University of Arizona vs USC

Although he didn't live up to the Heisman hype last year, Arizona QB Khalil Tate still threw 26 TD passes.

The Star is counting down the 11 most valuable Wildcats on the Arizona football team entering the 2019 season. Here’s the latest installment.

No. 2: QB Khalil Tate

Height/weight/year: 6-2, 215, senior

Key 2018 stats: 170 of 302 passing (56.3 percent), 2,530 yards, 26 TDs, 8 INTs, 149.8 rating; 224 rushing yards, 3.0 yards/carry, 2 TDs

Comment: Warts and all, Tate is the best option to play quarterback for the 2019 Wildcats. If he can find a happy medium between the 2017 and ’18 versions of himself, Arizona could exceed expectations – which generally have the Cats at about .500.

No other UA player’s performance carries such weight – and it’s not just because of the position Tate plays. We’ve seen what he’s capable of when he’s fully healthy and completely engaged. For a solid month – October 2017 – he was the best player in the Pac-12 and possibly all of America. He had at least one run of 54-plus yards in six consecutive games. He was a terror. And he was only a sophomore.

Arizona changed coaches the following offseason, and expectations for Tate soared. Kevin Sumlin had coached Johnny Manziel. Noel Mazzone had a dense résumé as a quarterback guru. If Tate didn’t finish in the top five for the Heisman Trophy, something had to be amiss.

Something was.

Even at his best, Tate never quite looked like the same player as the previous season. The ankle he hurt in Week 2 was undoubtedly a factor, but it wasn’t the only issue. In the process of trying to do what he thought his coaches wanted – or of trying to become the type of quarterback he thought he should be – Tate drifted from what made him great.

In 2017, he had a killer instinct. In 2018, he looked uncertain.

In 2017, he was a true dual threat. In 2018, he often was reluctant to run.

So now what?

Tate said all the right things in spring. He expressed frustration about last season, especially the ankle injury that nagged him for weeks. He conceded that the hype became too much to handle at times. And he vowed to be better, in all phases, in his final season at Arizona.

There are reasons to believe he will be. Tate has had a full season and another offseason to learn Mazzone’s system. Tate also is back to being an underdog. His desire to become something more than a backup unquestionably fueled him in 2017. Last year he was “The Man” – even getting credit, to some degree, for Arizona hiring Sumlin instead of Ken Niumatalolo.

Although he played well at times – a 26-8 TD-INT ratio is nothing to scoff at – Tate failed to lead the Wildcats to a winning record. The way last season ended – with Tate playing a key role in a blown fourth-quarter lead against Arizona State – had to leave him feeling dissatisfied. It ought to make him hungry. That’s a good thing for the UA.

Arizona doesn’t need the 2017 version of Tate to contend in the Pac-12 South and make a bowl game. It does need him to play with a sense of urgency on every down, every week.

If the coaches had lost any faith in him, it wasn’t evident in the spring game. Tate started but played only two series and threw only one pass. Sumlin and Mazzone didn’t need to see anymore. They know who their starter is.

Most of the work went to younger quarterbacks. Kevin Doyle, Grant Gunnell and Jamarye Joiner combined for 54 of Arizona’s 73 passing attempts in the scrimmage.

Gunnell, a freshman, seems like the quarterback of the future. Doyle, a redshirt freshman, continues to compete hard for that title. Joiner, also a redshirt freshman, is getting looks at other positions, including wide receiver. Junior Rhett Rodriguez remains the favorite to begin the season as Tate’s short-term backup.

None appears ready to legitimately push Tate, let alone overtake him. Maybe that will change in training camp, which begins later this month. But the fact that Tate is representing Arizona at Pac-12 Media Day on July 24 is telling: Sumlin is willing to bet on Tate, even after Year 1 didn’t go precisely as planned.

The Wildcats will have a strong running game to support their quarterback. They have the makings of a sturdy offensive line. Their defense has intriguing pieces at every level.

Arizona also has question marks at receiver and defensive tackle.

If he’s right, Tate can help mask those deficiencies. He can be the difference between 6-6 and 8-4 – between another mediocre season and a special one.

MOST VALUABLE WILDCATS OF 2019

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.