Three years ago, Khalil Tate and J.J. Taylor stood on opposite sides of the field and played a part in a high school football game that went haywire.
Both were juniors with bright futures ahead of them. Taylor was the running back at Corona Centennial High School in Southern California’s Inald Empire. Tate the quarterback at Gardena Serra, a Los Angeles-area powerhouse.
The game — a playoff game, no less — featured 15 lead changes and 15 touchdowns. Tate finished with 521 yards of total offense and eight touchdowns. But it was Taylor who scored a late touchdown that pushed Centennial to a 68-64 win.
The two were the future of Arizona football, and after Saturday night’s 58-37 win against Washington State, they are the present.
Taylor and Tate, Tate and Taylor.
Taylor is a 5-foot-6-inch runner with skills fit for Madden video games. Last week, Taylor was headed for a breakout performance against Cal — he rushed for 44 yards and scored a 30-yard touchdown — when he was ejected for targeting in the first half. His crime? Taylor did his very best to block a defensive player eight inches taller than him.
It wasn’t the first time Taylor was robbed. He suffered a broken ankle in the Wildcats’ loss to Washington last season, ending a freshman campaign almost before it began.
UA coach Rich Rodriguez has said that we — the team, the fans, “SportsCenter” viewers — were robbed of what was about to become a special season.
“That was the worst timing for him and the whole team,” said UA tight end Jamie Nunley. “He was showing everybody what he could do.”
Taylor returned healthy this season, but wasn’t quite himself. Through Arizona’s first seven games, he split carries with seniors Nick Wilson and Zach Green.
Taylor really was due for his big moment. It came Saturday.
He lost one yard on his first five carries.
His next run went for 62 yards, then three yards for a touchdown.
His eighth carry was a 79-yard touchdown.
Taylor finished with 152 yards on 15 carries.
“This year, to have him back, the dude is electric,” Nunley said. “You think he’s done, you think he’s gonna be tackled for a loss and I don’t know how he gets out of it. He’s a little squirrel.”
Said the soft-spoken Taylor: “I’ve just been working on my craft.”
Then there’s Tate. If Taylor burst onto the scene last year, he blew up the scene this year.
Nunley called him a “monster” and opined “Khalil Tate for Heisman,” and, really, that’s not as crazy as it sounds anymore.
Tate threw for the most passing yards (275) of any UA quarterback since the 2015 New Mexico Bowl. He also added 146 yards and a touchdown on the ground. One of his runs went for 82 yards. He has eight rushes of 47 yards or more this season, and seven of those have gone for touchdowns.
Tate rushed for 840 yards in October, leading Arizona to wins in all four games.
Taylor and Tate were always supposed to be the Wildcats’ future, at least in the backfield. That’s why they were recruited to Arizona.
When they both committed early in the 2016 recruiting cycle, playing together was in the back of their minds.
“I was super excited” to play with Taylor, Tate said. “I knew he was a great player, I knew he would help us.”
When that state playoff game from 2014 was mentioned after Saturday night’s win, Tate smiled like he had just scored another touchdown.
Taylor got the better of Tate that night. Tate and Taylor got the better of Washington State.
Before they arrived at Arizona, Cal-Hi Sports polled Southern Cafliornia football fans about the best players in the area.
Tate and Taylor both worked their way through a bracket of California’s top high school talent for the fans’ “Mr. Football.”
Just before New Year’s, Taylor was revealed the winner, taking 53 percent of the vote.
Now, they’re both Wildcats on the cusp on something special.
Arizona is 6-2, elgibile for a bowl and heading into next week’s game at USC with the chance to take control of the Pac-12.
The Wildcats, really, won that fan poll — they got both players.
Tate and Taylor, Taylor and Tate.
“Me and him together,” Tate said, “is something special.”