ football mind came during a practice in his freshman season. After identifying a flaw in a specific play, Scurran instructed his offense to make a minor adjustment. Instantly, Rodriguez chimed in, sharing his satisfaction for the new technique, adding that his father had made the same correction in a West Virginia game against Miami.
Stunned by the youngster, Scurran did some math while watching his offense orchestrate the improved play. He couldn’t help but laugh when he realized Rhett was referencing a game in which he was only 7-years-old at the time.
By the time Rodriguez was a junior, there was no more holding back. Scurran did more than tweak the offense in the favor of his quarterback’s skill-set. He designed nearly the entire scheme on the intellectual and physical abilities of Rodriguez.
As his protégé carefully dissected opposing defenses on a weekly basis, Scurran witnessed the growth of his players' respect and admiration for Rhett.
“He’s a 24/7, 365-leader. He dots the i’s and crosses the t’s and he does it all of the time. Therefore it never offends anyone, people know that’s just Rhett,” Scurran said. “I knew he was special from the time his parents enrolled him in my quarterback [training] club the summer before starting at Foothills.”
After setting school records in nearly every possible offensive category in his senior season, Rodriguez’s time at Catalina Foothills started to wind down, but not before one final display of everything that he represented.
Playing in the same division as national powerhouse Scottsdale Saguaro, Scurran’s team wasn’t just outmanned in terms of numbers – Saguaro typically fields a team of 60-70 players, dwarfing Catalina Foothills 30-40 man roster – they were also outgunned talent-wise. The Falcons boasted just three potential division-one football players, while the Sabercats fielded 19.
So, when Catalina Foothills experienced a 42-14 beat down in the 2014 State Championship Game – at Arizona Stadium – it wasn’t as much of a loss for Rodriguez and his teammates as some would have expected.
That’s because a week prior, Scurran led his team into battle against a heavily favored Higley team from Gilbert, Ariz.
Scurran’s memory of his team’s 62-37 win over the Knights wasn’t just meaningful because they were three or four touchdown underdogs, rather the game symbolized what the Falcons head coach remembers as Rodriguez’s shining moment.
“It was pretty well understood that was the championship game for both schools – and we were picked to lose by three or four scores according to who you talked to. It was just one of those things, Rhett came over to me at one point and just said ‘hey coach, I’m having a ton of fun’ … the offense was clicking, it was the biggest game in school history, and it was just like a little boy with a new toy,” Scurran recalled.
When it came time for Rodriguez to narrow his list of schools to attend and play football for, there was always really only one. Scurran recalls Rhett taking a week to ponder his decision, but then making it as clear as a blue sky after a rainy day – he wanted to play for his dad.
“It played out very different than most people because Rich is very popular in the coaching fraternity, so other coaches did the things that you would expect from the men who are put in charge to lead programs … they would call me up and say ‘we’re not going to go public with this and try to lure him away, we just want to know if he is going to play for his dad’ … I’d let them know and that was that,” Scurran said.
Scurran said Rhett was steadfast in his decision, and not worried about any factors outside of his control.
What Rodriguez couldn’t prepare for was the scrutiny of the ensuing months after Arizona’s bowl game loss to Purdue.
His father fell under the university’s microscope, and his own future as a Wildcat was presumably up in the air.
Rodriguez signed a letter of intent though – the same price of admission to join the program as each one of his teammates. And, to him it was like everything else.
“That’s the real story here … with everything that happened and every reason to move along – he never looked back, and look at him now,” Scurran said. “That’s the type of character that real leaders have. They’re in for the long haul.”
Scurran pointed out that Rodriguez will always be ready for what’s thrown his way because his heart and mind are in the right place.
When Tate initially injured his ankle early in the 2018 campaign, Rodriguez was the first man up to relieve the starting quarterback. Sumlin’s decision to play Rodriguez over highly touted true freshmen Jamarye Joiner and Kevin Doyle was another example of a coach’s belief in his presence in the pocket and ability to deliver the football.
Despite performing well versus Houston once the game was already out of reach, Rodriguez seemed to lose his footing as the team’s No. 2 quarterback in the following weeks.
When Tate went down again – this time against Cal – Joiner supplanted Rodriguez in the lineup.
Healthy enough to return to action just a series later, Tate ended up playing the remainder of the game. Sumlin mentioned in his post-game press conference that the change was choreographed for the game’s third offensive series during the week of practice.
Now, needing a leader behind center as Tate rests to avoid further damage to his ankle, Sumlin has turned to the son of his predecessor and asked him to do what he does best – have fun.
“He’s just one of those kids that is able to see the big picture, process on the fly, and deal with things as they come,” Scurran said.
Scurran said he talks with his former player every single day, and always reminds him that football is just a game. His message didn’t change now that Rhett has a more profound role because he knows that he is ready.
“The next time I see Rhett out of control will be the first time I’ve seen Rhett out of control,” Scurran said.
Rhett's father, Rich, wasn’t in attendance during last Friday’s game in Salt Lake City – when Rhett played the entire second half and threw his first career touchdown pass – because he didn’t expect the team’s third-string quarterback to have such a meaningful role.
This time around, there won’t be a bigger fan in the stands. The elder Rodriguez assuredly would have loved to coach Rhett to victory in his first career start, but it has to be comforting to know that his son is still leading the charge for Arizona football.
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