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Roundtable: Is Arizona’s two-quarterback system a good idea?

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Photo by Mike Christy/Arizona Athletics

In somewhat of a surprising announcement, Jedd Fisch said Tuesday that both Gunner Cruz and Will Plummer will see time at quarterback in Arizona’s opener vs. BYU on Sept. 4 in Las Vegas.

Is that a two-quarterback system a good idea? Our staff members weighed in.

Brian J. Pedersen

Short answer: yes and no. Longer answer, with some actual context: this is Jedd Fisch making the best out of a less than ideal situation.

It’s fair to say neither Cruz or Plummer stood out from the other in camp, as the statistics apparently showed. That means neither did anything super great or terribly bad, so it became a coin flip.

And in the current college football climate that means if that coin had been flipped, the player whose side wasn’t called could immediately look for the exit. It already happened at Kentucky, where after losing out to Will Levis for the starting job Joey Gatewood quickly jumped into the NCAA transfer portal and is now at UCF. Nevermind the fact he’s reuniting with Gus Malzahn, the coach who recruited him to Auburn and then prompted his transfer to Kentucky after not winning the job there.

A transfer could still happen—don’t be surprised if Jordan McCloud decides not to stick around after finishing behind two QBs with 16 fewer combined starts as him—but by going this route it keeps Cruz and Plummer both fully invested heading into the season. It allows them to both get a real shot in the opener, and probably beyond, and to be able to compare real results rather than practice reps.

Adam Green

How about this: It is a good idea but a bad sign for Wildcats.

Jedd Fisch’s reasoning for why he did not name a full-time starter make sense. If neither Gunner Cruz nor Will Plummer (or Jordan McCloud, for that matter) were able to really pull away, then it would certainly be tough and maybe a little wrong to say one guy gets the job and that’s it. To that point, there are qualities each of the first two QBs have that could help the Wildcats when the offense is on the field.

However, this is clearly not what Fisch wanted to have happen and that not one QB truly stepped up does not portend great things in 2021.

While it is possible to succeed without a full-time starting QB, doing so is rare. It would be one thing if this was a case of two players performing at such a high level that you can’t keep either off the field, but from all reports that’s not what happened here. If Cruz and Plummer had different skills (say, one was an electric runner while the other a more polished passer) you could perhaps make an argument for why it will work depending on game situations, but the QBs offer fairly similar skills.

As Fisch said, the hope is to whittle it down to one QB at some point over the first few games. Ideally that would happen with one of the two playing truly outstanding football. Should that happen, then the decision to start with some kind of a rotation will have paid off.

Kim Doss

“He sold us an Accord for $100,000. That’s the sales job he did,” running back Trung Canidate told Sports Illustrated about Dick Tomey’s decision to go with two quarterbacks in 1998.

Does Jedd Fisch have the ability to sell his decision to his players in the same way? Ultimately, that’s all that matters in this decision. It doesn’t matter whether Wildcat quarterbacks of the past agree.

It absolutely doesn’t matter whether fans or media think it’s a good idea. What does Fisch’s team think about it?

One of the traditional arguments is that the leadership position of the quarterback makes it difficult to shift between players. That was probably a bigger issue for Tomey with his 12-1 1998 Arizona team than it is for Fisch coaching a patchwork roster that hasn’t won a game since 2019. No one is really established as that leader yet. Certainly no one is established as a reliable Pac-12 QB.

What is similar in both situations is that neither quarterback is dominant. Both have strengths and weaknesses, some of which may complement each other. Fisch said that both of them have worked on their weaknesses, but it's doubtful that he would go with this option if either had truly conquered those shortcomings.

Until one of them shakes the other one and emerges as dominant, it’s not terribly pressing that the coach makes an official announcement of who “the guy” is this year. In all likelihood, we’re going to be right back here next season with another quarterback competition, anyway.

Gabe Encinas

I’m very curious as how to this works given Fisch’s history as a quarterbacks coach.

I’m not a huge fan of it, but I understand. Between reps, receiver chemistry, quarterback psyche and in-game rhythm, I just feel like there are a lot of moving pieces that don’t give your offense stability or an identity.

