If the Arizona Wildcats had a game this week, offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone says he would be more than willing to throw quarterback Grant Gunnell into the fire.
“Rhett (Rodriguez), Khalil (Tate) and Grant, I have no problems with any of those guys playing in a game,” he said Thursday, roughly a week since the start of fall camp.
That is high praise for a true freshman but Gunnell, a former four-star recruit who enrolled early and participated in spring ball, is “way ahead of the curve,” Mazzone said.
“I think we [tracked] his first five practices, he’s somewhere around 70 percent completion so far,” Mazzone said. “He has his moments, but he’s obviously 6-7, so he sees the field well and he’s got a really high football IQ and he’s a perfectionist, which I like. He likes doing things right.”
Arizona OC Noel Mazzone said freshman QB Grant Gunnell is “way ahead of the curve” and is completing roughly 70 percent of his passes in practice so far.— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) August 2, 2019
Mazzone said he’d have no problem using Gunnell in a game. pic.twitter.com/nYcC4smSaS
Of all the areas Gunnell has improved since the spring, Mazzone said his arm strength is the most notable, crediting strength coach Brian Johnson for beefing up the lanky quarterback (and the rest of the roster).
Junior linebacker Tony Fields II said Gunnell is “making his reads better now.”
“He’s slowing himself down a lot more,” Fields said. “He came in very mature for a young guy, and he’s learned the playbook. You don’t really see a lot of mental errors from him.”
Though when Gunnell does make a mistake, it is obvious because he is so hard on himself.
“He gets that look on his face if he doesn’t step right, if the ball’s not exactly placed right or he misses a read or something like...and that’s one of the things we’re trying to work on is being able to just move on to the next play,” Mazzone said.
Sometimes Tate, whose leadership skills have improved since last season, offers Gunnell some pointers.
“I try to stay out of those conversations so I don’t know what he’s telling him, but hopefully he’s telling him good things,” Mazzone joked.
Gunnell, who threw for a Texas record 16,108 yards and 195 touchdowns in high school, could see the field at some point this season, whether in mop-up duty or a spot start if Tate gets injured. Players are allowed to appear in up to four games and still redshirt.
But next year is the year for Gunnell, who is expected to take the reins from Tate and become Arizona’s starting QB for the foreseeable future.
So far, nothing suggests those expectations are out of line.
“He’s jumping into a really big role on offense...and with being a quarterback, it isn’t just running the offense, it’s being a leader on the team,” said junior linebacker Colin Schooler. “And I had a hard time coming in my freshman year being a leader, trying to tell your seniors what to do and line them up. So I understand what he’s going through. And I talked to him, I tried to give him pointers. I mean, people respect you, they want to listen to what you say, and he’s been getting better every single day.”
Doyle not throwing, but expected back “pretty soon”
Mazzone did not list redshirt freshman Kevin Doyle as one of the quarterbacks he would be willing to play, and for good reason.
The former three-star recruit has not been throwing during camp so far due to injury. The longer Doyle is out, the more ground he loses in the backup quarterback competition, but Mazzone expects him to start throwing “pretty soon.”
“Obviously when you miss all the reps, it’s a setback, right? I mean, there’s no way around that,” Mazzone said. “But it’s also not worth it to make a two-week injury a two-month injury because you come back too early. It’s nothing major, he just has a little pull. What I found with quarterbacks is whenever there’s an issue with their throwing motion, the only thing you can do is rest them. If not, it just throws everything out of whack.”