Will Plummer always has been an underdog of sorts.
He wasn’t just Jack Plummer’s younger brother — Will literally was Jack’s little brother. Jack, the starting quarterback at Purdue, has classic QB size at 6 feet 5 inches. Will, who’s starting for Arizona on Saturday night, checks in at 6-1.
When the new Wildcats coaching staff assembled its quarterback room, Plummer wasn’t the betting favorite to win the job. He was No. 2 — at best.
Yet here he is, having endured a pandemic and a coaching change, set to make his second career start. The NAU game represents a massive opportunity for Plummer, a second-year freshman from Gilbert: He can seize the quarterback job and make it his.
Plummer also knows that if he falters, it can be taken away just like that. Gunner Cruz passed for 336 yards in the season opener. Two weeks later, he’s running third behind Plummer and Jordan McCloud.
“He’s playing for his job,” said Plummer’s longtime private coach, Mike Giovando, who has been working with the Plummer brothers since they were in middle school. “But that’s OK. You see what people are made of.
“I don’t think anything should be easy. His brother has had to prove himself numerous times at Purdue.”
Jack Plummer is in his fourth year in West Lafayette. This year marked the first time he entered a season as the starter. He has passed for 558 yards and six touchdowns for the 2-0 Boilermakers, who visit No. 12 Notre Dame on Saturday.
Aside from an elite few, the path to a starting QB job is seldom quick or linear. Will Plummer has been on the UA campus for less than two years. He already has been through a lot.
‘Weird’ freshman year
After accumulating almost 8,000 yards of offense and accounting for 71 touchdowns at Gilbert High School — as well as playing on defense and special teams at times — Plummer enrolled at Arizona in January 2020.
Enrolling early has become a popular move for quarterbacks, who can participate in spring practice and get a jump on learning the playbook. Plummer was unlikely to dethrone anointed starter Grant Gunnell. But Plummer at least could get valuable practice reps.
You know what happened next. The pandemic shut down college sports in March. Plummer and the Wildcats were supposed to practice 15 times. They got in four before being sent home.
So began what Giovando described as a “weird offseason,” which is probably a vast understatement. No one knew for sure whether the Pac-12 would play football. Physical distancing and other mitigation measures were implemented to enable athletes to train.
The season itself was a fiasco. Arizona played only five of seven scheduled games.
It was amid this backdrop that Plummer made his college debut. On the first snap of the Wildcats’ third game, at UCLA, Gunnell got crunched by a blitzing linebacker. He suffered a sprained shoulder. Ready or not, Plummer would have to play the rest of the way.
Watching on TV from his home in the Phoenix area, Giovando thought: “Here’s your chance.” However, given the circumstances, “I didn’t think it was make-or-break,” Giovando said.
Plummer performed admirably, accounting for 200 total yards. He also threw two interceptions in a 27-10 setback.
Giovando was most impressed with Plummer’s poise. Not that the QB coach was surprised by it.
“I don’t think he gets rattled very much,” Giovando said. “I don’t think that’s in his DNA.”
Plummer started the following week against Colorado and made a relief appearance against Arizona State. The next day, Arizona fired Kevin Sumlin. So began the next set of challenges for Plummer.
‘Knowledge is power’
Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone had been Plummer’s primary recruiter. No matter who the next coach was, there was no chance Mazzone would be retained.
Gunnell transferred. So did Rhett Rodriguez. High school recruit Clay Millen — whose older brother, Cale, is a backup quarterback for NAU — decommitted.
Although Plummer decided to stick it out — “It’s been my dream since I was a little kid to play quarterback at a Power Five school,” he said — Jedd Fisch and his staff had to restock the QB cupboard. They added Cruz via the transfer portal, then McCloud.
To their credit, the new coaches gave Plummer a fair chance to win the job. But it’s always a little harder to win over a staff that didn’t recruit you. Giovando advised Plummer accordingly.
“You’re really not their guy. You were recruited by the other staff. You’re really going to have to shine,” Giovando told his pupil. “You gotta keep working your butt off every day. Just keep competing. And when you get your opportunities in practice, nothing but positive reps.”
Plummer struggled at first to adjust from the spread offense he had played in his entire life to Fisch’s pro-style scheme. Despite not arriving on campus until March, Cruz gained the early lead on his competitor.
But Plummer persevered and closed the gap. He never got frustrated, Giovando said, and never stopped believing in himself. Plummer’s play improved as he became more familiar with the playbook and the under-center footwork and timing that are required to run Fisch’s system.
“Knowledge is power,” Fisch said. “The more he became comfortable with what we were trying to accomplish, the more he felt more comfortable under center, the more he felt that he could see a defense and have more familiarity with the play-calling, he became more and more comfortable with executing the plays.”
It has gotten to the point where Plummer is able to accomplish the equivalent of finishing Fisch’s sentences — completing a play call when given only the formation and motion.
Still, the battle was close enough that Fisch couldn’t make a call between Cruz and Plummer entering Week 1. Fisch decided to play both quarterbacks against BYU, although Cruz got the majority of the work; Plummer played only one series.
Cruz struggled the following week against San Diego State, producing only one score in 11 possessions. Fisch turned to Plummer, who provided a spark with his scrappy play.
Not only did Plummer operate the offense with better timing, he displayed a willingness to sacrifice his body for the team — an illustration of that underdog mindset. On a running play that was called back because of a penalty, Plummer sprinted into the action as a blocker. On fourth-and-goal from the 20, he tried to run into the end zone, lowering his shoulders as an SDSU defender crashed into him.
“He’s going to play with a chip on his shoulder,” Giovando said. “Some people have maybe doubted that he’s as good as I think he is, or he thinks he is. I think that works to his advantage.”
Contact sports reporter Michael Lev at 573-4148 or email@example.com. On Twitter @michaeljlev