Arizona Football

What next at quarterback for Arizona?

Khalil Tate ran 15 times for a team-high 79 yards vs. UCLA. (Photo by Stan Liu/Arizona Athletics)

Khalil Tate ran 15 times for a team-high 79 yards vs. UCLA. (Photo by Stan Liu/Arizona Athletics)

Arizona was using a 17-year-old at quarterback and a slot receiver at running back.

That’s what the Wildcats’ season has come to, with its backfield talent being felled like ducks in a shooting gallery, forcing coach Rich Rodriguez to fuel his up-tempo offense with fourth-stringers and wishful thinking.

That wasn’t enough Saturday night at UCLA, with Arizona suffering a 45-24 loss to drop to 2-3 overall and 0-2 in the Pac-12. It wasn’t all about the offense, though. The defense showed some moxie in the first half before collapsing in the second half, allowing the Bruins to score on each of their five full possessions.

But let’s get back to that wishful thinking for a minute.

With Anu Solomon missing his fourth consecutive game and not even on the trip, with Brandon Dawkins suffering some sort of rib injury and leaving the game in the third game, with the moment being too big for walk-on Zach Werlinger, Rodriguez decided to yank the redshirt off true freshman dual-threat Khalil Tate.

And we’ll be talking about that all week.

Tate trucked some defenders in the run game, flexed his strong throwing arm and showed a soft touch, especially on a last-minute 13-yard touchdown pass to Cam Denson.

“He’s competitive,” Rodriguez said on his postgame radio interview on Sportsradio 1290. “He’ll learn. The stage wasn’t too big for him. We’ll see what we have to do going forward.

“We had a limited package with him. He missed a few things here and there, but the way he ran the ball, golly. He stepped in there, competed and made some plays for us.”

Coaches live in the moment, and Rodriguez was doing anything he could to win Saturday night’s game, but burning a redshirt has permanent repercussions. Was it worth it? Does this mean Tate has to start or be in the rotation the rest of the way?

Right now, RichRod has a lot more information than we do. He never once has said anything about the seriousness of Solomon’s knee injury. He didn’t say if he had a clue about Dawkins’ status for next week … or the week after … or the week after that.

What we do know is Tate showed up under the Rose Bowl lights, fulfilling one of his goals — to play in a college football game when he was still 17. He won’t be 18 for a few weeks.

Tate never appeared to be solidly in the starting discussion during spring or fall camps, but Rodriguez and quarterback coach Rod Smith gave him a fair amount of reps and he stayed ready, even though the plan was to try to redshirt him.

“Throughout the week, Coach Smith told me to get ready and that I’m basically two snaps away because I’m behind Zach,” Tate said on 1290-AM. “I really just tried to get out there and perform and do what I do best.”

Who plays if everyone is healthy? RichRod is likely to joke that we’ll all know when Arizona goes out to take its first snap Saturday at Utah.

My choice would be Dawkins. He was confident, playing well, running well and he has a three-year grasp of the offense. He was able to make something out of nothing with his scrambles, and defenses had to respect the zone-read in ways they didn’t when Solomon played.

Tate has a bundle of skills; no doubt. But note what Rodriguez said. With Tate in the game, Arizona had a limited package. The offense is at its best when the quarterback knows the system by heart and, with pre-snap decision, can deploy multiple options off the play call.

Tate had an intriguing half. Dawkins has had an intriguing three-and-a-half games and certainly has mentally digested more of the offense.

Solomon? He’ll always be the kid who helped Arizona win the Pac-12 South in 2014, but perhaps that ship has sailed. Especially with running back Nick Wilson limping off the field in the first half and slot receiver Tyrell Johnson taking the majority of the handoffs, Arizona needs a running quarterback right now more than ever to balance the offense.

This season might not end up being memorable in the win-loss department, but the development of the young quarterbacks should keep everyone interested.

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