Arizona Wildcats coach Kevin Sumlin stoked the preseason hype surrounding Grant Gunnell, saying Wednesday that the sophomore quarterback has made “serious strides” during this extended offseason.
“When adverse situations arise, I think they reveal some people’s true character,” Sumlin said during a Pac-12 webinar. “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 has really done some things to grow and to help grow our team together during this offseason during a difficult time.”
Arizona was picked to finish last in the Pac-12 South by the media on Wednesday, likely because of a defense that was one of the worst in the country last season and lost several key pieces to transfer.
However, they might be able to exceed those low expectations if Gunnell picks up where he left off as a freshman.
The former four-star recruit impressed in limited snaps, completing close to 66 percent of his passes for 1,239 yards, nine touchdowns and just one interception. Pro Football Focus graded Gunnell as the best returning quarterback in the Pac-12, citing his accuracy as one of his greatest strengths.
To be more well-rounded, Gunnell said in the spring that he’s trying to improve his arm strength and Sumlin said Wednesday that he’s also been working on his footwork and mobility.
“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,” Sumlin said. “Not necessarily taking off and running, but moving around. I mean, we’ve done a lot of movement-type drills with him. Noel (Mazzone)’s doing a great job and he understands that. And 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.”
Could it be a big year for Joiner too?
Sumlin said Gunnell’s top returning receiver Jamarye Joiner has “healed up pretty well” after undergoing surgery in mid-May to repair a Jones fracture he sustained in the spring.
The long offseason has allowed him to ease back into action.
“We’ve taken our time with him,” Sumlin said.
The converted quarterback is looking to build off a redshirt freshman year in which he caught 34 passes for a team-high 552 yards and five touchdowns.
That included a huge game in the season finale at ASU when he reeled in seven catches for 140 yards and two touchdowns. Joiner also had the catch of the season when he made a one-handed TD grab at Stanford.
However, all those highlights came with Khalil Tate at quarterback, so we’ll see if he can establish that kind of rapport with Gunnell.
“I think he had a better than average year based on the fact that he didn’t play receiver until really fall camp, so I think it could be a breakout year for him,” Sumlin said. “I think he’s worked hard at it. He’s going to continue to work at some of the nuances and some things like that. Instead of just what to do but how to do it, getting open and doing those types of things. So he’s a talented, talented young man who’s got big upside and obviously he’s a guy that we’ve got to utilize this fall to get the ball in his hands.”