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Healthy, and starting, Gunner Maldonado reaffirming decision to ‘come back home’ to Arizona

arizona-wildcats-gunner-maldonado-northwestern-chandler-safety-tackling-drake-anderson-2021 Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

A hamstring injury limited Gunner Maldonado to only a few practices back in the spring, putting him further down the depth chart than one might have expected after he transferred from Northwestern.

Two games into the 2021 season, though, Maldonado has made up all the ground he lost and then some. The second-year freshman made his first career start at free safety in Arizona’s home loss to SDSU.

Maldonado logged three tackles against SDSU, but according to Pro Football Focus he was responsible for three of Arizona’s 15 missed tackles in the 38-14 setback.

“I definitely tackled better Week 1,” Maldonado said. “I’ve got to really have good leverage, play inside out. That was a big thing against San Diego State, I had bad leverage. Me and Coach Cecil have been talking about that and I’m gonna be working on that.”

The 6-foot, 195-pound Maldonado was a key transfer pickup for Arizona in early January, doing so on the same day Northwestern teammate (and fellow Chandler High School alum) Drake Anderson announced he was transferring to the UA.

“Once we kind of knew that we both were maybe looking elsewhere, we kind of joked around that we were a package deal,” Maldonado said. “We’ve been friends for a long time now, so we both knew what we needed to do.”

Maldonado, a 3-star prospect in the 2020 recruiting class who was the No. 17 recruit in Arizona that year, played in three games for Northwestern last fall. He said he needed a “new environment” after that one year in Evanston, and after speaking with Jedd Fisch and safeties coach Chuck Cecil the choice was easy.

“When Coach Fisch was hired, I knew right away,” he said. “I talked to him and Coach Cecil that I wanted to come back home. That was a big thing too, coming back home, being able to play with Arizona on my jersey.”

Maldonado said he didn’t give the UA much of a look the first time around, partly because it was one of the few schools interested in him as a wide receiver. He had 38 catches for 782 yards and eight touchdowns as a HS junior before focusing solely on safety as a senior.

Defensive coordinator Don Brown is “glad he’s on our team” now after starting his career in the Big Ten, where Brown came to Arizona from.

“He gets better every week, gets better every practice,” Brown said.

Being at 100 percent has helped, though Maldonado said the injury enabled him to improve in other ways.

“I think every time you get injured, because I mean in football you’re gonna get injured, it makes you appreciate being on the field a lot more,” he said. “But it just gave me a chance to learn the defense more, cheer on my guys, get mentally prepared, get my body physically right. There’s so many different things that goes on for a safety during the place from when the ball snapped to before I’m even getting into the post. Reading the guard, reading the tackle, where the running backs are aligned I think those are little things I’m getting better at.”

As for Arizona’s tackling issues against SDSU, particular his, Maldonado already knows what needs to be done.

“The biggest thing is my leverage,” he said. “When you’re coming from 12, 15 yards you’ve got to know that’s around, what’s (the) space, because if I’m at the line of scrimmage it’s a lot easier to make the tackle. There’s not a lot of room for the running back to go.

“After just watching the film with Coach Cecil it’s really just my leverage and angles. I did leave my feet a couple times where I need to keep my feet running, but for the most part it’s just working on my ankles, playing inside out. Still keeping my feet, running my feet through, keep my leverage that kind of thing. It’s something little, it might seem little, but leverage in space, it’s a big deal so it’s definitely something I’m working on.”