Sometime early next week, Matt Rhule is set to declare his first starting quarterback for the Baylor Bears. Charlie Brewer, as a true freshman, will likely wear red this season, not green and gold (or white or black or gunmetal). Anu Solomon, a transfer from Arizona with one season of eligibility remaining, and true sophomore Zach Smith, the incumbent — and often over encumbered — starter from last season, are both plausible picks for the position. For the sake of the present and future, Rhule should declare Solomon the starter.
Statistically, Solomon and Smith come out fairly even, Solomon having a predictable edge. Here is a side-by-side comparison, using an average of Solomon’s first two seasons:
Solomon vs Smith
Smith comes out ahead in only two categories: yards per attempt and passer rating. He carries the reputation of having the bigger arm, so it’s nice for Smith that his yards per attempt reflect that, if only just. Besides those two categories, though, Solomon gets the better of Smith. That’s before you factor in Solomon’s running ability, too, where he contributed an average of 245 yards a season, 271(!!) yards more than Smith. In terms of production, Solomon’s career has been far superior.
That’s not entirely Smith’s fault, of course. He didn’t have the benefit of playing in Zona’s pass-happy system like Solomon. The coaches — to the extent they deserved that title last season — moved things towards the run game even more than Baylor typically had done, and Smith really didn’t have the opportunity to sling the ball around. So it makes sense that he had dramatically fewer yards than Solomon, as well as fewer touchdowns. He just wasn’t asked to do what Solomon was asked to do at Arizona.
Caveat aside, what Solomon accomplished was impressive and should count for something. He averaged almost 35 attempts per game his first two seasons, compared to less than 20 for Smith, and still managed to throw only 7 interceptions on average. Put another way, for every 62 attempts, Solomon threw 1 interception. For a team still learning its offensive system, having a quarterback who can limit mistakes will be key.
Those rushing yards mentioned earlier are important, too. Solomon likely won’t be asked to run like he was early on at Arizona — his health will be a major concern — but with an offensive line as limited as Baylor’s will be this season, having some mobility and extra savvy at quarterback could make an enormous difference. Smith was statuesque at times last season, lacking the awareness to avoid pressure in the pocket or to check down from his first read (assuming he was ever coached to go through a progression, of course, a lamentably dubious proposition). If Baylor has any form of injury trouble on the offensive line, Solomon’s niftiness, as Rhule terms it, will almost be essential. Even without injuries up front, having an elusive quarterback will alleviate some pressure from the big guys, who themselves are having to learn a new system that will be much more demanding.
Solomon’s mobility will also provide an extra dimension to Baylor’s red zone offense. As the field shrinks, Smith’s shoulder cannon loses some of its luster, unless his recognition and accuracy dramatically improve. Arm strength helps zip a ball through tight windows, but if the accuracy isn’t there, better to put a ball in the dirt than the opposing safety’s hands.
Teams will have to respect Solomon’s ability to pull the ball down and sprint for the edge. Solomon’s touchdown-to-interception ratio further demonstrates his value in the red zone. His feet give him the privilege of not having to force the issue. For his part, Smith managed to keep turnovers down, but he lacks Solomon’s versatility, making for a more predictable offense in a condensed field.
Solomon has enough arm strength to get the ball to the boundary quickly and to push the ball downfield, plus he can get the ball out on the move if he’s flushed out of the pocket, another skill Smith has yet to display with any sort of consistency. Solomon is better trained as a decision-maker, and he has the ability to move off his spot and into the open field if need be. It is no guarantee that Rhule will make him the starter, but without the benefit of watching every practice rep, Solomon appears to be the better player right now. He should be the first quarterback under center (boy, is that a weird phrase on this blog) for the Bears in 2017.
In a narrative sense, too, Solomon taking over as a one-season starter is appealing. Smith is still only a sophomore with three years of eligibility. Given a full season on the sideline to learn the offense, pick his coaches’ brains, and wash the stink off from 2016, Smith has the arm talent to be something special in the Big XII for his final two years. He’ll have his shot. If he can manage to fend off rising competition from Brewer and other younger quarterbacks, a more refined Smith could make the Bears dangerous next season and beyond.
For now, in Rhule’s first year, Baylor is in a stopgap season. Anu Solomon is here for his last hurrah, and he is the player best equipped to give Baylor fans something new to cheer.