Grant Gunnell ready to take on starting quarterback job
With the departure of last year’s starting quarterback Khalil Tate, all eyes will be focused on second-year player Grant Gunnell to fill in as captain of the offense.
The starting job is expected to be handed to Gunnell after taking first-team reps in the first week of spring practices as well as being one of the only quarterbacks on the roster to have taken snaps last season.
“We only got two [quarterbacks] that played in games last year and we have one that actually won a game,” head coach Kevin Sumlin said. “I think you saw the order of things right now.”
Gunnell appeared in eight games last season, throwing 11 touchdowns and only one interception. His best game came against UCLA on Sept. 28, 2019 where he threw for 352 yards and a touchdown in his first career start.
One would expect a player with respectable numbers like Gunnell’s to enter the new season with the expectation of becoming the new starter. Gunnell, however, thinks the job is still a competition.
“It’s always my job to lose,” Gunnell said. “There’s always competition. That’s honestly what drives me. It’s never set in stone. I mean if I play bad, I'm not going to play.”
Gunnell began the 2019 season as the second-string quarterback but that quickly changed early on. Tate suffered an injury in the third game of the season against Texas Tech University, clearing the way for Gunnell to get a ton of playing time as a freshman.
“I expected maybe to get in like a couple blowout games and stuff like that, but I didn’t expect to get as much experience as I did,” Gunnell said.
Gunnell played in more than four games last year, which denied him the opportunity to redshirt his freshman year and gain an extra year of eligibility; Gunnell didn’t want to redshirt anyways.
“I wanted to play. I like competing,” Gunnell said. “There was no doubt in my mind. If I was gonna play one snap in a game, I wanted it.”
The coaching staff has been working with Gunnell in the off-season on his velocity and arm strength through leg training and weight lifting, but he isn’t the only person looking to improve before the upcoming season. Arizona’s offense was full of inconsistency last season, including a wide receiver group that was filled with youth and inexperience.
“I think we got a talented group at receiver,” said offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone. “Brenden Schooler coming in is really helping us. We got some young guys like Jalen [Johnson] and Boobie [Curry]. I think we finally have some depth there. [Bryce] Wolma is going to figure a lot more in the offense this year. Obviously you guys all know about [Brian] Casteel and Jamarye [Joiner] and Tay [Cunningham] because you’ve seen them play … I think we finally have some depth there, so I’m really excited about them.”
The offensive line was also a big issue last season due to injuries and overall depth in 2019. The offense ranked last in the conference in time of possession, which could easily be traced back to the offensive line’s inability to create a clean pocket for Tate and Gunnell.
“That’s any team in the country, right?” Mazzone said. “From junior high to the NFL. I think, obviously, we had a little bit of a depth issue and we lost a couple guys, so it was kind of musical chairs in the offensive line. Like I always say, we were playing like five pennies, not like a nickel because we’re having to move guys around so much so that it affects your offense.”
The depth is still seen as a concern within the unit, but Mazzone added that having an extra year under the player’s belts could improve the functionality of the offense.
“Like every team in the country, the offensive line in the spring is a little bit low on numbers,” he said. “But now we’re getting to the point where these guys have been around us, around this offense for a few years. They’ve been a freshman and they’ve kind of grown up in it so it’s been a fun time.”
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