It’s the question every Arizona Wildcats fan has been wondering about since Khalil Tate became one of the most prolific, exciting players in college football:
If he’s this good, why wasn’t he the starting quarterback in Week 1?
The answer, as with most things, is more complicated than people want to believe.
But first, back to the question. UA coach Rich Rodriguez seemed to know it was coming at his weekly news conference Monday. It was the first one out of the blocks. Rodriguez was ready for it.
“A guy plays really good,” he said, “and you open yourself up: ‘Where the heck has he been? Why hasn’t he been starting?’ I understand the question.”
Rodriguez then explained the state of Tate back in training camp. The 18-year-old sophomore was “a young guy still learning,” Rodriguez said. Meanwhile, redshirt junior Brandon Dawkins outperformed him in camp. Dawkins also had nine starts on his résumé. So Rodriguez went with the veteran.
Dawkins started the opener against Northern Arizona and played well in an easy 62-24 UA victory. Tate entered the game in the second half and suffered a sprained AC joint in his throwing shoulder. He wasn’t able to practice fully until the week leading into the Oct. 7 game at Colorado.
Tate never appeared on the injury report. He also played in the fourth quarter of the Week 2 game against Houston, when Dawkins got banged up. But Tate clearly wasn’t 100 percent.
Houston generally contained Dawkins in a 19-16 loss. The following week, at UTEP, Dawkins had the best statistical performance of his career. He completed 18 of 21 passes, rushed for 133 yards and accounted for six touchdowns in a 63-16 win.
Rodriguez undoubtedly would have played Tate in the second half of the UTEP game had he been healthy. And Rodriguez might have gone to Tate when Dawkins struggled against Utah the following week. But Tate couldn’t throw the ball with any authority, so that option was off the table.
Heading into the Colorado game two weeks later, Rodriguez told Tate that he might get an opportunity. Rodriguez wasn’t sure when, but Tate needed to be ready.
When Dawkins got hurt on the opening drive, Rodriguez finally turned to Tate.
“When he got his opportunity, he made the most of it,” said Rodriguez, whose team visits Cal on Saturday. “He is actually playing better than we anticipated that he would, particularly running-wise.
“He’s still learning. We’re not going to expect 200 yards or 300 yards rushing every week, but I love the way his mindset is right now and how he is taking charge of his opportunity.”
Tate set the FBS record for rushing for a quarterback with 327 yards against Colorado.
He followed that up with 230 yards against UCLA on Saturday. Arizona won both games, and Tate was named Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week for both performances. He became the first Wildcat to be so honored twice in the same season since Ka’Deem Carey in 2013 and the first to do it in back-to-back weeks since Tom Tunnicliffe in 1982.
“I’m proud of him,” Rodriguez said. “He’s been wanting a shot, and he had to earn it.”
Rodriguez has said several times that Tate’s in-game speed has surprised him. It isn’t necessarily something that can be seen in practice. Coaches usually blow the whistle soon after quarterbacks take off so another play can be run.
They also typically aren’t subject to live tackling.
Additionally, Tate’s improvisational skills don’t necessarily show up on the practice field. Rodriguez said Tate’s 71-yard touchdown run against UCLA — during which he bobbled the ball and eluded a defender in the backfield — was a “broken play.”
Rodriguez indicated that Tate is capable of running more of the offense than a year ago — but that there’s still more to come. Regardless of how much he can handle, Tate is playing without hesitation.
“We put a lot on our quarterbacks, decision-wise,” Rodriguez said. “Whether he makes the right decision or not, he’s been decisive either way. He’s not sitting there, freezing, he’s trying to make something happen.”
Rodriguez still has faith in Dawkins, who officially dropped to No. 2 on the depth chart released Monday. Dawkins cheerfully supported his teammates, including Tate, on the UA sideline Saturday.
“I thought he was terrific in how he handled everything last week,” Rodriguez said. “I told him I still feel we’ve got two starting quarterbacks.”
Pima’s Woods commits
Haki Woods, a three-star defensive back from Pima College, announced his commitment to Arizona on Monday. Woods is listed as a cornerback by the Aztecs. But at 6-foot-3 he could project to “Spur” safety. Another JC transfer, Dane Cruikshank, moved from corner to that spot this season. Woods has 32 tackles, four pass breakups and two blocked kicks in six games for Pima.
- Rodriguez said he liked the way the team responded to the UCLA victory in Sunday night’s walk-through practice. His message to the players: “The more you win, the more is at stake.”
- Rodriguez said the Wildcats slowed the tempo against the Bruins to give their defense “a little bit of a break.” Arizona ran only two more plays than UCLA but possessed the ball for eight more minutes.
- Defensive tackle Luca Bruno‘s status is uncertain for the Cal game. He sat out last week because of a concussion. “We’ll see where Luca’s at in the next few days,” Rodriguez said.
- Rodriguez was pleased with Kwesi Mashack‘s ability to fill in at free safety after Mashack spent “half the week” on the scout team. Rodriguez declined to update the injury status of starter Scottie Young Jr. Rodriguez did say that Arizona could shuffle some personnel in its secondary.
- Arizona’s homecoming game against Washington State on Oct. 28 will kick off at 6:30 p.m. and will be televised by Pac-12 Networks.