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Gunner Cruz relishing second chance to play for Arizona, compete for starting quarterback job

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Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

There’s no shortage of stories about in-state recruits that Arizona missed out on during the Kevin Sumlin era. Gunner Cruz falls into that category, having made several trips to the UA campus while in high school despite the program not having much interest in him.

“I had a little bit of contact with Coach (Noel) Mazzone and Coach Sumlin,” Cruz said Thursday after Arizona’s second spring practice. “But I knew they were taking … they had Grant (Gunnell). I knew what they were doing, I understood it.”

Cruz said his visits to the UA were with Queen Creek Casteel High School teammate Khyheem Waleed, a 3-star wide receiver in the 2019 whom the Wildcats were very interested in. Waleed instead signed with Boise State, where he appeared in eight games the past two seasons before transferring to Arkansas State in January.

A 3-star prospect himself, Cruz signed with Washington State in 2019 but only made one appearance in his two years in Pullman. He wanted a chance to compete for a starting job, but with the Cougars adding Tennessee graduate transfer Jarrett Guarantano, Cruz realized that opportunity was going to come elsewhere. Why not a place he was already familiar with?

The 6-foot-5, 224-pound Cruz has a strong chance to win the starting job under first-year coach Jedd Fisch, who also hauled in ex-South Florida QB Jordan McCloud from the transfer portal. McCloud isn’t set to arrive until June, though, giving Cruz a leg up in his battle for the starting gig alongside freshman Will Plummer and redshirt sophomore Kevin Doyle.

And so far, Cruz has impressed his coaches.

“He’s a kid with a ton of talent, a big arm, can make all the throws across the field,” quarterbacks coach Jimmie Dougherty said. “We’re excited about him.”

Fisch said his interest in Cruz came from a combination of seeing what he did in high school and knowing the QB likely learned a lot from his head coaches at Washington State, first Mike Leach and then Nick Rolovich.

“I liked his size, I liked his arm strength, I liked his ability to move the ball when he was in high school,” Fisch said. “You go back and you look at some of his throws from high school, that was only less than two years ago. And obviously Mike Leach does a great job … and Coach Rolovich does a great job with quarterbacks. So you have two guys that were really good quarterback coaches who have worked with him for the last few years, so I knew he had a great foundation from where he was.”

While Leach and Rolovich are known for more of a spread, up-tempo offense, Fisch is implementing a pro-style passing game. Cruz isn’t worried about the differences, instead thinking he can mold his knowledge of all the styles into one that works best for him.

“I’ve been able to take all these different experiences, all these different offenses and kind of put it together in a way I can understand it,” he said.

The first test, for him and all of Arizona’s quarterbacks, is re-learning how to go under center. Cruz said the last time he did that in a game was seventh or eighth grade, so it’s taken some getting used to, but he noted the coaching staff is being very meticulous with something that seems so simple.

“Everything’s a little bit different when you’re under center,” he said. “Every part of it’s getting coached, our stance under center, how our hands are, putting pressure on the bottom hand.”