A limited hamstring injury Gunner Maldonado just a few practices in the spring, placing him lower in the depth chart than one would expect after his transfer from Northwestern.
Two games into the 2021 season, however, Maldonado has made up all the ground he lost and then some. The sophomore freshman made his first career debut in free safety in Arizona’s home loss to SDSU.
Maldonado had 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 loss.
“I definitely did better in week 1,” said Maldonado. “I have to really have good leverage, to play backwards. It was a big deal against San Diego State, I had bad leverage. Me and Coach Cecil have talked about it and I’m going to work on it.
The 6-foot, 195-pound Maldonado was a key transfer for Arizona in early January, making it on the same day his Northwestern teammate (and fellow from Chandler High School) Drake anderson announced that he was transferred to the AU.
“Once we kind of knew that we were both looking maybe somewhere else, we kind of joked that we were a forfeit,” said Maldonado. “We’ve been friends for a long time now, so we both knew what to do. “
Maldonado, a 3-star recruit in the 2020 recruiting class who was Arizona’s No.17 rookie that year, played three games for Northwestern last fall. He said he needed a “new environment” after this year at Evanston, and after speaking with Jedd Fisch and safety coach Chuck cecil the choice was easy.
“When Coach Fisch was hired I knew straight away,” he said. “I told him and Coach Cecil that I wanted to come home. It was also a great thing, to come home, to be able to play with Arizona on my jersey.
Maldonado said he didn’t watch much DU the first time around, in part because it was one of the few schools to take an interest in him as a wide receiver. He made 38 catches for 782 yards and eight touchdowns as a junior HS before focusing solely on safety as a senior.
Defensive coordinator Don brown is “happy to be on our team” now after starting his career in the Big Ten, where Brown came from in Arizona.
“He’s getting better every week, getting better with every workout,” Brown said.
Being 100% helped, although Maldonado said the injury has allowed him to improve in other ways.
“I think every time you get injured, because I mean in football you are going to get injured, it makes you appreciate being on the pitch a lot more,” he said. “But it just gave me a chance to learn more about defense, to cheer on my guys, to prepare myself mentally, to get myself back physically. There are so many different things going on for safety during the spot from when the ball broke until before I even enter the post. Reading the goalie, reading the tackle, where the running backs are lined up, I think those are little things I’m improving at.
When it comes to Arizona’s issues against SDSU, especially his own, Maldonado already knows what needs to be done.
“The most important thing is my influence,” he said. “When you come from 12, 15 yards, you have to know it’s around, what’s (the space), because if I’m on the line of scrimmage it’s much easier to tackle. There is not much room for the ball carrier.
“After just watching the movie with Coach Cecil, it’s really just my influence and my angles. I’ve left my feet up a few times where I have to keep my feet running, but for the most part it just works my ankles, playing backwards. Always keep my feet up, put my feet through, keep my leverage that sort of thing. It’s something small, it might seem small, but leverage in space is a big deal, so it’s definitely something I’m working on.