No matter who Arizona hires as its football coach, nobody outside Tucson is picking the Wildcats to go to the Rose Bowl next year, or even to win the Pac-12 South.
But for the first time ever — or close to ever — the Wildcats have a singular offensive player, quarterback Khalil Tate, who has such star power and is so essential to the school’s football restoration, that it seemed natural for him to sit next to UA President Robert C. Robbins Thursday at McKale Center.
It makes you ask: Is Tate’s presence at Arizona so far-reaching that Robbins and athletic director Dave Heeke will consult with him about the next coach?
Is Tate so valuable that he could hijack the hiring process, if so desired?
It’s not irrational. Tate hasn’t used a redshirt year; if he chooses, he could transfer without losing any eligibility and play for a coach whose offensive system better fits his skills.
For Arizona, that would be like starting over, stuck in last place for the foreseeable future.
On Friday, Tate posted a Twitter message that said, “I didn’t come here to run the tripple (sic) option.” It was a reaction to speculation that Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo would soon be hired to coach the Wildcats.
Niumatalalo, head coach at Navy for 10 seasons, runs the triple-option. The Midshipmen completed just 42 passes last year.
What is this, 1947?
But indeed, Navy was 42-for-102 in passing, or an average of 3½ completions per game. Most Pac-12 schools complete more than 3½ passes per possession.
Tate soon scrubbed his tweet about the triple option, but Heeke or someone in the athletic department surely reacted to Tate’s message and assured him that Niumatalolo, or any UA head coach in 2018, will not run the triple-option.
What is so ironic is that Tate operated one of America’s five-most option-prolific offenses last season as he became the Pac-12 offensive player of the week for a record four times in succession.
Here’s how the final NCAA rushing leaders finished:
1. Army, 362 yards.
2. Navy, 351 yards.
3. Arizona, 309 yards.
4. Air Force, 307 yards.
Rich Rodriguez’s spread-option offense was 100th of 129 schools in average passing yards, 183 per game, which was dead last in the Pac-12.
RichRod did a clever job of labeling his offense, but overall it wasn’t much different from the I-Bone that Dick Tomey ran in 1989, when the Wildcats completed just 65 passes, the fewest in modern school history.
The spread-option just sounds more millennial.
Tate carried the ball 26 times for 161 yards at USC. It wasn’t labeled the triple-option, but what’s the difference? No QB in UA history had ever carried 26 times in a game.
Former UA, UCLA and Hawaii assistant coach Mike Flores was part of Dick Tomey’s staff when the Wildcats ran offenses called “Run and Shoot” and “Wishbone” and “I-Bone” with various combinations. Flores understands that no Pac-12 team can prosper running a triple-option.
“Navy runs the option offense because that is what you need to run at the academies,” Flores said Friday. “Niumatalolo will easily transition to the spread offenses being run today.
“The challenge at Arizona would be to bring in coaches that can help Ken implement the new offense and to secure an offensive coordinator with the background to run some type of spread concept, which will have the threat of both run and pass.”
Tate couldn’t possibly have gone to bed Friday night without being assured his development as a potential NFL quarterback will not be stunted by a new Arizona coach and a really old offense.
Arizona’s coaching search is unusual because the Wildcats have Tate, a potentially game-changing quarterback. Few coaches are fired with a QB of Tate’s capacity on the roster. He will enter the 2018 season with Washington’s Jake Browning and Oregon’s Justin Herbert as the most-feared QBs in the league, and among the most-touted quarterbacks in college football.
Instead of hiring a coach for the long-range future, Arizona is in a rare position in that hiring for Tate’s final two seasons might be just as important.
Imagine what two Top 25 seasons under Tate would do the state of Arizona football.
If the UA can’t take advantage of Tate’s remarkable athletic abilities in 2018 and 2019, it could be years — a decade or more — until it can deploy a possible Heisman Trophy contender, or the first-team All-Pac-12 quarterback. Incredibly, Arizona has never had the first-team All-Pac-10 — or -12 — quarterback.
Tate’s presence surely influenced the coaching search from the day RichRod was fired.
The Wildcats averaged 14,000 empty seats at Arizona Stadium last year. They are spending more than $25 million to build an indoor practice facility and remodel a good portion of the stadium.
Tate could provide the momentum to fill those seats, return Arizona to prominence and make people forget the last 20 seasons of UA football, much of it bad.
If he doesn’t approve of the new coach, the coaching search would be a colossal waste of time.