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What to watch for in Arizona’s 2020 season opener at Utah

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arizona-wildcats-utah-utes-preview-storylines-gunnell-laie-coronavirus-pac12-football-2020-sumlin Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Holy crap, this is actually happening.

Pardon the colorful language, but considering everything that’s happened in 2020, it’s still a bit shocking to see the Arizona Wildcats actually being able to play college football this season. And now that’s less than 48 hours away.

Arizona opens its 2020 season on Saturday with a 1:30 p.m. MT kickoff against the Utah Utes in Salt Lake City. ESPN2 is airing the game, a change from the original announcement that had the contest on ESPNU and beginning at 2 p.m. MT.

It’s the first of at least six games the Wildcats are scheduled to play this season, with the possibility of a seventh on Dec. 19 plus any possible bowl games. Let’s not get too ahead of ourselves, though, considering roughly 40 FBS games have already been postponed or canceled this season due to COVID-19 issues, and instead focus on what to keep an eye on Saturday.

Grant Gunnell 2.0

To hear Arizona’s coaches and players talk, the Grant Gunnell we will see against Utah will hardly resemble the one that threw for 1,239 yards and nine touchdowns (against just one interception) on 65.2 percent passing as a true freshman.

Not in terms of physical appearance or anything, but instead in how he uses his 6-foot-6, 228-pound frame, particularly the use of his lower body to improve arm strength. Combine that with intense film study to improve his reads, and Gunnell is poised to have the kind of 2020 season that would justify Pro Football Focus grading him as the top returning passer in the Pac-12.

“I think he’s thrown it as well as I’ve seen him thrown it since I’ve been here,” offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone said last month.

Gunnell, who appeared in eight games last year, is surrounded by a bevy of talent on offense. Senior Gary Brightwell is poised to finally get his shot as the go-to running back, while Arizona returns several key receivers including Gunnell’s old HS teammate, Boobie Curry, who could be in line for a breakout sophomore year.

A whole lot of new faces

While the offense will look pretty similar to how it did a year ago, the defense will be all-new. And not just because the Wildcats have four new defensive coaches, including coordinator Paul Rhoads.

Based on the depth chart, Arizona could have as many as seven first-time starters on defense. Some of those are guys who have been in the program, like redshirt junior safety Rhedi Short, who figures to see the first action of his career, but it will also feature some new faces to the program, as well, particularly in the front seven.

Graduate transfers Aaron Blackwell and Roy Lopez are on tap to start at defensive end and nose tackle, respectively, while true freshman Derick Mourning is listed as the starter at Mike linebacker.

Mourning is one of eight true freshmen on the depth chart, and with the NCAA not counting any competition this fall it stands to reason Arizona will try to play as many young guys as possible to get them game experience.

The most likely to make their debuts Saturday, besides Mourning, are wide receivers Dyelan Miller and Ma’jon Wright and defensive linemen Paris Shand, Regen Terry and Dion Wilson Jr.

Something extra to play for

It’s been a tremendously rough year for junior offensive lineman Donovan Laie, and the pandemic is only a small fraction of what he’s had to deal with. He recently lost his grandfather, the second member of his immediate family to pass in the past 11 months.

The other, his father, died shortly after Arizona played Utah last November.

The passing of his father, Chris, along with his sister briefly going missing during the summer, contributed to Laie deciding to enter the NCAA transfer portal so he could play somewhere closer to his family in southern California. He was in the portal for only about a day, though, opting to stick with his brethren in Tucson.

“I came back just because I felt like I was leaving family behind,” Laie said last month.

Since coming back, Laie has been moved from left tackle to left guard, where he finished up last season in order to give Jordan Morgan a shot outside. Morgan is now the starting left tackle, giving Arizona strong blind-side protection for Gunnell.

A unique atmosphere

Utah’s Rice-Eccles Stadium holds 45,807 fans, and the Utes usually fill most of the seats. In 2018 a crowd of 45,862 watched a 42-10 beatdown of Arizona, part of what’s currently an 11-game home win streak.

But home-field advantage won’t have nearly the same impact this season, not with the Pac-12 banning fans at games this season other than friends and family. It’s going to make for an eerie atmosphere, one involving piped-in crowd noise—both from within the stadium and on the TV broadcast—to try and mask the silence.

Arizona’s players and coaches don’t seem too concerned about the change, though it will be interesting to see how it affects play calling, since it may be possible to hear calls from one side of the field to another. Same goes for trying hard span counts to draw defenses offsides.

Streaks to bust

Arizona lost the final seven games of the 2019 season, its longest skid since dropping eight in a row in 2016 (before beating ASU 56-35 without attempting a pass in the second half).

The Wildcats have also dropped four straight on the road and four consecutive games to Utah, the longest drought against the Utes since they lost five in a row between 1924-41.

A loss Saturday would mark the third year in a row Arizona began 0-1, which has never happened in school history.