As anyone could have predicted two years ago, the Arizona football program’s Senior Night will be a showcase for a quarterback worthy of a Heisman Trophy campaign.
The unexpected twist is Arizona's Khalil Tate no longer matches that description. Utah's Tyler Huntley will be the featured quarterback Saturday night at Arizona Stadium. As of early this week, Wildcat coach Kevin Sumlin wouldn't even commit to naming Tate his starter as a Senior Night tribute, saying, “That's something I'll kick around.”
Huntley’s Senior Day celebration will come next week when Utah hosts Colorado, completing his remarkable regular season that’s likely to extend into the Pac-12 championship game and other big-time opportunities. As Huntley returns this weekend to Tucson, where he sustained one of the injuries that disrupted his first two seasons as Utah’s starting QB, the contrast of his career trajectory with Tate’s is stunning.
They’ve opposed each other only briefly, as Tate exited last season’s 42-10 defeat at Utah after Arizona’s first two drives, due to an ankle injury. Tate also appeared in part of a loss to the Utes as a freshman, with Huntley watching from the sideline as Troy Williams’ backup in 2016.
Tate became one of college football's most celebrated and dynamic players in 2017, beginning right after the Wildcats' 30-24 loss to Utah in late September. He moved into the lineup only after starter Brandon Dawkins was injured on the first drive of the next game, and Tate made immediate impact as a sensational runner and at least an adequate passer.
Nobody ever did anything like this: Tate was named the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week after four straight wins, starting with his 327-yard, four-touchdown rushing night against Colorado. In his first six games, he ran for 1,207 yards.
By Tate’s account in Sports Illustrated, when he was on the cover of the 2018 college football preview issue, a Utah assistant coach told him after the teams’ 2017 meeting, “Glad they didn’t play you.”
The Utes expect to see more of Tate on Saturday than they ever have, although he now shares the job with freshman Grant Gunnell. Utah’s staff is preparing for each QB, with coach Kyle Whittingham describing the differences between the two as “drastic, dramatic.” Gunnell is a dropback passer; Tate remains known for his running ability, although that dimension is not quite the same as in 2017.
Tate has broken off runs of 84 yards against Texas Tech and 57 yards against Stanford this season, and the Utes will be wary of his scrambling. Yet opposing defenses generally have contained him, in comparison to his astronomical numbers of 2017. “Defensive coordinators got tape on Khalil and figured out where he likes to escape,” Pac-12 Networks analyst Anthony Herron told the Arizona Daily Star.
The blueprint of keeping him from getting outside the pocket may have come from BYU. The Cougars held him to 14 yards on eight carries in the 2018 season opener, Sumlin’s first game as Arizona’s coach after replacing Rich Rodriguez. Sumlin said that summer that he wanted Tate to go from being “an athlete that’s a quarterback to a quarterback that’s an athlete.”
That's exactly what has happened with Huntley at Utah this season, and Sumlin is impressed. “He's unbelievable, just in the way he does things,” Sumlin said this week.
The school has launched a Heisman campaign, serving to reward Huntley and to show recruits that if they excel at Utah, they'll be promoted. Huntley has earned it, ranking No. 2 nationally in completion percentage (74.2) and yards per attempt (11.5), while passing for 2,317 yards and 13 touchdowns, with one interception.
“His numbers are terrific,” Ute coach Kyle Whittingham said on the Jim Rome Show. “All the things he's doing on the field are obvious, and just phenomenal.”
That’s what everybody used to say about Tate.
NO. 7 UTAH AT ARIZONA
When • Saturday, 8 p.m.
TV • FS1.