Going into 2018, Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate had plenty of hype surrounding his junior season, including a bit of Heisman talk. Needless to say, that didn’t work out so well.
Tate spent about three quarters of the season hobbled with an ankle injury and had to change his running instincts, and as a result the Wildcats struggled. Still, Tate played fairly well, and has a stranglehold on the starting job for his senior year.
With Tate entering his final year of eligibility, and considering his injury troubles in 2018, the rest of the QB depth chart will be jockeying for position beneath Tate. Who are the prime candidates in this race?
The only other upperclassman on the roster is Rhett Rodriguez, son of former coach Rich Rodriguez. RhettRod was a mid-three star prospect coming out of Tucson’s Catalina Foothills High School, and while he spent some garbage time on the field in his dad’s last season, most of his experience comes from 2018 under Kevin Sumlin.
Rodriguez started at UCLA in October while Tate was given a week off to let his ankle heel. He played moderately well at Utah the week before, but he didn’t create any big plays and the team was obviously overmatched against the soon-to-be South Division champs. Against the Bruins, Rodriguez and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone took some more risks in a close game, but the errors outweighed the big plays and UA lost by one, one of four one-possession losses for the team.
Rodriguez didn’t excite in his two most significant appearances, almost perfectly summing up the “game manager” stereotype. Still, he’ll be a junior this year surrounded by freshmen, so one has to think he has an edge.
Speaking of freshmen, every other quarterback on the roster is one.
Three redshirts, including Cienega product Jamarye Joiner—who saw some of the field in the California and Utah games—are Sumlin’s next men up.
Joiner was the only one to see the field in 2018, going three-and-out in one series against Cal and playing in garbage time against Utah. That would seem to make him the man to beat amongst these three, but don’t count out Kevin Doyle, as the two were similarly rated out of high school as high three-stars. Joiner is more of a dual threat compared to Doyle, and as such fits Arizona’s offense quite a bit better, but if Doyle really improves and shows out, he could make a legitimate argument.
The other redshirt freshman on the roster is walk-on Luke Ashworth, from Phoenix. Obviously it’s hard to see a walk-on earning the starting job, but crazier things have happened. Either way, Ashworth provides depth, and that’s never a bad thing.
The highest-rated quarterback (according to the 247 Sports) behind Tate is a true freshman and probably the name most Arizona fans hope to hear often in the coming years: Grant Gunnell. Gunnell was one of the most prolific passers in Texas high school history, which is quite an accomplishment considering the names that state has produced. He was a high-school teammate of Boobie Curry, a wide receiver who was the jewel of Arizona’s 2019 class and who will almost assuredly have a big role as a true freshman.
All of these are good signs. Gunnell wants to be coached by Arizona’s staff, he’s got some familiar names around him (including his older brother William, a receiver who transferred from A&M), and he’s the best Texan quarterback to come to the desert since Nick Foles. The one bad sign, of course, is that he’s a true freshman with quite a few older guys above him.
In my mind, there’s no denying that Gunnell is the future of UA football, but probably not the near future. I see him redshirting 2019.
So where does that leave the ‘Cats? If Tate stays healthy, everyone on the roster will get a chance to develop, and Gunnell won’t lose a year of eligibility. If he doesn’t, I still see RhettRod as the backup, but Joiner will be putting the pressure on him. No matter what, going into 2020, I’d guess that Rodriguez would have a tentative grip on the job, with Joiner and especially Gunnell right on his heels. Another wild card will be next summer’s arrival of Will Plummer, another high three-star pocket passer.
For now, we’ll say Rodriguez’s experience gives him the No. 2 job for most of 2019, and gives him a head start in 2020’s inevitable quarterback battle. He’ll have to work hard to outduel Gunnell, Joiner, and the rest in spring, but at least one of those three should keep UA competitive in 2020 and beyond.