Arizona coach Kevin Sumlin had just finished his 10-minute interview inside the Lowell-Stevens Football Facility, meaning it was time for Grant Gunnell to step in front of a scrum of reporters and conduct his first interview as a Wildcat.
“Don’t look so nervous,” Sumlin quipped.
“I’m trying not to,” Gunnell smiled.
There will be no such conversations when Gunnell steps on the football field next fall. He’s a seasoned veteran in that arena.
By the time the 2020 season rolls around, Gunnell will be beginning his fourth semester at the UA—he enrolled a semester early as a freshman—and already have eight games under his belt.
That kind of experience makes him the clear frontrunner to replace Khalil Tate as Arizona’s No. 1 quarterback, and it’s not exactly a secret.
Gunnell was taking first-team reps in Monday’s spring practice, leading three other scholarship quarterbacks—Kevin Doyle, Will Plummer, and Rhett Rodriguez—who have combined to make one career start.
“I think you saw the order of things right now,” Sumlin said. “But we’re competing.”
Gunnell sees it as his job to lose. Not because it is being handed to him, but because he plans to win it fair and square. That’s just the kind of competitor he is.
“That’s honestly what drives me,” he said. “It’s never set in stone. I mean, if I play bad, I’m not gonna play.”
Gunnell has shown he should be a fine starter so long as Arizona can find some stability along its offensive line and put some decent receivers around him.
Even without those things, the former four-star recruit completed 65% of his passes as a freshman while throwing for 1,239 yards, nine touchdowns and just one interception, an upperclassman-like ratio that he credited to his extensive knowledge of the offense, one that fits the pocket passer to a tee.
Gunnell’s relationship with coordinator Noel Mazzone is one of the reasons he chose Arizona over dozens of other Power 5 programs.
“If you have all the answers, you know where you’re going with the ball,” Gunnell said. “You’re not having any second guesses.”
Gunnell’s numbers didn’t exactly come in garbage time, either. He made three starts, his first coming on Sept. 28 when he was named the Pac-12 Freshman of the Week after throwing for 352 yards and a touchdown in a 20-17 win over UCLA.
“I looked at it as my chance to show what I can do,” he said.
What Gunnell was able to do that night didn’t surprise him, only that the opportunity arose as quickly as it did.
“I expected maybe to get in like a couple blowout games and stuff like that, but I didn’t expect to get as much experience as I did,” Gunnell said.
By appearing in more than four games, Gunnell passed on the opportunity to redshirt and obtain a fifth year of eligibility, a trade he was more than willing to make.
“I wanted to play,” he said. “I like competing. There was no doubt in my mind. If I was gonna play one snap in a game, I wanted it.”
The experience was too valuable to pass up. Gunnell, whose record-setting high school career was often denigrated because of the level of competition he faced, got a taste of the speed of the college game.
Sometimes painfully so. The lanky QB was sacked five times in a road loss to Oregon.
It also illustrated to him that he needed to improve his arm strength, which he’s done by putting in extra work in the weight room.
“Being able to get in there, live bullets are flying, so that’s huge,” Gunnell said. “When I first got in I was nervous, as expected. As I got more playing time, I got more comfortable.”
But not comfortable enough. Gunnell often rotated series with Tate, a configuration that Gunnell said was difficult for both of them.
Gunnell said the lowest point of his freshman season was being pulled from the Oregon game, even though he completed a respectable 10 of 14 passes for 84 yards.
“I mean, I thought I played good, but I like to compete,” he said. “I don’t want to get pulled out. I want to be in the game. I want the ball in my hands. So that was tough for me to do.”
But ultimately that was Gunnell’s biggest takeaway from his freshman season: how to handle adversity, an important trait for quarterbacks, who are expected to be the leaders of the team.
It’s a responsibility Gunnell has taken seriously this offseason by leading player-run practices, setting an example in the classroom, and exuding just the right temperament in front of his impressionable teammates.
“Don’t get overwhelmed and stay levelheaded no matter if it’s a good thing or bad thing,” he said. “Just keep the course in a game.”
In other words, don’t look so nervous.
Here’s Grant Gunnell’s first interview as an Arizona WildcatPosted by AZ Desert Swarm on Monday, March 2, 2020