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Once a defensive recruit for WSU, Arizona’s Khalil Tate now an unsolvable puzzle at quarterback

UPDATED: Thu., Oct. 26, 2017, 10:56 p.m.

Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate (14) stiff arms UCLA defensive back Jaleel Wadood (4) and scores a touchdown in the first half during an Oct. 14 game in Tucson, Ariz. (Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)
Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate (14) stiff arms UCLA defensive back Jaleel Wadood (4) and scores a touchdown in the first half during an Oct. 14 game in Tucson, Ariz. (Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)

PULLMAN – Every team in the Pac-12 is trying to solve the Khalil Tate puzzle at the moment and Washington State could’ve made it easier on all of them had the Cougars landed a commitment from the four-star prospect who spent his prep days at California’s Junipero Serra High School.

Before Tate became the hottest – and fastest – thing in college football, the Cougars had targeted the Arizona quarterback as someone who could potentially make a difference in their defensive secondary.

“That didn’t go very far,” WSU outside linebackers coach Roy Manning said. “I can tell you that.”

There’s plenty of evidence that suggests Tate could’ve been a dynamic playmaker for Alex Grinch’s defense – one that only accepts the fleet-footed. But there’s another pile of evidence that supports the decision Tate made: to join Rich Rodriguez and the Wildcats as a dual-threat quarterback who’d be able to run until he was told to stop.

Tate hasn’t stopped.

“I thought he had the capability of maybe playing on the defensive side of the ball, maybe a nickel or a safety type of guy because he is physical,” Manning said. “I remember the conversation, telling him, ‘Hey, you’re probably making the right decision,’ because obviously Arizona does a little bit more in the run game with their quarterbacks than we do.”

Tate reported the same story to Arizona media earlier this week.

“One team said nickel back, I want to say it was Washington State,” he said. “Which I wasn’t really too fond of that. How am I a nickel back and not a quarter?”

As if the Cougars needed to give Tate another reason to run rampant when WSU and Arizona meet in Tucson on Saturday.

On Monday, the redshirt sophomore celebrated his 19th birthday by winning Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week for the third week in a row. That’s a feat no player in the conference has accomplished since USC’s Rodney Peete did it in 1988.

On the Tate scale of excellence, last week’s double overtime win at Cal didn’t boggle the mind quite as much as the previous two games, but the Arizona QB still got loose for 137 rushing yards on 17 carries and dashed to the end zone for a 76-yard touchdown. He accounted for another 166 yards in the air and completed 10-of-15 passes.

It’s hard to imagine that the Wildcats (5-2, 3-1) would have a loss had Tate been the day-one starter. He’s accounted for 66 points in the three games he’s been the primary QB. All three wins. Meanwhile, Arizona’s only losses – against Houston and Utah – came by three points and seven points, respectively.

So why has the country’s most polarizing signal-caller spent so much time as a spectator this season?

Brandon Dawkins, the redshirt junior who once competed for high-school reps with WSU’s Luke Falk, came into the year entrenched as Arizona’s starter despite a turbulent sophomore season.

And Dawkins wasn’t getting much of a push during fall camp because former UA starter Anu Solomon had transferred to Baylor and Tate was limited due to an injury.

“The Colorado game was really the first time (Tate) has been healthy since camp and he had a good week of practice,” Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said, “and when Brandon got nicked up he just went in and you could just tell he was extremely focused and was ready to go and made the most of his opportunity and he’s followed through with that.”

Tate replaced Dawkins on the opening drive of an Oct. 7 game in Boulder. The rest was history – literally.

With 327 rushing yards against the Buffaloes, Tate set an all-time FBS quarterback record. He had touchdown runs of 58, 28, 47 and 75 yards, but it wasn’t just one particularly dynamic game by a supremely talented player. This became the norm.

“He’s one heck of an athlete and when you give him a little bit of a crease and he’s got the athletic ability to get it over with,” WSU defensive line coach Jeff Phelps said. “And that’s what makes him a dangerous person with the ball in his hands.”

Tate has registered a rushing play of at least 70 yards in each of the last three games, has scored seven touchdowns on the ground and is responsible for 780 rushing yards this season.

It’s reminiscent of what Johnny Manziel did at Texas A&M en route to winning the 2012 Heisman Trophy. But Tate might be even more electric.

“He’s a better athlete,” said Grinch, the WSU defensive coordinator who saw Manziel once a year while coaching at Missouri. “… There might be guys that athletically may compare, maybe at their best, but no one playing the way he’s playing and he’s making it look real easy these days.”

Rodriguez says Pat White and Denard Robinson – quarterbacks who played under the UA coach at West Virginia and Michigan, respectively – might be reasonable comparisons. All three can contort the defense into a pretzel. All three can win a footrace in the open field.

“It seemed like, when they got in the open field, they ran faster than what people expected,” Rodriguez said. “Particularly Khalil. He got into the open field and gosh, I didn’t know he was that fast myself.”

But the sixth-year coach would also caution that his burgeoning star is still an underclassman who’s prone to mistakes – and needs to be given the room to make them.

“He’s only started a couple games,” Rodriguez said, “so I always say pump the brakes a little bit, hang on.”

He just won’t ask his quarterback to pump the brakes. Not that Tate knows how.


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