At one point late during Arizona’s 45-24 loss to UCLA, when the Wildcats had a dearth of players due to injuries and were down to a true freshman at quarterback, there was a moment where all UA coach Rich Rodriguez could do is throw his hands up and say, “You gotta be kidding me.”
Khalil Tate, that true freshman, was tackled near the sideline and was slow to get up. Arizona already was without the injured Anu Solomon at quarterback, and Brandon Dawkins had left this game with a rib injury. After walk-on Zach Werlinger struggled, the Wildcats decided to burn Tate’s intended redshirt for this season and insert him into the game.
Turns out, he was just fine.
“When I started going over there I saw a little smile on his face and I’m like, ‘His big butt is just tired,’” Rodriguez said. “He ain’t used to running that fast, that hard for that much, so I went over there and he kinda giggled a little bit. … He just used that as an opportunity to catch his breath.”
With all Arizona is going through now with injuries, the team collectively could use a moment to catch its breath. That won’t come for a couple weeks, though, when the Wildcats’ bye week finally arrives.
In the meantime, Rodriguez awoke Sunday morning with a lengthy injury report — “There’s about 28 guys on it, and 18 of them are starters,” Rodriguez said — and question marks all over the place for Saturday night’s game at Utah.
It’s an alarming list of key players whose status is in question for Saturday night.
Running back Nick Wilson left the UCLA game early when he aggravated an ankle injury from earlier this season.
On the offensive line, Freddie Tagaloa didn’t travel with the team and is day to day with an undisclosed injury, while both right guard Jacob Alsadek and right tackle Gerhard de Beer left the UCLA game early with undisclosed injuries.
On defense, linebacker DeAndre’ Miller (ankle) and defensive lineman Parker Zellers (knee) have both missed the last few games, with no timetable for their return.
Most alarming, though, are the injuries Arizona has at quarterback — Solomon didn’t travel, recovering from a knee injury suffered before the Grambling State game in Week 2, and Dawkins’ status is uncertain for Utah.
All of that has thrust Tate, rated a four-star recruit out Gardena Serra (Calif.) High School, into the spotlight. He acquitted himself well against the Bruins, completing 5 of 9 passes for 72 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for 79 yards on 15 attempts.
Ideally, the Wildcats would’ve liked to have redshirted Tate this season, but they prepared for the alternative — that is, Dawkins getting injured.
“You have to prepare for that ahead of time,” Rodriguez said. “What happens if Brandon gets hurt? Zach (Werlinger) is the next guy, but Khalil is a little more explosive, so you rep him. When Anu got hurt a few weeks ago, Brandon was taking all the reps with the ones, Khalil was taking an even number of reps with the twos. With that in mind, it’s like ‘OK, we’ll burn the redshirt and get him ready to play.’ We were just hoping we didn’t have to.”
Arizona might have to again on Saturday. It’s unclear if either Solomon or Dawkins will be ready for the Utes. Rodriguez said Dawkins wanted to return to the UCLA game, but he was having some trouble breathing after the hit to his ribs.
“I know that if you’re a quarterback and you’re trying to throw and run and it’s hard to breathe because your ribs are sore, it’s a tough deal,” Rodriguez said.
As for whether the offense is limited with a true freshman at quarterback, Rodriguez joked, “We run two plays, that’s it. An inside run and a pass. That’s it,” but said he was pleasantly surprised at how composed Tate was in his first career appearance.
“He was more composed in the game than he was in practice,” Rodriguez said. “That was really pleasant. Sometimes guys get their first action and the lights are too bright, and he was spot-on.”
UA receiver Trey Griffey concurred.
“Khalil did great,” Griffey said, “just being a freshman going into your first game and it happened to be in the situation that it was in, I think his composure was great, just the way he handled it. He showed a lot.”
Special teams an issue
Rodriguez was rather frank in his assessment of Arizona’s kick-return unit on Monday.
“Our kick-return unit is the worst in the country,” he said. “It’s just very frustrating … it’s bad, it’s almost as if they kick it in the end zone, (at least) we’ll be able to get it to the 25.”
He’s not far off — the Wildcats actually rank 125th out of 128 teams in average yards per kick return at 15.2. The team in last place: Utah, Arizona’s opponent on Saturday, has an average of 13.9 yards per return.
There will be some changes in that department: As Tyrell Johnson focuses on playing running back, he won’t return kicks anymore. Receiver Cam Denson was listed as Arizona’s starter at kick returner on the team’s weekly depth chart. Denson has returned four kicks for 72 yards, an average of 18 yards per return.
Elsewhere, Rodriguez wasn’t happy with the performance on kickoffs, punts or coverage against the Bruins, making field position an issue for the defense.
“When you have shorter field behind you, it’s definitely a little harder,” UA linebacker Michael Barton said. “You can’t control what special teams does, so when we’re out there we have to make the most of our opportunities no matter where our field position is at.”
- Arizona’s Oct. 15 home game against USC will be at 12:30 p.m., news that made Rodriguez happy, of course. “That’s the best news I’ve heard all day,” he said.
- Rodriguez said ideally, at his size, Johnson (listed at 5-7, 164 pounds) wouldn’t have to get 20 carries in a game, although he is happy with the progress the converted receiver made against the Bruins when he rushed 16 times for 77 yards.
- Freshman safety Isaiah Hayes started in place of Jarvis McCall at free safety against UCLA. Rodriguez said of Hayes: “He’s an aggressive guy, and we need his aggressive mentality.”
- About Arizona’s offensive line, Rodriguez said, “We didn’t grade out well (against UCLA), which is almost what you can see happening a little bit with all the inexperience playing against good guys.”