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Why Arizona QB Grant Gunnell has the Utes’ full attention heading into season opener

The 6-foot-6, 228-pound sophomore from The Woodlands, Texas, was one of the most prolific passers in Texas state history at St. Pius X High in Houston.

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Some might consider Arizona quarterback Grant Gunnell a poor man’s Justin Herbert. At 6-foot-6 and 228 pounds, the sophomore QB from The Woodlands, Texas, is expected to be a more polished product than during his freshman campaign.

Rick Scuteri, Associated Press

For an Arizona program that finished 4-8 overall, and 2-7 in the Pac-12, a year ago, there’s optimism that sophomore quarterback Grant Gunnell can provide more consistency and more production this season. 

Not to mention more wins. 

The Wildcats visit Utah on Saturday (1:30 p.m., ESPN2) at Rice-Eccles Stadium in the conference opener, and the season opener, for both teams.

In 2019, the Utes throttled Arizona in Tucson, 35-7, when Gunnell was a freshman. As the starter, he completed just 8 of 16 passes for 96 yards and scored the first rushing touchdown of his career.

The 6-foot-6, 228-pound sophomore from The Woodlands, Texas, was one of the most prolific passers in Texas state history after throwing for 16,108 yards and 195 touchdowns — both state records — at St. Pius X High in Houston. He also rushed for 1,631 yards and 53 more TDs. 

Gunnell became Arizona’s starter late in the 2019 season and experienced some growing pains. But he’s expected to be more polished this year after helping lead his team during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“When adverse situations arise, I think they reveal some people’s true character,” Arizona coach Kevin Sumlin said of Gunnell. “And how you handle those situations, even if you don’t have the experience in it, becomes important and leadership becomes important. So I think he stepped forward and has really done some things to grow and to help grow our team together during this offseason during a difficult time.”

Ute coach Kyle Whittingham said Gunnell has attributes similar to former Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert, who now starts for the Los Angeles Chargers. 

“We saw a lot of (Gunnell) last year. He was just a young guy last year, brand new to the program. He’s a year more experienced,” Whittingham said. “He’s a good thrower, he’s a very capable runner. He’s kind of like what you saw out of Herbert when he was a freshman. There are similarities there in size and style of play. I’m not saying he’s the next Herbert, but that type of quarterback  ... He’s a very good player and I think he has a bright future there.”

In all, Gunnell played eight games in 2019, including three starts. He finished the season having completed 101 of 155 passes for 1,239 yards. Gunnell threw nine touchdowns and just one interception. 

Unfortunately for the Wildcats, they will be without two of their top playmakers Saturday — wide receiver Jaden Mitchell and running back Frank Brown Jr. are both sidelined with knee injuries. 

Gunnell will be facing a revamped Utah defense that had to replace nine starters from last year’s Pac-12 South championship team. 

Ute tight end Brant Kuithe said the young defense will acquit themselves well despite their lack of experience.

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Arizona coach Kevin Sumlin encourages his team’s defense during game against Arizona State on Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019, in Tempe, Ariz. Sumlin has been impressed with Grant Gunnell’s leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Darryl Webb, Associated Press

“A lot of guys are young, like (safety) Nate Ritchie, a lot of those guys they are coming along. When you are a freshman, you don’t really know defensive schemes,”  Kuithe said. “It is a lot different playing in college compared to high school. So, there is a lot of adaptability going on early, but I think they are doing well. I think the first game is going to be a good test to see where we are at.”

Arizona is certainly looking forward to kicking off the season. 

“We’re excited to play,” said Sumlin, who is entering his third season at the helm. “No matter what, where, when … these guys want to play football. These guys have watched other players play for like the last four or five weeks, their friends. Don’t discount this. They can’t wait to play this weekend.”

Arizona was picked to finish last in the Pac-12 South in the media’s preseason poll.

Utah has won four straight games against the Wildcats, and have defeated Arizona by a combined score of 77-17 the past two seasons. 

Meanwhile, Utah has won 13 consecutive season openers, dating back to 2008. This is the first time as a member of the Pac-12 that Utah has kicked off a campaign against a Pac-12 opponent. 

Season openers are usually unpredictable, especially in a conference foe. Then throw on top of that a delayed season and a truncated schedule played during a global pandemic — well, that can make things even more unpredictable. 

“We’ve got to be ready for anything offensively or for anything across the board for that matter. It’s an opener. Anytime you’re playing an opener, there’s a lot of unknowns,” Whittingham said. “You’d better have a pretty generic and broad spectrum game plan that can handle pretty much anything you see because teams can change a bunch over the course of a year. We’ve got to be ready for different personnel groups and things we haven’t seen. That’s going to be a challenge like it is for everybody in the country in their opener. It’s a guessing game.”