Key returnees: Kevin Doyle (6-3, 210, RS FR), Jamarye Joiner (6-1, 210, RS FR), Rhett Rodriguez (6-0, 201, JR), Khalil Tate (6-2, 215, SR)
Key newcomers: Grant Gunnell* (6-6, 228, FR)
The big question: What can Tate do to take his game to a higher level?
If Tate had the season he had last year without having had the season he had the year before, hardly anyone would have complained.
Tate threw 26 touchdown passes and only eight interceptions. In 2017, he threw 14 TD passes and nine INTs.
Tate threw for almost 1,000 more yards in the same number of appearances. His efficiency rating of 149.8 ranked second in the Pac-12, ahead of Gardner Minshew, Jake Browning, Justin Herbert and Manny Wilkins.
Yet by any objective measure, Tate’s 2018 campaign has to be considered a disappointment.
Tate entered the season on the short list of Heisman Trophy contenders, quickly fell off it and never resurfaced. He hurt his ankle in the second week of the season and wasn’t quite right until late October. His rushing numbers plummeted from 1,411/9.2/12 to 224/3.0/2.
Whether we ever see the 2017 version of Tate again remains to be seen. Opponents began to limit his perimeter opportunities late that season and continued to do so last year. Tate also seemed less inclined to run, preferring to develop his skills as a passer and move the ball downfield that way.
Which is fine. But Tate can improve significantly in how he goes about doing that.
A lot of Tate’s success last season came on plays where he improvised. If he didn’t find something on his initial read, he’d buy time and use his athleticism and arm strength to chuck the ball downfield. He’s incredibly good at it, and it led to a plethora of big plays.
But it’s not exactly an efficient form of offense, as evidenced by Tate’s completion percentage dropping from 62.0 to 56.3. Those types of plays are a perfectly acceptable Plan B; they shouldn’t be Plan A. So if you’re going to start anywhere with a Tate improvement plan, it’s becoming better at operating the offense as it’s designed.
Not doing so might have been the source of the rumored friction between Tate and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone — a frequent message-board topic that never has been verified on the record by either party or UA coach Kevin Sumlin. Interestingly, when asked recently what he wanted to see from Tate this spring, Sumlin mentioned film study and leadership. Those are undoubtedly areas where Tate — like most young quarterbacks — has room for growth.
Asked whether there would be a legitimate QB competition this spring — which was not the case last year — Sumlin referred to Tate as a returning starter. But Sumlin quickly added that on a 5-7 team, “everything’s open.”
It would benefit the team — and Tate — if one or more of the younger quarterbacks pushed him. Tate didn’t seem to have the same hunger last year as in 2017, when he was still trying to establish himself. If he felt that his job was in jeopardy, it might fuel him to work that much harder on his deficiencies. That would be the preferred outcome, anyway.
There’s no clear-cut No. 2 entering spring camp. Joiner’s skill set most resembles Tate’s. Gunnell is as studious and sharp a freshman as you’ll find, but he might not be quite ready physically for Division I ball. Doyle might have the best combination of athleticism and acumen. All are unproven.
Rodriguez returns as a short-term safety net. Sumlin and Mazzone likely would go with one of the younger quarterbacks if Tate suffered a long-term injury — or if he decides to hit the ejection button in late summer and leave as a grad transfer (not a likelihood … but not an impossibility either).
The best-case scenario? Tate fully embraces the responsibilities inherent in his senior-QB status, holds off the competition and becomes the player he’s capable of being.