Grant Gunnell was giddy as he took questions from the media after Arizona’s first practice.
“It was awesome, man,” the UA quarterback said via Zoom call. “I mean, going against a defense, I can’t help if I’m smiling right now. It was awesome. The receivers were flying, defense was flying to the ball, it was great. It really felt like football for the first time in a long time.”
The last time Gunnell faced a live defense was way back in March before the world was turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic. Since then, he, like so many other student-athletes, have been in a holding pattern waiting to see when—or if—their season will start.
“I wouldn’t say it’s been hard, but it was disappointing at times,” Gunnell said. “I think I’ve been here since I think June working out and we would get going and it’d seem like the season’s about to start, we’re doing walkthroughs and then we’re shut off for a week. Then we get going again and then the season’s canceled. Then we’d get going again. Now we have a season. I just hope it sticks.”
Gunnell is ready to see his hard work pay off. The sophomore believes the extended offseason was a “blessing in disguise” for him.
“That was I don’t even know how many months of just straight work I put in,” he said. “I would say it was seven days a week I’m in the weight room in the morning, working on throwing, my footwork, arm strength in the afternoon. I mean, it sucks having to quarantine and the season gets pushed back, but this might have been the best thing for me as a player.”
Gunnell is facing some high expectations after a strong freshman season and Pro Football Focus deeming him the top-returning QB in the Pac-12.
So far, neither he nor head coach Kevin Sumlin have tried to temper them.
“I mean, I made huge leaps,” Gunnell said. “Not even just the offense but as a player. I mean my feet, my arm strength, even my mental of the game. It’s been a tremendous jump and I kind of felt it out there at practice tonight.”
Good quarterbacks are good leaders too, so Gunnell is taking that role seriously as well. He said he often texted his teammates over the offseason to keep them in line and in good spirits. Sometimes that’s a motivational quote, a line from Remember The Titans, or something straight from the heart.
“Not just the offense but defense, making sure everyone’s staying on top of work and stuff like that,” he said. “If someone’s going through a hard time, calling them and ask them what’s up, whether it be football or off the field stuff like that. And just getting more vocal. I wasn’t really vocal my freshman year and now I’m kind of trying to step up and be more vocal, like breaking stuff down. If someone’s messing around, kind of getting them back in line.”
Gunnell’s voice apparently helped sway star lineman Donovan Laie back to Arizona after he originally announced he was going to transfer.
“I was kind of blindsided when he announced that,” Gunnell said. “I had talked to him but I didn’t know what was going on, so the day it happened I think I was on the phone with him, I think we called each other about eight times, we went and ate dinner that night. I mean, having him stay in his was huge for the offense and the O-line as a whole. ... He’s a great player. I believe he will play on Sundays.”
Gunnell’s words seem to have more weight with his receivers these days, too.
“Last year, even though I wasn’t the starter I would take an approach like I was the starter every week, even in fall camp and spring ball,” he said. “So I wouldn’t say my approach has changed but I feel like I have more more say with the receivers. I’m not kind of a backup that’s coming in every few reps. I know that the guys are kind of listening more when I’m teaching them on where to break in the route or how far to go yardage-wise and stuff like that.”
That’s promising news considering one of the big question marks this season is whether or not Arizona has enough firepower around Gunnell to be an explosive offense.
“I mean, obviously I played football with Boobie Curry in high school, but the most awesome thing from tonight in this practice was the receivers were rotating while I’m in there and it was seamless,” he said. “It seemed like there was no drop off from one guy to another. That was probably the coolest thing ever, so right now after that practice I could say every guy is stepping up right now.”
Gunnell said they are fueled by some of the negative press they have received, such as being picked to finish last in the Pac-12 South. Yes, Gunnell has even heard those naysayers who claim the Wildcats will go winless this year.
“We don’t take it seriously at all,” he said. “Because from after the practice tonight, that’s just a joke to me, honestly. And I feel like we’re going to shock some people. The defense looked amazing. Offense looked amazing.”
They are tight-knit group too, thanks to a crazy offseason that seems to finally be in the rearview mirror.
“From the start of COVID, people were sending videos to the whole team working out at home, all this other stuff, and then we all get here in June, we’re working out in pods with different guys on offense, defense, special defense, all different sides of the game and together,” Gunnell said. “I know it sucked, but I think probably the biggest thing for us is it means that there’s a mesh as a team. It’s definitely the closest I’ve had since I’ve been here.”