In some ways, Khalil Tate is no different than any other teenager. The Arizona Wildcats quarterback used to play the “NCAA Football” video game. He would create himself in the “Road to Glory” mode.
“That’s the closest I ever got to thinking about being the Heisman,” Tate said Wednesday.
The difference between Tate and most others is that he has a chance to win the Heisman Trophy someday — maybe even this year.
Tate remains a long shot 3½ weeks away from the Dec. 9 Heisman presentation. As things currently stand, college football’s most prized individual award is Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield’s to lose.
But things can change, and Tate is gaining ground. In ESPN’s latest Heisman Watch poll, Tate received the third-most votes behind Mayfield and Stanford running back Bryce Love. If that were to hold, Tate would become the first Wildcat to receive an invitation to New York for the Heisman ceremony.
Despite his virtual aspirations, winning the Heisman never was something Tate dreamed about. His goals for this season were as follows: “Be the best version of me. Be the best person that I can be. And on top of that, help my team be successful.”
The latter is a consistent theme for Tate, who always figured that individual accolades would accompany team success. They have gone hand in hand since he took over at quarterback Oct. 7.
Tate has led Arizona (7-3, 5-2 Pac-12) to five victories in six games. He has set records and ranks at or near the top nationally in several statistical categories — information that is readily available on a new web page the UA athletic department created that’s basically a Tate FAQ.
On Wednesday, Tate was named one of 15 players to watch for the Walter Camp Player of the Year Award. He already was a semifinalist for the Davey O’Brien and Maxwell awards. The idea of Tate being a Heisman contender is becoming a reality.
“He wasn’t even the starter at the beginning of the year. That doesn’t usually happen,” said UA coach Rich Rodriguez, whose team visits Oregon on Saturday. “It’s fun for the program. It’s fun for Khalil. We’ll make sure it doesn’t change who he is or how we do things.”
Rodriguez has been privy to this sort of meteoric rise once before. Pat White didn’t become the full-time starting quarterback at West Virginia until about halfway through his redshirt-freshman year. He would win the Big East Offensive Player of the Year award each of the next two seasons. He finished sixth and seventh, respectively, in the Heisman voting in 2007 and ’08.
“It felt similar in that it kind of came out of nowhere,” Rodriguez said. “Who is this guy?”
Of course Tate would like to win the Heisman. It’s not his top priority, though.
“That’s more materialistic. I’ve never been a materialistic person,” Tate said. “It’s a great honor, but it’s not my main goal right now. My main goal is to win the rest of the games for this season.”
Tate’s outward indifference about the Heisman belies the competitiveness that simmers within him. He cried on the field after Arizona lost at USC on Nov. 4. He equates losing to failing and compared the pain to the anguish one feels when “your dog passes away.”
“Whenever somebody loses something that they love, they’re going to cry, I would think,” Tate said. “You like losing? I don’t think anybody does.
“Whenever I lose, I take it to heart.”
Tate’s personality has won over his teammates. Many have mentioned how he talks to players on all three units — offense, defense and special teams. None seem envious of his success.
“If guys are on the ground he’s like, ‘Help pick ’em up, let’s go.’ He motivates everybody on the team,” center Nathan Eldridge said. “That pushes us. And then once he gets rolling, we’re rolling, and it’s hard to stop us.”
Several UA players have shown their support by voting for Tate in ESPN’s Nissan Heisman House contest. That means as much to Tate – perhaps even more – than getting votes from ESPN’s panel of experts.
Asked about the players backing Tate, UA quarterbacks coach Rod Smith said: “Tells you a lot about the kid, don’t it? Your team will never lie to you. They gravitate to the player. They gravitate to the person.”
- Is there any animosity between Arizona and Oregon because of the handful of UA commits who ended up in Eugene? “No, not really,” Rodriguez said. “You’re not happy that it happened. You’re particularly not happy because you see them and they’re playing for them. I guess we were recruiting the right guys.”
- Rodriguez on his relationship with Oregon coach Willie Taggart. “I don’t know him that well. I’ve met him a few times. We’ve met at the Pac-12 meetings. I think he’s done an outstanding job.”
- Linebackers coach Scott Boone said freshman Anthony Pandy has “a really high upside.” Pandy is the backup “Will” and plays stand-up defensive end in the dime. He’s still learning the intricacies of inside linebacker.
- Transfer Dereck Boles has been Arizona’s best defensive tackle. Rodriguez says Boles will be even better with an offseason in the weight program. “I expect a huge year from him next year,” Rodriguez said.
- Rodriguez on first-year coordinator Jim Leavitt and the Oregon defense: “He’s done a great job everywhere he’s been. They’re sound fundamentally. They’re athletic. They’re long. And they’re playing really hard.” The Ducks rank fourth in the Pac-12 in total defense and second in run defense.
- The Arizona offense has been working with crowd noise piped into the practice field all week. Rodriguez anticipates Autzen Stadium will be the loudest venue the Wildcats have played in this season. Arizona uses a lot of nonverbal communication anyway, but Rodriguez said “we’ve gotta have some answers” if players can’t hear Tate’s checks.
- Three pro scouts attended practice Wednesday, including one from the Baltimore Ravens.