When Khalil Tate walked into room W118-A at Houston’s TCEDU Stadium on Saturday afternoon, he wasn’t limping, didn’t need crutches, nor was he wearing a bloody sock.
There was little drama as he conducted a brief media interview and disclosed that his tweaked left ankle was the result of a “football injury.”
“Things happen,” he said. “It was a little tweak. A little bruise.”
But if you are a starting quarterback in college football, and especially one who appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated last month, there is no such thing as a little tweak or bruise.
It’s more like a TWEAK or a BRUISE, in capital letters. Arizona is 0-2, and if the NCAA had a category for “games bungled,” the Wildcats would be No. 1.
If Tate isn’t fit and productive, Arizona could realistically finish 2-10.
His health is as important to Arizona as was Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel’s health when he played for UA coach Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M.
Manziel started 25 of his 26 games under Sumlin, missing the first half of the 2013 season opener (against Rice) while serving an NCAA penalty for allegedly selling autographs.
But that was peanuts for a talent-blessed A&M roster, coming off an 11-2 season. The Aggies beat Rice 52-31.
Sumlin didn’t sound worried in 2013. His stout offensive line included left tackle Jake Matthews, who went on to be the No. 6 overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft.
“We’ve got a really solid offensive line, which takes a little pressure off,” Sumlin said before the 2013 Rice game.
By comparison, Arizona started four offensive linemen at Houston, all of whom were starting their second college football game. Because the UA has no game-ready reserves, four different offensive linemen played every one of Arizona’s 100 snaps.
“You play the cards you’re dealt, right?” Sumlin said Monday.
Quarterback safety is surely the most important variable in college football. That’s why Tate was not tackled in spring or fall practice, which amounts to about 40 workouts.
“I’ve never had a quarterback tackled (in camp),” Sumlin says now.
Risk management is now part of college football coaching. Bravado and fearlessness used to be the hallmark of any starting QB but now there is much more to it. For a run-pass-option athlete like Tate, the most important question has become:
Can I salvage this play or should I get down?
What we’ve seen in losses to BYU and Houston is that Tate is greatly affected by his young offensive line. Were they able to hold their blocks long enough for receivers to run precise, timed patterns? And, given the chaos in the backfield, can Tate be accurate when he tries to extend plays with second and third options?
Not every QB is as resourceful as Aaron Rodgers.
If Tate’s not 100 percent healthy, the game plan blows up.
UA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone coached UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley during a time that Hundley started 41 consecutive games. His only injury was to his elbow that forced Hundley out of most of a 2014 game against Texas.
But the football gods were kind to Mazzone that day; reserve QB Jerry Neuheisel rescued Hundley, throwing for 178 yards and the game-winning touchdown. After that, Neuheisel was on the field so little that he attempted just nine passes the rest of his career.
It’s all about the No. 1 quarterback, and Arizona has found how quickly how fragile that relationship can be.
“To me,” Sumlin said Monday, “we’re finding out who’s who.”
None of this worrisome quarterback drama is new.
In its 40 seasons in the Pac-12, Arizona has deployed the same starting quarterback all season just 10 times. Willie Tuitama did so in 2007 and 2008, starting his last 29 UA games. Jason Johnson started 23 straight games in 2001 and 2002, and Tom Tunnicliffe started 30 straight games from 1981-83.
Those are the endurance kings. If Tate is fortunate he will not be part of any first-year coaching jinx business.
In 1980, new coach Larry Smith inherited starting QB Mark Fulcher, who had the look of an NFL prospect. But in Game 2, Fulcher wrecked his knee at Cal and was never the same. Tunnicliffe, a true freshman, ultimately won the job.
Arizona went 5-6.
In 1987, Dick Tomey hustled to recruit SMU starter Bobby Watters during a period the Mustangs were given the “death penalty” for NCAA indiscretions.
Similar to Smith’s first season, Tomey lost his QB, Watters, in Game 3. He broke his thumb at UCLA. Tomey had no choice but to start true freshman Ronald Veal.
Arizona went 4-4-3.
You could write a very thick book about Arizona’s quarterback troubles over those 40 years, so let’s just say that Tate’s TWEAK at Houston fits the pattern.
If the UA is fortunate, it won’t be a chapter, but a verse.