Arizona's Sudden Star QB: Khalil Tate Runs Like Vick, Throws Like...Grandma?

Tully Corcoran@@tullycorcoranSpecial to Bleacher ReportOctober 13, 2017


When Arizona sophomore quarterback Khalil Tate woke up Sunday morning, he had a few new things to deal with. His name was in the FBS record books, the media requests had begun rolling in and, worst of all, his teammates were plotting to call attention to something they hoped the relentlessly humble Tate would be awkward about.     

"We started calling him a superstar," wide receiver Cedric Peterson says. "But it doesn't faze him."

No, from what we've seen so far, it fits him. Coming off the bench in the first quarter Saturday after starting quarterback Brandon Dawkins left with a minor injury, Tate ran for 327 yards and four touchdowns on just 14 carries in a thrilling 45-42 win at Colorado, also completing 12 of 13 passes for 153 yards and one touchdown. The rushing yards set a new FBS record for a quarterback and had his own coach, Rich Rodriguez, scratching his head.

"We knew he could run a little bit," Rodriguez says. "But he was even faster than we thought."

How fast is he? Turns out he's not quite sure. Tate says that he thinks he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds the last time he was clocked, but that he doesn't keep close track of things like that. He doesn't spend much time on Twitter, either. Tate doesn't care much for hype in general.

"He just sits back and kinda laughs at it," Peterson says.

Lets the stats do the talking. But was there any indication at all that they'd be this loud when they did?

At Junipero Serra High School in Gardena, California, the 6'2", 215-pound Tate was a 4-star recruit listed by 247Sports as an athlete. As a senior in 2016, he had scholarship offers from USC, Texas A&M and Florida State, but he had committed to Arizona in 2015 and stuck with the commitment, excited for a chance to compete for snaps at quarterback right away.

Everybody at Arizona knew Tate was talented, but rarely in practice had he made it look as easy as he did against Colorado. The plan was for him to redshirt as a freshman, but he had to burn the redshirt year because of injuries, running for 79 yards and throwing for another 72 in relief duty at UCLA last October in his first of seven appearances.

PASADENA, CA - OCTOBER 01:  Khalil Tate #14 of the Arizona Wildcat back to pass against the UCLA Bruins at Rose Bowl on October 1, 2016 in Pasadena, California.  (Photo by Leon Bennett/Getty Images)
Leon Bennett/Getty Images

Rodriguez says he looked more composed in that game than he ever had in practice. Peterson agrees.

"In practice, he's more serious, he's more in tune," Peterson says. "Come game time—he's been so hard on himself at practice—game time is time to go out there and have fun, don't think too much, don't think about the mistakes he could possibly make. It makes everything so much easier for him in the game."

Still, Tate was content to come into this season competing for playing time.

"I wasn't really thinking about it," he says. "Whatever happens, happens."

He lost the QB competition to Dawkins in camp, and he had only attempted nine passes this season coming into Saturday. With every reason to have jitters, he showed his relaxed in-game demeanor immediately with two first-quarter rushing touchdowns, and from there he sure looked like he was having fun.

Despite all the attention the National Player of the Week has received since Saturday, he does not appear to be reveling in the spotlight.

He says he has work to do as a passer. And while his running ability has college football fans thinking about guys like Lamar Jackson, Tate's own quarterback hero was Donovan McNabb, a mobile guy who was nonetheless better known for his accuracy and arm strength.

Tate started playing football with older kids when he was four years old. When he was in high school, there were questions about how well he'd fit into a typical spread offense, which places so much emphasis on passing efficiency. As a high schooler, Tate was described as having faulty footwork in the pocket, and eager to leave it, so Arizona made for an interesting fit—because of what Rodriguez had accomplished with another run-first quarterback in Pat White at West Virginia.

"We saw a kid who was obviously extremely athletic—he was kind of a man-child out there," Arizona quarterbacks coach Rod Smith says. "He's a big, strong kid, and he was still young, but his athleticism was off the charts."

TUCSON, AZ - SEPTEMBER 02:  Quarterback Khalil Tate #14 of the Arizona Wildcats warms up before the college football game against the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks at Arizona Stadium on September 2, 2017 in Tucson, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Ge
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

In the recruiting period, there was talk of Tate being moved to other positions, and Smith says he thinks a big part of the reason Arizona won his commitment is that the Wildcats saw him as a quarterback all along.

But Tate's style is even more run-oriented than White's was. Tate seeks out contact like a running back, and given that his height has been listed as low as 5'11" in some places, he has the build of one, too.

"Not many quarterbacks can run through linebackers and defensive backs like he can," Peterson says. "He's setting his own type of standard for a different type of quarterback."

Broadly speaking, this characterization—great runner, questionable passing mechanics—is the same as was applied to Tim Tebow and Vince Young, among others. Those are lofty comparisons, especially for a guy who hasn't even been named Arizona's starter yet. But they show there is a path to college football stardom with this skill set. And besides, Tate went 12-of-13.

You can credit his grandmother, Oma, for that. She's the one who taught him to throw a football, and it's his effortless throwing that made Rodriguez and his staff so sure Tate was a quarterback.

"He wasn't the most polished guy in high school throwing the football, but, man, he could naturally let it spin," Smith says. "You could just see the ball coming out of his hands. Now it would just be a matter of giving him some fundamentals. … He can make any throw there is."

TUCSON, AZ - OCTOBER 15: Quarterback Khalil Tate #14 of the Arizona Wildcats warms up prior to the college football game against the USC Trojans at Arizona Stadium on October 15, 2016 in Tucson, Arizona. (Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)
Chris Coduto/Getty Images

Dawkins has completed 62.3 percent of his passes with five touchdowns and three interceptions this season. If Tate can do at least that well through the air, he could be a major blessing for Rodriguez. Many around Pac-12 country speculated this summer about the heat under Rodriguez's seat as he entered his sixth season in Tucson. After winning at least seven games in each of his first four seasons—including a Fiesta Bowl appearance in 2014—the Wildcats went 3-9 in 2016 and were 2-2 when Tate took the field in Boulder.

What Khalil Tate has to say about all this is that it was a great team effort, and the receivers did a great job of blocking downfield, and he's just going to do whatever he can to win.

"It's pretty great," he says. "As long as my team is winning games, that's all I care about."

Good luck pulling off that act around Peterson, though.

"He kinda has that Mike Vick to him," Peterson says.


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