Khalil Tate became Arizona's quarterback shortly after the Wildcats faced Utah last year, but Ute coach Kyle Whittingham knows enough about Tate's history to recognize he's being used differently this season.
“It seems to have been a concerted effort, or a conscious effort, to get him more dropback throws, to perform in the pocket, more than just athletically outside the pocket and on the run,” Whittingham said. “He still runs some, but not quite as much as in years past.”
So who’s responsible for the altered strategy? Kevin Sumlin, Arizona’s new coach? Or Ilaisa Tuiaki, BYU’s defensive coordinator?
Some combination of Tate's ankle injury, Sumlin's approach and opposing defenses being driven to contain his running have altered the way Arizona (3-3) is playing, entering Friday's game vs. Utah (3-2) at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
In his news conference Monday, Sumlin pointed to the Cougars' radical scheme of preventing Tate from running in the season opener as a blueprint that other teams used — until Tate started passing efficiently enough to make opponents defend him more traditionally.
“You start to develop some other things,” Sumlin said. “You start to see some different defenses now, and he's got to take advantage of what he sees.”
Sumlin wanted Tate to go from “an athlete that’s a quarterback to a quarterback that’s an athlete,” he said during the Pac-12 Media Day in July. Tate was on board, having campaigned against the school’s potential hiring of Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo with his option offense before Sumlin was named to replace Rich Rodriguez.
Tate became a national phenomenon last October, soon after Brandon Dawkins quarterbacked the Wildcats in a 30-24 loss to Utah. Sports Illustrated recently told the story of a Ute assistant coach greeting Tate on the field afterward and saying he was happy his team didn’t have to face him.
Tate soon became other opponents' problem. He rushed for 327, 230, 137 and 146 yards in four October victories, a run that started against Colorado after Dawkins was injured in the first quarter. He finished the season with 1,411 rushing yards in 11 games.
Defenses with better athletes and different schemes somewhat caught onto Tate in November, and he has not been the same player this season. His ankle injury against Houston in the second game of the season is not fully healed, Sumlin said, although Tate lately is getting back to running.
ARIZONA AT UTAH
When • Friday, 8 p.m.
TV • ESPN
He carried the ball 23 times for a net 32 yards in the first four games, but has posted 78 yards on 21 attempts against USC and California. Tate also is becoming more adept with run-pass options, pulling the ball from the running back and hitting a receiver in the flat for short gains that are “as good as a run,” Sumlin said.
Those plays are effective because defenses still worry about Tate's running ability. The Utes can't dismiss him as a runner, and they should be concerned about his passing after allowing an average of 413 yards to Washington State and Stanford. “He does have a strong arm,” Whittingham said.
Athlon Sports this past summer asked defensive coordinators if they would rather face an elite, dropback passer who can't run or a mobile QB who struggles to throw the ball. Without specifically mentioning Tate, Utah's Morgan Scalley said he prefers defending an average passer.
“The mobile QB, you just treat him as an extra back and and you commit guys to the box and knock out the run,” he said. “Whereas an elite passer, if he can fit things into tight windows, he just gives you problems.”
Utah hopes to keep Tate from causing problems Friday. Tate appeared briefly in Arizona’s 2016 loss at Rice-Eccles Stadium, but this is the first time the Utes will deal with him as a full-time player.
TATE BY THE (RUSHING) NUMBERS
Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate’s game-by-game rushes and yardage:
Colorado • 14 for 327.
UCLA • 15 for 230.
California • 17 for 137.
Washington State • 13 for 146.
USC • 26 for 161.
Oregon State • 16 for 206.
Oregon • 14 for 32.
Arizona State • 8 for 28.
Purdue • 20 for 58.
BYU • 8 for 14.
Houston • 7 for 8.
Southern Utah • 4 for 19.
Oregon State • 4 for minus-9.
USC • 13 for 38.
California • 8 for 40.