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Arizona football notebook: Former assistant joins staff as defensive analyst, Gunner Cruz’s new gig, spring practice dates set

arizona-wildcats-football-duane-akina-analyst-dick-tomey-jedd-fisch-gunner-cruz-2023-recruiting Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Wednesday was the start of the traditional signing period in college football, but other than a surprise commitment from 3-star Florida receiver Devin Hyatt there wasn’t much recruiting news for Arizona.

But UA coach Jedd Fisch did announce a significant addition to the program in the form of Duane Akina, who has joined the staff as a senior defensive assistant/secondary coach (translation: analyst).

“I believe we signed a 5-five star coach,” Fisch said of the 66-year-old Akina, who comes to Tucson after spending the previous eight seasons as Stanford’s defensive backs coach. “He’s coached three Thorpe Award winners, six Thorpe Award finalists, 41 defensive backs who have played in the NFL, seven Pro Bowlers, and has been a defensive coordinator for nine years and a offensive coordinator for four.”

Akina is no stranger to longtime Wildcat fans, as he was on Dick Tomey’s staffs from 1987-2000 including stints as both offensive coordinator (1992-95) and defensive coordinator (1996-2000). After Tomey was forced out, Akina went to Texas where he served in a variety of defensive roles, including coordinator and assistant head coach, from 2001-14.

This is technically Akina’s third on Arizona’s staff, but he didn’t actually do any coaching the second time. Mike Stoops hired him as his defensive backs coach in January 2011, only to see Akina return to Texas a month later.

Akina is not the replacement for cornerbacks Dewayne Walker, who announced his departure from the program on Jan. 5. Fisch said he’s still looking to hire a CB coach, with the goal of having that done “by this weekend” so the new hire can get acclimated in time for when spring practice begins in mid-March.

As for Akina’s role, that’s also up in the air. Currently, college football analysts are not allowed to do any coaching, but Fisch is hopeful that’s going to change soon.

“We expect the NCAA to open up some more rules, in terms of who can coach and who can’t coach, it has been a big part of discussions,” he said. “If you’re analyst can you coach, can you not coach? Right now, we believe that that will will change. So we want to get ahead of that.

“When Coach Akina became available I reached out to him. I wasn’t sure exactly in what capacity we were gonna discuss with him. Went through the process of trying to figure out exactly what we wanted to do, what he wanted to do at this point in his career. I spoke with (athletic director) Dave Heeke, came up with a plan in place.”

Gunner the grad assistant

Fisch intimated in his end-of-season press conference in late November that quarterback Gunner Cruz, who still has two seasons of eligibility, might pursue other opportunities in 2023. Turns out that involves staying in Tucson, but not as a player.

Cruz is serving as a graduate assistant for the Wildcats, working in the strength and conditioning program under Tyler Owens.

“We get to wake Gunner up at five o’clock in the morning to get the benches ready to go, and the weights ready to roll, and he’s as fired up as can be about that,” Fisch said.

Cruz, who came to Arizona in 2021 from Washington State, played in five games with three starts that season. He was the Wildcats’ season-opening starter against BYU, as well as the home opener against San Diego State, and also started at Colorado during which he suffered a season-ending thumb injury.

He did not appear in a game in 2022, same as Will Plummer, who started eight games in ‘21 but then had shoulder surgery last April.

“Right now, we’re still working through Will, his shoulder, making sure he’s working through really trying to still come back from that shoulder surgery and being ready to go,” Fisch said.

Other notes

  • Fisch said Arizona will begin spring football on March 13, with the first practice set for the 14th. The Wildcats will go on a Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday schedule for five weeks, with the Spring Game on tap for April 15.
  • Arizona’s 2023 Meet the Team event is Thursday at 6 p.m. MT inside the Davis Sports Center. Pac-12 Network’s Yogi Roth will emcee the gathering, which will feature both newcomers and returning players, and is set to end with enough time for UA fans who have tickets to the men’s basketball game against Oregon that starts at 8:30 p.m. MT.
  • The Wildcats have added a pair of walk-on defensive linemen for 2023, one with a local connection and the other a family tie. Chase Randall, a graduate of Oro Valley’s Canyon del Oro High School, joins the team after spending the 2022 season at FCS school Valparaiso, while Ammon Kaufusi is the son of edge/outside linebackers coach Jason Kaufusi.