QUARTERBACK MATT SCOTT KNOWS THAT EVERY SCHOOL HAS SOMETHING—WEATHER, girls, academics—that can blind a fresh-faced high school recruit. "It's love at first sight on every campus," he says. But in the end he came to Tucson in 2008 for just one reason: He saw the potential of a program on the rise. He wasn't all wrong. The Wildcats went 8--5 during his first year, led by quarterback Willie Tuitama, and were prepared to compete for the conference championship when Scott stepped in as a starter the following spring. But Scott quickly lost the job to Nick Foles early in 2009 after being pulled during a 27--17 loss to Iowa.
"I got frustrated a lot," he admits of what would end up being three more years spent mostly on the sideline. "I had thoughts of leaving and transferring somewhere else, but competition makes you better as a player and especially as a person. It makes you work harder because there's always something pushing you. That's what kept me coming back."
Now, after redshirting last season, the fifth-year senior will get a second chance to lead the Wildcats. Scott has often impressed when given the opportunity, throwing for more than 1,300 yards in spot starts and backup duty over three seasons. In 2010 he was named conference player of the week after leading Arizona to a 44--14 rout of Washington while starting in place of the injured Foles. Scott followed that with 319 yards and a touchdown in a 29--21 victory over UCLA, vaulting the Wildcats to a 7--1 record and a No. 13 ranking. The team then proceeded to go into a prolonged tailspin, losing five straight and 13 of their next 17 games over two seasons, though Foles threw for the fifth-most yards in the FBS in 2011 (4,334).
In Scott's words, the stretch, which included going 1--11 against Pac-12 opponents, "ruined the team" and led to the inevitable firing of eighth-year coach Mike Stoops. "Last year we were a pass-oriented team," Scott says. "We never really got our running game going, and I think that really hurt us."
New coach Rich Rodriguez has brought in a spread option seemingly tailor-made for Scott, who thrived in a similar offense at Centennial High in Corona, Calif. Rodriguez believes the athletic quarterback is the ideal senior leader to help the team not only transition but also compete.
"Matt has got a great ability to make plays with his arm and extend plays with his legs when they break down," Rodriguez says of Scott, who has rushed for 632 yards during his time in Tucson. "He's [also] taken charge of the young guys and helped lead."
For his part, Scott welcomes a return to the spread—as well as the responsibility of having the ball in his hands on every snap. "I'm a dual-threat player," says Scott. "[Coach Rodriguez's] offense makes me dangerous in the backfield. I'm not a running quarterback; I'm a quarterback who can run."
For all the waiting, Scott remains confident in his abilities and those of his teammates. When asked about his expectations for the season, words like "Rose Bowl" and "Heisman" come quickly to the surface. Those are bold suggestions for a program that has never won either, but despite the losses and the recent turnover on the field and on the sideline, Scott still sees Arizona as a team on the rise.
"Our seniors have been through a lot; we know what it's like to be good, and we know what it's like to be bad," he says. "I think the leadership from our seniors is really going to take us over the top this year."