“It was very frustrating,” said Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate of an ankle injury he suffered early last season. “It was definitely something different that I learned to cope with.”

Khalil Tate exited the field at Arizona Stadium and approached a group of reporters with a smile on his face and a spring in his step.

The Arizona Wildcats quarterback — who’s always a topic of conversation, and sometimes a subject of controversy — seemed to be in fine spirits. He was willing to talk about everything that happened last season — the hype, the injury, the frustration, the disappointment, the aftermath — unlike, well, during the season, when he at times brushed off questions he perceived as pointed.

Four years after enrolling at Arizona as a 17-year-old freshman, Tate seemed to embrace and understand the pending finality of it all. He has one year left to show everyone — his coaches, his teammates, UA fans, the NFL — the player he’s capable of being.

Asked Thursday why he elected to return for his senior season — instead of declaring for the NFL draft — Tate said:

“I knew I had a lot more to prove. I knew I left a lot on the table. I know what my ceiling is. I know what I can do.

“With the circumstances I was dealing with last year, I couldn’t really perform to the best of my ability and show the next level what I can do. Thankfully, I had another year to learn and refine myself in this offense.”

Those “circumstances” Tate referred to? An ankle injury that nagged him for much of the season. He conceded that it was a hindrance, mainly because he never had dealt with anything like it before. He had been sidelined by minor shoulder injuries earlier in his UA career, but those didn’t prevent Tate from running. The ankle injury, suffered in Week 2 against Houston, left Tate looking and feeling uncomfortable.

“It was very frustrating,” Tate said. “It was definitely something different that I learned to cope with.”

When he burst into the national consciousness in 2017, Tate rushed 153 times for 1,411 yards and 12 touchdowns. Last season, those numbers plummeted to 74-224-2. Adjusting to a new system and a new set of expectations had something to do with it. The injury had a lot to do with it, Tate said.

“When you’re injured, it sets you back a bit,” he said. “It’s kinda like, ‘What do I do now?’ ”

Tate kept playing. Sometimes he performed well; other times he didn’t. Finally, after a first-quarter tackle against Utah that had him hobbling, UA coach Kevin Sumlin pulled Tate. Sumlin then sat him the next week, at UCLA, giving his ankle time to heal.

Tate looked different upon returning — more like himself. Arizona scored a combined 86 points in home victories over Oregon and Colorado. Tate threw eight touchdown passes. The Wildcats were back in the bowl hunt.

Then they lost their final two games — a blowout at Washington State and a blown fourth-quarter lead against Arizona State. Tate threw a crucial interception against ASU (before almost throwing the winning touchdown pass — twice). He wasn’t happy about losing to Arizona’s rival and missing out on the postseason. Nobody was.

“We had a bad season,” senior receiver Cedric Peterson said. “He didn’t like it. He was hurt half the season. (There was) a lot of criticism on the team. We all took it to heart.

“We’ve just gotta step up to the plate now and prove everybody wrong. I know he wants to do the same.”

To that end, Tate is taking spring practice as seriously as a senior quarterback should. His goal for 2019, he said, is to “win every single game.” He then added:

“I think that comes with winning every single day. That starts in spring. I think we’re doing a great job in getting the little, minor details down. Last season we missed a lot of the minor details. That really affected us, and it showed in a big way.”

Some of Tate’s passing numbers improved last season. He threw for more yards, and he bettered his touchdown-to-interception ratio. But he also did a lot of damage by freelancing.

Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone said earlier in the week that he’d like Tate to operate more within the system so he doesn’t have to rely as much on “pizzazz plays.” Tate said he feels more comfortable in the offense in Year 2.

“For sure,” he said. “It took a year. Anytime you put a new offense in, it’s going to take time. It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s gonna take repetition. It’s going to take losses to actually grow and learn.”

Tate used those same words — “It’s going to take some time. It doesn’t happen overnight” — to describe the evolution of his relationship with Mazzone.

Mazzone said Monday that they experienced “growing pains” and that they understood each other better now. Tate bristled at the idea that the two ever were on bad terms.

“It’s been the same to me,” Tate said. “My family has told me things that they’ve seen on social media, like we aren’t getting along, things of that nature. I don’t know where that would come from.”

Tate and Mazzone didn’t appear to interact often on the sideline, and their relationship became a frequent topic on message boards. It wasn’t the Tate-related subject UA fans expected to be bantering about before the season.

Sumlin’s arrival, on the heels of Tate’s breakout season, put the talented quarterback on the short list of Heisman Trophy favorites. Tate landed on a regional cover of Sports Illustrated, which made this infamously bold declaration: “Hand him the Heisman.”

Was the hype too much to handle?

“I wouldn’t say it was too much. I would say it was new,” Tate said. “It was something I had to deal with. I didn’t know anybody that had dealt with it. It was definitely something I wasn’t familiar with. So I just kinda learned on the fly. I know a lot now.”

Tate said the events of last season made him stronger mentally. He feels good physically. He’s ready to answer Sumlin’s call for greater leadership and Mazzone’s challenge to re-earn the starting job.

“My mindset going into my last year is really just to get better every day,” Tate said. “That’s the main thing as a quarterback — getting better every day and really pushing my teammates to get better also.”

Spring-game info

The UA announced details of the April 13 spring game.

The game itself is set for 5 p.m. at Arizona Stadium. Admission is free. Parking is $5.

A pregame fan fest at Bear Down Field will begin at 2:30. Festivities will include music, prize giveaways, a food truck and activities for kids.

Seating will be general admission on the east side of the stadium. Concessions and restrooms will be open.

Sumlin and his players will participate in a one-hour autograph session after the game. Autographs are limited to one item per person.

The spring game also will be televised by Pac-12 Networks.

Extra points

  • The team conducted a closed scrimmage at Arizona Stadium. Several position groups did extra running after the scrimmage.
  • The Wildcats have the weekend off. The eighth of 15 spring practices is scheduled for Monday evening.

Contact sports reporter Michael Lev at 573-4148 or mlev@tucson.com. On Twitter @michaeljlev 

Reporter

Michael is an award-winning journalist who has been covering sports professionally since the early '90s. He started at the Star in 2015 after spending 15 years at The Orange County Register. Michael is a graduate of Northwestern University.