Blake Decker used to live 10 to 15 minutes from Sun Devil Stadium, and Arizona State was his football team.
“This was the enemy growing up,” he said Monday.
Now Decker is preparing for his first start as UNLV’s quarterback, and Arizona is his debut opponent.
The Rebels open their season at 7:30 p.m. Friday in Tucson, Ariz., and the game will be televised nationally by ESPN.
Not only is UNLV breaking in a new quarterback, but so is Arizona. The Wildcats are going with redshirt freshman Anu Solomon, who knows a little something about the Rebels. Solomon is from Las Vegas, played at Bishop Gorman High School and was recruited by UNLV.
“I thought he deserved the right to start the first game,” Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez told the Arizona Daily Star. “I don’t know who the next guy is, but I told all four of the guys to be ready to play because all four could play.
“At the same time, I’m confident Anu will play well. He’ll be the starter as long as he plays well, and we win.”
UNLV coach Bobby Hauck repeated his statement during training camp that the Rebels prepped more for the Wildcats’ zone read rather than the player running the offense. But he said Monday the coaches also had an inkling Solomon would win the job, giving them a head start on fine-tuning the defensive game plan.
Decker comes into the game with more experience than Solomon, having played at Scottsdale (Ariz.) Community College before signing last December with the Rebels. He also is older, the 23-year-old redshirting in 2009 at Brigham Young after walking on, and then going on a two-year Mormon mission.
UNLV would love Decker (6 feet, 2 inches, 205 pounds) to put up numbers like he did last season in Scottsdale, where his 4,241 yards and 47 touchdowns easily led the Arizona Community College Athletic Conference, but the Rebels simply would take him giving the program the kind of boost Caleb Herring provided last season. Without Herring’s strong play, the Rebels wouldn’t have made it into the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
First, Decker takes on the difficult task of preparing for an Arizona team that is a 24-point favorite. He arrived at least 10 minutes early to Monday’s news conference and was comfortable in bantering with the media before the questions began in earnest.
Then Decker answered the questions like a seasoned pro, saying nothing that would wind up on an Arizona bulletin board while also saying enough of the right things without giving away UNLV’s game plan.
“Really, the quarterback doesn’t need to be that much of a playmaker in this offense,” Decker said. “He just needs to distribute the ball and get it out to the superstars that we have. We have a lot on offense. I think if we do that, we’ll have put ourselves in good position to win.”
Decker made the quarterback decision easy for Hauck and the coaches, quickly taking over running the first-team offense.
The hard part isn’t necessarily winning the job. It’s keeping it.
Just ask junior backup Nick Sherry, who entered last season as the starter.
“Blake’s a mature guy, certainly, in a lot of respects, and not just because of his age but how he carries himself,” Hauck said. “He’s played against some good competition, albeit not at this level, but Blake’s ready to go.”
■ NOTES — Hauck was asked if Arizona senior running back Adonis Smith, who transferred from UNLV following spring practice, provided the Wildcats’ coaches with insight into the Rebels’ plans. At first, Hauck downplayed the question, but after thinking about it, decided on a different answer for the reporter. “You were inferring that he was paying attention while he was here,” Hauck said. … UNLV athletic director Tina Kunzer-Murphy said the school is close to raising enough money to replace the synthetic turf at Sam Boyd Stadium. The project, estimated at between $400,000 and $700,000, would take place in time for the 2015 season. … Sophomore Marc Philippi, who played at Gorman, is listed as the No. 2 weakside linebacker after competing in the middle during training camp. Hauck said the positions are interchangeable.
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.