LOS ANGELES — Rich Rodriguez recently was relaxing at his vacation home at Lake Oconee, Georgia, when son Rhett called him. Rhett, an incoming freshman quarterback for the Arizona Wildcats, was sitting in the film room in Tucson with teammate Donavan Tate.
The two had questions for RichRod about the plays they were studying. Rodriguez could hear Tate yelling in the background: “What about this? What about that?”
“He’s as inquisitive a guy … as I’ve ever seen,” Rodriguez said Wednesday at Pac-12 media days here. “He wants to know anything and everything.
“They were legitimate, good questions. It was kinda neat.”
Tate’s curiosity only confirmed what Rodriguez had gleaned in his brief interactions with one of Arizona’s most intriguing newcomers — that Tate is serious about making a real run at the starting quarterback job.
It’s still premature to call Tate a legitimate candidate. The former first-round pick in the MLB draft hasn’t played competitive football since fall 2008. Incumbent Brandon Dawkins is entering his fourth year in Rodriguez’s system, sophomore Khalil Tate his second.
But Donavan Tate, who will turn 27 in September, has made a strong first impression on his new coaches and teammates.
“Donavan’s got three kids and a wife. He’s not going to be doing anything that he shouldn’t be doing. He’s so focused,” UA senior guard Jacob Alsadek said. “He’s played (minor-league) ball. He understands what it takes. He’s willing to make those sacrifices.
“He was wanting to watch film with me and talking to me about plays. You could just tell that he wants to do well, and that’s important.
“I just think (he wants to) prove himself because of what happened.”
The San Diego Padres selected Tate with the third pick in the 2009 draft. He never made it past high A-ball, struggling with injuries and off-the-field issues, including drug addiction.
Rodriguez remembered recruiting Tate — a star quarterback from Cartersville, Georgia — while coaching at Michigan.
“I knew he went baseball,” Rodriguez said. “Then I lost track of him.”
Flash forward to this spring. Mike DiAngelo, one of Arizona’s football analysts, received a call from a friend, alerting him that Tate wanted to play football again. The Padres would pay his college expenses.
Tate paid his own way to take an official visit to Arizona’s campus. He met with Rodriguez and told him: “I’m committed to doing this. Will you give me a shot?”
Rodriguez understandably had concerns about Tate’s background.
“We dug into what the real issues were,” Rodriguez said. “Then you kind of say, ‘Where is he at now?’ He’s married, three kids. You can just sense he’s a grown man who wants an opportunity.
“You could tell the maturity part of it, and you could tell he was really hungry and he wanted to do this. I thought it was all positive.”
Rodriguez said Tate and Rhett Rodriguez — who’s “19 going on 39,” according to his father — have brought an element of maturity to Arizona’s quarterback room. Although he’s an upperclassman now, Dawkins still has only one year of starting experience. Khalil Tate is just 18 years old.
Questions remain about whether Donavan Tate can rediscover his on-field form as a football player and whether Rodriguez can get him enough practice reps to make that determination.
Rodriguez hasn’t had a chance to work with the new quarterback yet — coaches’ offseason interactions with players are limited by NCAA rules — but the coach expects his newest quarterback to at least compete with Dawkins and Khalil Tate.
“From a physical standpoint and a maturity standpoint, he’s not a typical freshman,” Rodriguez said. “From a football/practice/reps standpoint, he is.
“He speaks like the coaches speak, but he still hasn’t taken Division I reps, or any reps for that matter, since 2000-and-whatever-it-was. But there’s more of an urgency from him and from us as far as getting him ready and getting him a chance.”
Rodriguez acknowledged that finding enough quality practice time for five quarterbacks — the aforementioned four, plus incoming freshman K’Hari Lane — won’t be easy.
“But I’d rather have too many than not enough,” Rodriguez said. “I didn’t have enough last year. I’m not going to have that problem again.”
Injuries to Dawkins and Anu Solomon forced Khalil Tate to play before he was ready. Walk-on Zach Werlinger played at one point, as did converted tight end Matt Morin.
Inconsistent, inefficient quarterback play was one of the contributing factors to Arizona’s 3-9 record last season. The way Rodriguez sees it, even if he doesn’t overtake Dawkins and Khalil Tate, Donavan Tate’s presence will push them to be better.
“I know the competition will give everybody a sense of urgency,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t see anything wrong with that.”