‘I love it’: UA All-American-turned-coach Ricky Hunley has rediscovered his happy place

Quarterbacks Will Plummer, left, and Gunner Cruz work on drop backs during drills for the University of Arizona spring season, Tucson, Ariz., March 27, 2021.

It’s been a long journey for Ricky Hunley, but at least he has a short walk.

Back in his Arizona playing days in the 1980s, Hunley and his teammates had to make their way from McKale Center to practice fields that were on the other side of Sixth Street.

“Where the Rec Center is,” Hunley recalled Saturday. “We had to walk up the ramp with our cleats. Across the street with our cleats.

“You could see the clock on the building downtown. They had the time and the temperature. It was 2:14 in the afternoon, and it was 114 degrees. Welcome to Tucson.”

It’s still blazing hot here, but so much else has changed. The Wildcats have modern, conveniently located practice facilities. They can make it from the Lowell-Stevens Football Facility to the Dick Tomey Practice Fields in about a minute.

“This is definitely an improvement,” said Hunley, who’s in his first season as Arizona’s defensive line coach. “It’s perfect.”

The stars aligned for Hunley to make his long-awaited return to Tucson. Jedd Fisch became the UA’s coach in December, and the two had a relationship that went back 20 years, when both were on staff at Florida.

UA leadership wanted Fisch’s staff to have connections to Arizona’s past. Hunley was an ideal fit, even though he hadn’t coached in college since 2015.

Now he’s imparting his wisdom on a new generation of Wildcats who are eager to soak it all up.

“He’s just got a story for everything,” defensive tackle Aaron Blackwell said. “He’s been everywhere. He’s done everything. He’s just a boatload of knowledge.”

Hunley remembered spring practice under Larry Smith as demanding and physical but ultimately rewarding.

“Learning to be accountable not just to yourself but to your teammates,” Hunley said. “Spring ball is fun, but it’s not fun. If you love football, if you love to hit, that part of it’s fun. All the conditioning and the other stuff, it’s necessary, but it’s not necessarily fun.”

Defensive end Jason Harris said it’s easy for the players to relate to Hunley because he has experienced what they’re going through now. They get a reminder every time they enter the Davis Sports Center, where Hunley’s image hangs from the rafters.

“I remember one day I came here,” tight end Bryce Wolma said. “Coach Hunley was like, ‘Are you up there?’ He pointed right there. I was like, ‘No, I’m not.’ He’s like, ‘You need to be trying to get up there.’ So it’s motivation seeing him up there. He knows what he’s talking about. He’s done it at the highest level.”

Hunley doesn’t take for granted the chance he has been afforded. He has an opportunity to give back to the school where his football career began over 40 years ago.

“I love it,” he said. “I love being on the grass. I love being around the guys. That’s kind of like an extension of yourself. You wish you could be here. You live your life through them now. I enjoy it. I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.”

Plummer’s progression

When Arizona got the ball against UCLA last season, Will Plummer was standing on the sideline, charting plays. He hadn’t taken a single first-team practice rep as a Wildcat.

Then, on the first play from scrimmage, starting quarterback Grant Gunnell got hurt. He suffered a sprained shoulder that forced him out of the game.

“It happened pretty quick,” Plummer said. “So I grabbed my helmet and I was in. I’ll never forget that moment.”

Plummer, an 18-year-old true freshman, played the rest of the game. He accounted for 200 yards of offense in a 27-10 loss to the Bruins.

“It was definitely surreal,” Plummer said. “You try not to get caught up in the moment … but you’re standing there and you’re in the Rose Bowl, big stadium around you, and it’s Division I football. It’s every kid’s dream, so I just tried to take advantage of the opportunity.”

Plummer faces a new challenge this spring. He’s competing for the starting QB job in a new and entirely different offense.

After two strong days, Plummer struggled at times Saturday. Christian Roland-Wallace intercepted him during 7-on-7 play, and Jaxen Turner did the same during 11-on-11.

“Today’s practice wasn’t great for me,” Plummer said. “I’ll have to go back, look at the film and see what reads I missed.”

Secondary consideration

There are two sides to every play during practice. If the offense wins on a given play, the defense loses. And vice versa.

Fisch, who’s in charge of the offense, tries his best to look at the big picture.

“The secondary seems to be making a lot of plays, which, depending on what hat I’m wearing at the time, is either a good thing or not a good thing,” Fisch said. “The next day, it’s a good thing. During practice, it’s a little bit tougher to deal with.”

The secondary won a lot Saturday. Besides the picks by Roland-Wallace and Turner, safety Jaydin Young had several pass breakups. He also appeared to force and recover a fumble, but the play was whistled dead.

Additionally, newcomer Isaiah Rutherford has had a strong start to spring camp after transferring from Notre Dame.

Extra points

  • Blackwell is sidelined for spring practice after having surgery for a partially torn biceps suffered last season. He expects to be fully cleared by early May.
  • Linebacker Anthony Pandy was a full participant after being limited to rehab work the first two days. Pandy lined up with the first-team defense.
  • Safety Christian Young was among the players who did not participate. Tailback Bam Smith was mostly limited to side work but did participate in individual drills.
  • After Rourke Freeburg took the ball away from Wolma for a turnover, Fisch made the entire offense ran a lap around the field.
  • Hunley said Nahe Sulunga and Kyon Barrs were among the defensive linemen who stood out Saturday.
  • Kickers Lucas Havrisik and Tyler Loop each made field goals in the 40-yard range with plenty of room to spare.
  • Fisch left the field a little after 1 p.m. to catch a private plane to San Antonio to watch the Arizona women’s basketball team play in the NCAA Tournament. Fisch’s travel companions were UA donors Cole and Jeannie Davis. Athletic director Dave Heeke traveled to San Antonio earlier Saturday on a commercial flight.
  • More than 100 guests attended Saturday’s workout. The Wildcats have two days off before returning to practice Tuesday afternoon.
  • Blackwell on last year’s season-ending, 70-7 loss to Arizona State: “It was just the icing on the cake … for what that year was. You just have to throw all that out and reset your mind because 2020, from start to finish, was just a turd.”