Quarterback Rush

Why Khalil Tate is this year’s Big Man on Campus

A ragtag cadre of marching band members belted out tunes on an auxiliary practice field as the future of the Arizona Wildcats football program walked past.

It was an unintentional coronation for rising junior quarterback Khalil Tate, who has gone from little-known backup to gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated's college football preview issue in less than a year.

The 19-year-old prodigy stormed onto the scene last October on a rainy afternoon in Boulder, Colorado, torching the Buffs' woebegone defense for 327 rushing yards—the most by a quarterback in NCAA history.

He followed that up with three more impressive performances against the likes of UCLA, Washington State and USC—capping the month of October with 840 rushing yards, the most by any NCAA football player in more than a decade.

His larger-than-life exploits garnered him national acclaim, with Las Vegas sports book Bovada giving him the ninth-best odds of winning the Heisman Trophy entering the 2018 season.

Born to run

The Inglewood, California, native is anything but an overnight success story though, earning 18 scholarship offers and a collective four-star ranking out of Junipero Serra High School.

The 6-foot-2-inch gunslinger came to Tucson in large part because of former coach Rich Rodriguez's offensive scheme.

Tate told Sports Illustrated that most of the colleges that recruited him either hinted at or outright told him he'd likely play another position, given his combination of height and speed.

He knew he wanted to play quarterback and chose the Wildcats for that reason. His gamble has paid off in-full, giving Rodriguez's replacement, Kevin Sumlin, a top-notch quarterback to rely on.

Sumlin expressed his confidence in Tate after practice on Saturday, Aug. 11, gushing about the junior's maturation and development in fall camp.

"I think every day that we're out here he understands a little more of the big picture," Sumlin said. "At that position, the whiteboard, the video, the walk through is nothing, nothing like full speed. That phase of it is ongoing."

National attention

It's been a bit of a whirlwind offseason for Tate, culminating in the Sports Illustrated cover story, which happened to come out on his parents' 25th anniversary.

"I actually didn't tell my parents at all," Tate said. "That's what was great, I didn't tell them, but it was a bit of a surprise present for them, I guess."

Tate's work ethic was institutionalized by his father Brian, and mother, Lesli, who work as a school teacher and pharmacy assistant in California.

He's done well in all facets of college, with a GPA above 3.0 in his Information Science & eSociety major.

Tate is a savant in the truest sense, both in regard to football and his scholastic endeavors. He's far from complacent with last year's success, however, working with first-year offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone to master his passing and running skills.

He's also rededicated himself to being more of a leader, both in the huddle and inside the locker room, shepherding the team into the future.

Tate has taken a more serious outlook at his role with the team, bringing a more professional attitude than in years past.

He believes the team is destined for greatness, should they work together during their grueling summer workouts and practices.

"I think I'm pretty versatile, as far as me being able to get really serious, while being able to joke around as well," Tate said. "I joke around off the field, and I think that helps us out even more with the camaraderie, just letting them know that I'm just like them—versus being out on the field, where I'm taking on that leadership role."

Growing his game

Tate is cognizant of the national attention he's received since that soggy afternoon in Boulder 10 months ago but knows his best days are still to come.

"I like to think I'm kind of wise, I think that I have a lot of knowledge," he said. "I'm just trying to get better each and every day, just trying to grow as a person each and every day."

Mazzone expressed confidence in Tate's growth as a quarterback, praising him for his efforts in preseason camp so far.

"Like any quarterback, you're looking for consistency, and he's shown that so far," Mazzone said. "So, I'm excited at where he's at right now and where we're at with him."

Tate is far from satisfied with the success he had as a sophomore, looking to one-up the gaudy rushing stats (1,411 yards, 12 touchdowns in 8 starts) this fall.

He's honored to be mentioned on the short list for the sport's premier individual award but knows that there's a lot of work to be done to get to that point.

"It's something that a lot of kids grow up dreaming to do, so I think that's something that's big," Tate said of his Heisman hype. "Like I said, it's something that helps the university. It's given us that exposure that we're getting as a university."

He's excited to work with Sumlin, who coincidentally enough recruited him out of high school while coaching at Texas A&M.

He believes the two have a very symbiotic relationship, mastering the business of football with a dash of humor on the side.

"I think there's not a relationship like ours around the country," Tate said. "Just the fact that he recruited me out of high school and I was going there, and I ended up not in the end. It's great that we ended up in the same place."

Sumlin believes that he and Tate have a similar relationship to the bonds he's built with those he's worked with at Texas A&M and the University of Houston, where he started his head coaching career.

"I've told quarterbacks this since [former University of Houston quarterback] Case Keenum that quarterbacks and the head coach get way, way too much credit when we win, and we get all the blame when we lose," Sumlin said. "Because of that you have to have that kind of (strong) relationship. You don't usually blame the right guard when you lose."

At the end of the day, the biggest difference this season versus the first two that Tate's been involved with stems from the energy and excitement shared by players and coaches alike, ahead of the team's opener at home against Brigham Young University at 7:45 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 1.

"I'm progressing a lot. My team is helping me, and I think them getting better is helping me get better," Tate said. "Them keeping their energy up is helping me keep my energy up. We're getting better as a team."

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