Arizona offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone has a last second talk with quarterback Khalil Tate (14) before he heads out to the field against Southern Utah in the third quarter of their game at Arizona Stadium, Saturday September 15, 2018, Tucson, Ariz.

Why didn’t Khalil Tate run the ball more?

That question has been nagging Arizona Wildcats fans since the first week of the 2018 season. After rushing for more than 1,400 yards during a breakout sophomore campaign, Tate seemed to change his game. Or the coaching staff urged him to. Either way, UA followers and college-football pundits were perplexed.

The man with the answers addressed that issue and several others regarding Tate on Monday. Noel Mazzone, Arizona’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, spoke to the media for the first time since August of last year.

Mazzone analyzed Tate’s performance, assessed his progress and explained how their relationship has evolved. Mazzone also offered thoughts on the Wildcats’ other scholarship quarterbacks: Kevin Doyle, Grant Gunnell, Jamarye Joiner and Rhett Rodriguez.

Here’s a portion of that conversation. It has been lightly edited for context and clarity.

What are you working on with Khalil?

A: “I think just kind of playing in the system a little bit more. Once he feels more comfortable with that, then he can give us the pizzazz plays, more than having us rely on it every play. He’s done a nice job. He’s learning to be a quarterback. He’s learning to understand defenses, understand progressions.”

How would you assess the season he had last year?

A: “Up and down, kind of like our whole football team. Obviously, he flashes and shows what his skill set is. It was a whole new offense for him. He was a new player for me. We kind of went through our growing pains. I kind of understand him a little bit more, and he understands me a little bit more, what we’re both expecting out of each other.”

Fans would ask us in the media all the time: Why isn’t Khalil running more? What’s your take on that?

A: “He had the (ankle) injury in the second game at Houston. That nagged on him for a long time. And just to be honest with you, we were asking him to develop his dropback game. He was going through some learning curve on that part of it. I’m really happy with how he’s come (into) this spring and really has a better understanding of a lot of this.”

What will it take to get to a satisfying middle ground as far as operating the offense and freelancing?

A: “When he starts to just play to his strengths, which is his athletic ability, and understands how the pieces all fit in the offense, I think he can do both things very well.”

There was a lot of hype around Khalil entering last season. Do you think that was detrimental for him?

A: “You guys see those Heisman things. They start off with five. Two weeks later, it’s five different guys. I don’t really concern myself with that. Does it maybe put a little added pressure on the player? I would imagine it would. I’m not sure about Khalil. I think if he just goes out and is Khalil, and not try to be somebody he’s not, he’s fine.”

From a leadership perspective, how would you evaluate Khalil?

A: “That’s still a learning curve for him. I don’t really know his history that much, except he kind of flashed two years ago. (Brandon) Dawkins was the guy, and he gets all this thrust on him in a matter of four weeks. He’s trying hard on that part, the mental part, of being a good leader for us and being a good example for everybody.”

In your offense, does the quarterback have to be the leader?

A: “That would be ideal. Does he have to be a rah-rah guy, jumping up and down? No. He doesn’t have to be that guy. But I think leadership comes in a lot of different colors. It may just be the way he practices, the example he’s setting, (being) a great teammate, accountable – all those types of things. He may be the quietest guy on your football team, but he can still be a really good leader for you.”

Khalil is a returning starter. Are you framing it that way in the QB room and structuring practice that way?

A: “Not this spring. We’re going to give everybody equal shots. Everybody’s going to go in. We rotate them all through. They pretty much all get the same amount of reps. It’s a pretty level playing field right now.”

What’s the thought process behind doing it that way?

A: “You’ve gotta come out here every day and earn what you’ve got. For me to just hand it to you – ‘You’re the guy, don’t worry about it’ – I don’t think that’s right. That’s true for our whole football team. On offense, that was the message this spring: You’re going to go out and compete for your job. You’re going to earn the right to be the starter on this football team.”

What would someone have to do to take the job from Khalil?

A: “Somebody’s gotta play better than him. Life is performance-based. That’s always been the truth. One thing you never can mistake is potential for performance. At the end of the day, it’s who can go out and perform the best for you at any of our positions. That’s the message from this staff. What we’re looking for is guys to come out and compete and earn the right to play for the University of Arizona.”

What are your first impressions of Grant Gunnell and how he’s picking up things?

A: “Smart. Knows football. Loves football. Works at it. … Grant’s come in and just fit right in. I’m excited about where his progress is right now.”

He’s wearing No. 17. That’s been the number for a lot of your past quarterbacks. Is that just a coincidence, or is there something more to it?

A: “I don’t know how they get their numbers. I just show up here, and they come running on the field with the number they got on. Maybe that’s the only one we had left at the quarterback spot.”

If he continues to progress, will he be ready to play this season if necessary?

A: “Does he understand it mentally enough and have the skill set to play? Yeah. It’s kinda early to say. We haven’t really thrown him in there in a full scrimmage where he’s had to play more than about eight plays.”

What have you seen from Kevin Doyle so far in this camp?

A: “I like Kevin. He’s starting to process the information better than he did. Throwing the football – that’s not his problem. Where he’s learning more and has to keep improving is processing information and making good decisions.”

Jamarye played in some games last year. What was the thought process behind that, and how has he grown since then?

A: “At that point, Khalil was down for a game or two. He was kind of back and forth with his injury. We had Rhett. Rhett probably knows the offense better than I do. But you’ve gotta get the second guy ready. Him actually getting in for those few short times … I think that really helped him.”

Extra points

  • Defensive tackle Myles Tapusoa missed practice for the third straight time because of an unspecified injury. Others who did not participate included cornerback Jace Whittaker and edge rusher Lee Anderson III.
  • Offensive linemen Edgar Burrola and David Watson appeared to be full go during the open portion of practice after being limited last week. Four offensive linemen were limited: Donovan Laie, Josh Donovan, Robert Congel and Bryson Cain.
  • With Arizona’s numbers down at defensive tackle, veteran defensive end Justin Belknap joined the first-team defense during early drills.

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.