The Arizona Wildcats have a ton of questions mark heading into the 2020 season and were picked to finish last in the Pac-12 South, but they can at least take solace in their quarterback, Grant Gunnell.
The sophomore has received plenty of praise during the preseason, none bigger than from Pro Football Focus, which graded him as the top returning QB in the Pac-12.
That hype has only continued to build in preseason practice, thanks in part to Gunnell himself who hasn’t been shy about the progress he made in the offseason.
“I made huge leaps,” he said after the first day of practice. “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 tonight.”
Gunnell’s coaches and teammates have noticed similar strides as well. Here is what they have said through two weeks of practice.
Head coach Kevin Sumlin: “When adverse situations arise, I think they reveal some people’s true character and how you handle those situations, even if you don’t have the experience in it, becomes important and leadership becomes important. So, I think he stepped forward, and really done some things to grow and to help grow our team together during this offseason during a difficult time. And so as I think from a leadership standpoint he’s made some serious strides over the last seven months.”
More from Sumlin: “We’ve been working with footwork and his ability to move a little bit. He doesn’t have to be the greatest mobile quarterback but he’s been working at it, his mobility his footwork, his ability to see and slide around in the pocket. Not necessarily taking off and running but moving around. I mean, we’ve done a lot of movement type drills with him. Noel’s doing a great job and he understands that. Then understanding situational football, which is something that you say that, but we got to work at it a little bit more, particularly with those new receivers out there.”
Senior tight end Bryce Wolma: “He’s improved a lot, but the thing that stood out to me the most is his arm strength. This past offseason I know he spent a lot of time on that and he can now stretch the field with his arm, make big-time throws, so that’s definitely the biggest improvement I’ve seen.”
Redshirt sophomore wide receiver Jamarye Joiner: “I noticed that [his arm strength] is big time. Last year, obviously freshmen when they come in, they’re not as strong as a college athlete yet. So he really took it upon himself this offseason to really get his strength down and spin the ball. I’ve noticed that as a receiver, just catching the ball. As soon as I get out of my break the ball is there and it’s coming with some heat. That’s a good thing to have.”
More from Joiner: “His reads have always been very good. His progressions have been very good. He’s taking more leadership of the offense. Last year he was going back and forth, coming in and out. This year it’s really his offense and he’s taken leadership and ownership of everything that’s going on. He’s yelling, he’s yelling at me, he’s yelling at the running backs, ‘Get set! Get set!’ Making sure everybody’s everybody’s on the line, on the ball, off the ball, motioning. He’s really taking charge of the offense and that’s what we need in order to win these seven games that are coming in.”
Outside wide receivers coach Taylor Mazzone: “I am a true believer that you can in some ways develop a stronger arm by working out, but I’ve never seen a guy like Grant actually use the weight room as a big element in his arm strength. I’m not saying he had a weak arm last year, but I’m saying the velocity on the ball, we as receivers know coming out of breaks there’s a different spin on it and that’s the most impressive thing. You can tell in his lower half, his legs, he’s driving the ball more with his legs and that’s the big key in his throwing motion is that leg drive and he’s done a great job getting the ball to us at the right time.”
Junior guard Donovan Laie: “Now that we have Grant...I feel like for me personally, and the o-line as a whole, I feel like we’re more locked in. We’re kind of buying into the system a little bit more. So I feel like our chemistry is there with Grant already so I’m excited.”
Sophomore wide receiver Boobie Curry: “Oh man, his mental was already there, but he’s even smarter now. And one thing he’s really got better is his arm. He can really throw that thing now, and he’s confident in his arm, so he’s not scared to throw it downfield, and he’s just confident itself in his game now.”
Sophomore cornerback Christian Roland-Wallace: “He’s a natural born leader. I have faith in him. I have faith in the offense, Coach (Noel) Mazzone and I feel like they can do some big things.”
Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone: “Grant needed a lot of work as far as his pocket presence. He’s such a big tall long guy, so working on his quickness in the pocket and creating passing lanes and sliding into pockets we’ve got a lot of time to work on that. We’ve got some time to just clean up some fundamentals and actually I think he’s thrown it as well as I’ve seen him thrown it since I’ve been here.”
More from Mazzone: “This whole [pandemic] started and then we didn’t have the spring ball, which was tough on everybody, every college football team. And then [our players] came back because it was such a fluid situation with when we would start the season. There were so many unknowns, so Grant has been in town since those times. So we got a chance to really develop our relationship and spend a lot of time on Zoom virtual meetings. And then when they allowed us to go on to field and actually have our eight hours a week and get to work on football specific stuff, we had a ton of time to spend on the field, just working on things you really never have time to work on in the course of a camp and season. So I think it’s been really beneficial for him and obviously the closer that he and I become knowing each other and knowing what his strengths and weaknesses—and the same for him, knowing my strengths and weaknesses—I think it’s a better situation.”