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Arizona hoping to get the BYU version of Gunner Cruz after yet another QB change

arizona-wildcats-gunner-cruz-jordan-mccloud-jedd-fisch-byu-ucla-colorado-pac12-football-2021 Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Where does Arizona go from here? At quarterback, at least, it’s to the game plan it put together for the season opener against BYU, when Gunner Cruz looked the part of a franchise quarterback.

“We’ll try to look back and see what he did well,” UA coach Jedd Fisch said Monday about Cruz, who will start the Wildcats’ game Saturday at Colorado now that Jordan McCloud has been ruled out for the season due to injuries to his right knee and ankle.

McCloud, who started Arizona’s last two games, was the No. 3 QB after training camp while Cruz was No. 1. Fisch is hoping the things that made Cruz the best option in late August resurface after he was benched during the second game of the season.

“I believe in Gunner,” he said. “Gunner won the job in training camp because of the way he was able to throw the football in training camp. So we have to now reverse course, go back to that week of BYU preparation, and remind him why he won the job and show him some of the good things he did against BYU.”

Cruz was 34 of 45 for 336 yards with a touchdown and an interception against BYU, but a week later against San Diego State he only threw for 70 yards on 10-of-19 passing. Will Plummer replaced him during that game and started a week later against NAU before McCloud took over the job Sept. 25 at Oregon.

Fisch said Cruz is his choice going forward because of his “command” of the team in various situations, albeit all before the snap.

“I think the biggest difference (between Cruz and Plummer) is, when he’s in the huddle, when he’s at the line of scrimmage, when he’s talking the game with his teammates, he’s got tremendous command,” Fisch said. “He has a really, really good confidence about himself, in terms of being able to speak the game. I trust that when Gunner goes out there, that he’ll make the right decision and get to the ball to the right person.”

That last sentence goes counter to how Cruz has looked in action since the BYU game, and even at times during that one. He’s often held onto the ball too long, resulting in sacks, as well as not pulling the trigger when he’s had an open receiver.

That popped up again when he replaced McCloud against UCLA, going 4 of 7 for 48 yards while also getting sacked once.

Despite that, Cruz is Fisch’s choice and he won’t be sharing first-team reps in practice.

“I think we need Gunner to get all the reps,” he said. “We learned, as we were going through these competitions, that these guys currently are a group of players that need as many reps as possible to be successful, which could haunt you if you ever have an injury during a game.

“But Will certainly has to be prepared, just like Gunner had to be prepared. I think something that those guys learned is that you really do have to be ready. You really are one play away. Sometimes I think when you’re a young backup quarterback you think, well, if I’m not starting I’m not playing, and you don’t realize how quickly you can get thrown into the fire. Gunner got put in a 24-16 game against a Pac-12 South opponent. You’ve got to be ready to go, and Will’s gonna have to do that.”

If the BYU tape is what Arizona is going to base its offensive game plan on for Colorado, expect an up-tempo style since that’s when Cruz was at his best. Even if that wasn’t the plan going in.

“One of the things that happened against BYU is we went down early, and then we kind of got into almost like a 2-minute tempo,” Fisch said. “And when (Cruz) got into the 2-minute tempo, usually those are the plays that you practice the most, because they’re your most standard. They’re not your gameplan plays as much as they’re your training camp plays. That was where he had a familiarity.

“And then I also believe we were able to use the perimeter throwing game to his advantage, because he has a big arm so he can get the ball out there fast. That helped us because I think Stanley (Berryhill) had a couple of big ones and then BJ (Casteel) had a couple just up the sideline. We’ll try to look back and see what he did well, and then also see if there’s some ways we can get him just confident. It’s more about being confident that in a rhythm. And if we can get him confident back there I think the rhythm will come.”