Kevin Sumlin's offense could be electrifying with the return of a healthy Khalil Tate
Editor's note: The fourth in a series of articles previewing Pac-12 Conference football teams in reverse order of how they were projected to finish in the preseason conference media poll.
The outside expectations for Arizona have plummeted after coach Kevin Sumlin’s disappointing debut season in Tucson.
The Wildcats, coming off a 5-7 finish, are picked to finish fifth in the South Division in the Pac-12 preseason media poll.
Khalil Tate was enjoying the lack of attention surrounding the program during the Pac-12 media day event in Los Angeles.
After being projected as a Heisman Trophy candidate last summer, the dynamic dual-threat quarterback was hobbled by a painful ankle injury suffered in the second game.
Now healthy, Tate believes he has the talent to be the next Kyler Murray, who seemed destined for the Oakland Athletics farm system until winning the Heisman Trophy and leading Oklahoma to the College Football Playoff last year.
Despite his diminutive stature, Murray was selected at the top of the NFL draft by the Arizona Cardinals.
“I always use his situation as an example. Last year at this time, was Kyler Murray talked about a whole lot?” Tate said. “Won the Heisman, No. 1 pick. It’s the little things.
“Hype can help you out or it can hurt you. I think, at the end of the day, hype doesn’t mean anything. I learned that.”
Tate rushed for 1,411 yards in 2017, but the injury limited him to 224 yards on the ground last season. His completion percentage also dropped from 62% to 56%.
The Wildcats expect Tate, who passed for 2,530 yards with 26 touchdowns and eight interceptions, to return to being the player who put up video game statistics during October 2017.
“It shows he’s a man that is really determined to get his team on track. Even not being 100 percent, he still went out there and battled every single play, every single rep,” running back J.J. Taylor, who rushed for 1,434 yards last season, said of the respect Tate earned in the locker room for gutting it out. “I feel like we can have an electric offense if we put all the pieces together.”
Tate passed for three touchdowns, and Taylor rushed for 212 yards and two touchdowns during Arizona’s 44-15 victory over Oregon.
The Wildcats would have made a bowl game if not for narrow defeats to BYU (28-23), USC (24-20), UCLA (31-30) and the late collapse against rival Arizona State (41-40).
“Last season was not what we wanted, players or coaches, but I think if you look back at the inconsistency of how we played, that was revealed in our record,” Sumlin said. “We came back in January, we met and discussed openly what our expectations were as a football team and what that looked like consistency-wise, on and off the field.
“These guys have accepted that challenge.”
Arizona’s defense is led by Colin Schooler, the brother of Oregon wide receiver Brenden Schooler, who is a preseason all-Pac-12 first team selection.
Defensive lineman J.B. Brown and cornerback Jace Whittaker could also be on the postseason all-conference team.
The Wildcats will get an early start to the season with an Aug. 24 opener at Hawaii.
With home games against Northern Arizona, Texas Tech and UCLA, Tate and Co. could be back in the national spotlight Oct. 12 when defending Pac-12 champion Washington visits Arizona Stadium.
“There’s a lot of talent at Arizona a lot of people aren’t talking about,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “People have forgotten about this monster named Tate that, when he’s healthy, he’s as good as anybody in college football.”
Tate, who was on the wrong end of a 48-28 loss to Oregon in 2017 when Justin Herbert made his triumphant return from a fractured clavicle, will lead the Wildcats into Autzen Stadium on Nov. 16.
If both quarterbacks are healthy, the press box will be overflowing with NFL scouts.
“The hunger in me, my heart really came out,” Tate said of playing through his injury last season. “I really tried every game. I could have sat one game out, but I wanted to play because I knew how detrimental it was to my team and how big of a leader it takes to just put your ego to the side.
“It’s easy to say that you’re a leader just because you’re a senior, but you have to actually go through pains and be put in awkward situations so that you actually grow.”
Coach: Kevin Sumlin, second year year (5-7 at Arizona, 91-50 overall)
Key players: QB Khalil Tate, RB J.J. Taylor, DL Kylan J.B. Brown, LB Tony Fields, LB Colin Schooler, CB Jace Whittaker
2018 record: 5-7 overall, 4-5 Pac-12
2019 projection: The Wildcats are picked to finish fifth in the South Division in the Pac-12 preseason media poll
Nonconference opponents: Hawaii, Northern Arizona, Texas Tech
Plays Oregon: Nov. 16 in Eugene
Full schedule: Aug. 24 at Hawaii, Sept. 7 vs. Northern Arizona, Sept. 14 vs. Texas Tech, Sept. 28 vs. UCLA, Oct. 5 at Colorado, Oct. 12 vs. Washington, Oct. 19 at USC, Oct. 26 at Stanford, Nov. 2 vs. Oregon State, Nov. 16 at Oregon, Nov. 23 vs. Utah, Nov. 30 at Arizona State
Monday’s preview: Washington State