SN exclusive: Khalil Tate bringing Rich Rod's vision back to life at Arizona

Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate shares a vision with coach Rich Rodriguez. 

Like any quarterback-coach relationship, that vision extends from the film room to the field. It’s seeing how a defensive end crashes on a zone read, or how a linebacker cheats into the wrong gap. That vision constantly hunts for the right read that could spring something big.

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How big? You saw Tate peek over to the sideline, clap his hands, take a snap, make that read then dash 49 yards for game-sealing touchdown in a 58-37 victory against Washington State on Oct. 28, right? Tate waved one arm in the air, then the other, and that continued a month-long celebration that unearthed the breakout star of the 2017 college football season. 

When the vision is clear, it happens like that. With Tate in Rodriguez’s offense, it happens a lot more. 

The sophomore quarterback’s endless October highlight reel attracted attention from Heisman Trophy voters to LeBron James. Tate piled up 840 rushing yards, 743 passing yards with 14 total touchdowns. He was named the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week a record-four times while leading No. 23 Arizona to four straight victories. Now, the Wildcats are in position to take control of the Pac-12 South at 10:45 p.m. ET on Saturday in a prime-time matchup against USC that’s worth staying up late to watch. Who would have thought Tate would be every bit the headliner as Sam Darnold at this point?  

“I’m surprised because at the beginning of this year I was pretty much a nobody,” Tate told Sporting News on Wednesday. “A lot of people knew about me back home, but they didn’t know what I was doing in college. I didn’t play a lot last year. I’m starting to become somebody who was under the radar but now is starting to excel. I’m having a lot of fun.”

Fun. That’s the best way to describe Tate’s arrival. ​He replaced an injured Brandon Dawkins on Oct. 7 against Colorado and rushed for 125 yards by halftime. Tate finished with an FBS-quarterback single-game-record 327 rushing yards a few hours later. That has led to four straight wins, and one subtle change in the vision between quarterback and coach — a slight difference in the film room and the field. 

“It seems like he’s smiling a lot more these past four weeks than I’ve seen before,” Tate said. “That’s saying something.” 

MORE: Tate sets FBS rushing record with incredible display

Rodriguez has been down this route before. Six quarterbacks in FBS history have more than 4,000 career rushing yards, and two of them are Rodriguez prodigies. West Virginia’s Pat White (4,480 rushing yards) and Michigan’s Denard Robinson (4,495 rushing yards) enjoyed the same rise to stardom for one simple reason.

It’s awesome when a quarterback makes the right read and takes it the house. It’s the ultimate weapon in Rodriguez’s offense, and Tate continues to unleash it with rapid success. 

In just four starts and a few mop-up appearances, Tate has compiled 15 runs of 20 yards or more. Seven of his eight touchdowns are or 40 yards or more, and that includes three from 70-plus yards. The average Tate touchdown run covers 56 yards. It’s viral highlight after viral highlight, and it doesn’t go unnoticed. Rodriguez remembers going through this process with White and Robinson.

“You have to be mindful of that once they start getting a lot of attention,” Rodriguez said on the Pac-12 teleconference on Tuesday. “Is it changing their demeanor? Is it changing the way they work? Those guys are all just like Khalil; the kind that it didn’t matter. It was all about winning. Their demeanor never changed. Khalil is the same way. Just in the last few weeks, he hasn’t changed his personality or the way he has worked. We haven’t had to change anything in that regard.”

Khalil Tate-110217-SN-FTR

Tate remembers watching White and Robinson, star quarterbacks during the BCS era, players who provided excitement under Rodriguez’s tutelage. Both have a place in college football lore, like most rushing QBs do on this top-10 career list.

“I just remember them being super excited any time they would make the big play happen,” Tate said. “That’s starting to come to fruition here.”

TOP-10 RUSHING QBS YARDS
Keenan Reynolds, Navy 4,559
Denard Robinson, Michigan 4,495
Pat White, West Virginia 4,480
Jordan Lynch, Northern Illinois 4,343
Brad Smith, Missouri 4,193
Colin Kaepernick, Nevada 4,112
Antwaan Randle-El, Indiana 3,895
Joshua Cribbs, Kent State 3,670
Dee Dowis, Air Force 3,612
Kareem Wilson, Ohio 3,597

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Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, who won the Heisman Trophy last season, has 3,560 career rushing yards and will crack that top 10 this week. Tate is on that fast track, and trails Jackson by just 103 rushing yards this season — despite three fewer starts — and averages 13.4 yards per carry. He’s operating on an accelerating curve that continues to amaze Rodriguez. 

“It’s really the first time he’s played other than he played a tad last year,” Rodriguez said. “He’s only started a few games, so he’s still learning. When he’s out there, he’s acting like he has more experience than he does. He’s seeing the field as well as we could have hoped.” 

In that regard, the Inglewood, Calif., native insists not much has changed since his junior year at Junipero Serra High School, when a senior grabbed his preferred No. 3 jersey. Tate then opted for No. 14 over No. 12, because he liked watching Auburn’s Nick Marshall at the time. Tate ran the same offense in high school. The big adjustment at Arizona was making those reads faster: See the linebacker. Spot the coverage. Find the most vulnerable player. 

When in doubt, make a play.

Tate recalls watching his 71-yard touchdown against UCLA in the film room. It was the play where he juked a crashing defensive end, side-stepped a defensive back and cut to the middle of the field. He couldn’t help laugh about it. 

“That’s really watching film,” Tate said. “Seeing what guys do and which guys give up big plays easily. All that goes into effect.”

Yet in the huddle, Tate takes on a persona that once again is a throw-back to White and Robinson. He smashes two words that almost typically never collide, yet it sounds right. 

“I’d say serious-silly,” Tate said. “Serious and silly. I can’t be super serious or I can also be super silly. Whatever the time calls for, I can always adapt.”

Again, fun. Tate is fun to listen to. Arizona is fun to watch. Damn right Rodriguez is smiling. That four-game hot streak has taken Rodriguez off the hot seat after a 3-9 record in 2016 and back in contention for a Pac-12 South championship, which the Wildcats won in 2014 with a 10-4 record.

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The best part? The last four weeks likely means we should get to see how this ends. Remember, Rodriguez bolted for Michigan before White’s senior year and was fired from Michigan before Robinson’s senior year. 

Tate and Rodriguez appear to be just getting started, and as the longtime coach likes to say, “The more you win that more is at stake.” This week’s showdown against USC and Darnold is a reminder there’s always a bigger challenge in the Pac-12.

“We know there’s still more that he can get better at and so does he,” Rodriguez said. “That’s the pleasing part about it. He’s kind of taking a charge a little bit even though he’s a young guy. He knows he has to keep working.”

That seems to be the easy part. There’s staying power here, because of that uncanny ability to spot the right read. There will be more Heisman hype, highlights and heroic moments down the line, and defenses will adjust. There’s more to see in the film room, but the vision is in place.

Tate has been working for this for a long time. So has Rodriguez.

It’s happening so fast. Then again, it isn’t.

“I’ve never had anything given to me,” Tate said. “I’ve always had to work two times or three times harder than the next person. I’m really starting to see everything move forward. It feels good.”

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