Of course, we’d prefer for QB1 to get the majority of the reps in practice. Route timing and ball placement is different for receivers to adjust to as well. From a mental standpoint, I would hate for one quarterback to feel like they have a leash on them and if there’s a turnover they’re getting yanked and won’t know when they’re going back in. And if the offense is struggling and quarterbacks are rotating I feel like there’s just a huge drop in confidence and any momentum is lost.

Now, I understand why Fisch is doing so, because it seems like it is quite literally a toss-up between the two quarterbacks and you have to feel for the hot hand in-game.

I don’t think it’s a bad thing this is happening, considering Gunner Cruz has seven career passes to his name and Will Plummer unexpectedly got thrown in as a true freshman with a terrible roster and culture surrounding him. It’s hard to expect one of them to jump off the page after an extremely odd freshman year for them both.

It’s disappointing that neither asserted themselves as the sole starter but given their experience it’s to be expected. The quarterback room doesn’t give off a lot of optimism, and I’d be willing to bet we see all three quarterbacks start at some point this season.

I see the upside in all three options, but there isn’t one quarterback I’d feel most comfortable in myself. So I see where Fisch’s head is and I’m curious to see how he navigates this.

Brandon Combs

This is an interesting question and my overall response will be short. But my answer is I think it is a good idea.

Cruz and Plummer were unable to really create any separation during fall camp. That puts Fisch, Jimmie Doughtery, and Brennan Carroll in a peculiar spot. So, why not carry the competition past fall camp and see who can perform with the lights on and the pressure up?

Both QBs bring their own strengths and weaknesses to the field. Cruz has a good arm and limits mistakes, but has a tendency to hold onto the ball longer than he should. Plummer also has a good arm and makes plays with his legs. However, Plummer also tries to make big plays when they aren’t there, or are not advised. The gunslinger mentality.

But I believe in this staff and what they see and assess. They will end up playing whichever QB has the hot hand during a game, and to be quite honest, I don’t foresee the competition lasting past Week 3.

The good thing to take away is that both QBs have been in the system the same amount of time and have good relationships with the receivers. The bad news, if you will, is that Arizona still doesn’t have QB1 to start the season.

Ryan Kelapire

Ultimately, Fisch’s decision to play both quarterbacks will be judged in hindsight. If it works, people will say it was the right call. If it doesn’t, they will say he mismanaged the position. That’s life for a head coach.

I was just surprised that Fisch went this route considering what he had said in fall camp—that he wanted to avoid his starting quarterback sharing reps in practice. By having two starters, they will have to do just that.

I am also worried about how the quarterbacks will handle the added pressure. They now know they will have a short leash against BYU. One of the knocks on Cruz in the preseason was that he occasionally was hesitant with the ball. In this two-quarterback system, he may be even more afraid to make mistakes, knowing that one misstep could get him pulled.

On the contrary, maybe this setup will have the opposite effect and it motivates Cruz to the point that he comes out firing and gives Fisch no choice but to leave him in. At the same time, this system keeps Plummer engaged and, as Brian pointed out, possibly away from the transfer portal.

Overall, though, I tend to agree that having to use two quarterbacks means your offense is not in good shape.

Ronnie Stoffle

Generally this is perceived to be a bad thing. The old adage goes something like, “if you’re playing two quarterbacks, you have none.” With that said, I don’t mind the decision.

This season is not necessarily a throwaway but there aren’t expectations. If Vegas is saying the over/under is 2.5 wins, there’s not much pressure to win.

However, it does really feel like if Arizona can get competent QB play, IT MIGHT ACTUALLY BE DECENT!

Think about how many questions there were earlier this year on defense. Grant it there hasn’t been a real game yet but the front seven seems to be in the best shape we’ve seen in years.

The offense had similar issues but everything seems to have stabilized with the exception of the quarterbacks. This decision keeps everyone engaged and ready to go. It also adds a layer of complication for opposing teams to prepare. Cruz and Plummer are similar in a sense but different enough to divide focus for opponents during critical prep time leading into the matchups.

I guess it comes down to “why not?” There’s not a ton on the line. If this gives Arizona the best chance to win, let’s do it.