The Arizona defense has turned it on over the past four games, and the play of Gunner Maldonado has been a big part of it.
Last week against Oregon State, Maldonado recorded 10 tackles (7 solo, 3 assisted) and on Oregon State’s fake-field goal attempt at the end of the first half he stayed on his assignment and made the tackle to end Oregon State’s drive.
During the first five games of the season, Maldonado averaged a 48.24 defensive grade (according to Pro Football Focus) but in the last three games his grade has gone up to an average of 74.63.
“I think Gunner sometimes got trapped into people thinking he was supposed to be covering somebody he wasn’t, thinking he was supposed to be on a play that he really wasn’t supposed to be a part of, so he kind of got knocked early,” UA Jedd Fisch said. “Not rightfully so. I don’t think he should have been knocked early like he was”
Maldonaldo also hasn’t missed a tackle in his last four games, and as a safety there isn’t any room for missed tackles on the field.
“The most important part of that is when you’re the safety, if you don’t tackle them that means nobody’s there,” Fisch said. “He did his job, and he does his job each week in practice and games, and I’m really excited to see Gunner continue to improve.”
Defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen described Maldonado as the leader of the secondary and he has liked what he’s seen from his junior safety.
“His football IQ is unbelievable, solid tackler, he made 10 tackles for a safety,” Nansen said. “He’s our quarterback back there, directing traffic and making sure we’re in the right coverage. So I’m so happy to have him and he’s been outstanding for us all year.”
The defense has given up opening touchdowns in the last two games and Maldonado wants the Wildcats to start faster when they are called upon first.
“Settling into the game when you get out there,” Maldonado said. “Especially when we defer and we’re the first ones out there, we just have to go get settled in and that’s been something we have been working on.”
The culture of Arizona has shifted since Fisch took over and the players are feeling the difference in the locker room. The amount of time the players spend together and the relationships they have built is a completely different feeling than when Maldonado got to Arizona.
“Just the relationships in the locker room, how we interact with each other, how we are away from the facility,” Maldonado said. “Those little things really play into the team being a team.”