Arizona Football

Khalil Tate’s spring: Phone booths and tight windows

Khalil Tate prepares to take a snap at Arizona’s spring scrimmage (photo by David Ray Williams, for AllSportsTucson.com)

I have been thinking a lot about Khalil Tate recently.

Soon, in my role as senior editor of Lindy’s College Football Annuals, I will have to finalize my preseason player rankings for 2018, helped with plenty of input from a coast-to-coast network of people who are way smarter than I am.

But, eventually, a decision will have to be made: Where does Tate rate?

There is no obvious preseason first-team All-America quarterback; those kind of guys are all in this year’s NFL Draft. Could it be Tate? I’ll say this: No quarterback in the country has a higher ceiling. He had a game last season in which he rushed for an FBS quarterback-record 327 yards (Colorado) and another game in which he threw for five touchdown passes, all from at least 24 yards (Purdue).

I mean, who does that?

The question as Arizona finished spring ball Saturday night under new coach Kevin Sumlin is how will Tate grow and adapt, especially because he has so much to prove in terms of understanding defenses and delivering a full variety of throws from the pocket.

“He’s a dynamic player. He’s explosive,” Sumlin said. “The big thing for him that everybody has to remember is he’s only played in seven games. He’s not that experienced a guy.”

Tate actually started eight games last season as a sophomore, and played in 11 in Arizona’s 7-6 season, but you get Sumlin’s point. Tate is a work in progress.

Tate talked Saturday night about how new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Noel Mazzone has been preaching this spring about “playing in a phone booth.”

“Playing a space that’s tight and being able to make decisions and certain throws in a tight space,” Tate said. “It’s coming along well.”

A couple of Arizona’s defensive starters agree, which — take it for what it’s worth, of course — is about the most encouraging thing you could hear about Tate. Everybody knows he can run and make a lot of something out of nothing with his feet, but what about those on-time throws over the middle?

“He’s fitting the ball in some windows I never thought he could fit the ball into,” said safety Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles. “Sometimes you feel like you’re in great coverage — man-to-man great coverage — and he just fits the ball in there and completes the pass. And I’m just like, whoa. I feel like his passing has been way more efficient this spring.”

Said sophomore linebacker Colin Schooler: “He’s always had that confidence to make the plays he can make. But like Demetrius said of his passing, he’s not scared of any throw. There’s nothing you can do except tip your hat off to him and say that was a good throw, good play.”

The strong-armed Tate has the skills to become the next Lamar Jackson. Tate finished 14th nationally in passing efficiency last season (152.4 rating) while rushing for 1,411 yards, which was fourth in the country among quarterbacks. Tate trailed only option quarterbacks from Army and Navy … and Jackson.

But what does he do now?

Does Tate become a student of the game? Does he pick up Sumlin’s system? It’s still an up-tempo, spread attack, but with different terminology and emphasis. Will he transition into being a leader, by voice and example? Spring is over, but Tate’s work is still beginning.

Kevin Sumlin watches over Arizona’s spring scrimmage (Photo by David Ray Williams, for AllSportsTucson.com)

“We’ll still down this week and talk about that,” Sumlin said of Tate’s summer plans.

“Quarterbacks run our 7-on-7s (in the summer), which puts them in leadership role for those times. And to continue to grow, get command of the offense, continue to understand the progressions and to continue to understand the conflict players in the RPO (run-pass option) system.

“Understanding those things and understanding defenses even more. Trying to get to the point where he can just see that and do it. That’s just reps. That’s what summer time is about and film study and just understanding things a little bit more.

“He’s trying to sit in there a little bit more than just run around all the time, but we’re going to play to his strengths.”

Tate has the raw skills to be the face of the new-look Arizona franchise, to light up the college football world. Is he a preseason All-American? Maybe. More importantly, if he does his work this summer, he could very well make it an easy choice when picking postseason All-Americans.

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