It’s all business down in Tucson, which seems to suit the youngster who grew up near Hollywood, pretending to be a star.
“I’m a starter now,” Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate said. “It’s something I’ve embraced each and every day.”
His demeanor was matter-of-fact last year. This season, he’s downright laconic.
Maybe it’s because it was the middle of training camp, and he’d just stepped off the practice field. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t have to prove himself for once. Maybe it’s because he knows one tweet can trigger months of speculation. Maybe it’s because he can’t say anything more than the Sports Illustrated cover that read “He’s the Nation’s Best QB. Hand Him the Heisman.”
Or maybe it’s because he’s finally got the mentor he needed all along?
UA coach Kevin Sumlin might be new to town, but he’s not new to any of this.
“I like to think that there’s not a relationship in the country like ours,” Tate said. “He recruited me out of high school, and I was gonna go there and ended up not. It’s kinda funny how we all ended up in the same place.”
‘I like a lot’
Kevin Sumlin has influenced some of the top quarterbacks in college football over the last generation.
He, of course, helped create the legend of Johnny Football at Texas A&M. He also guided Case Keenum to 136 touchdown passes over three seasons at Houston. Before that, he was an offensive assistant at Oklahoma when Heisman winners Jason White and Sam Bradford were calling signals.
Sumlin knows how to get the best out of a guy.
“It’s not a cookie-cutter deal,” he said. “You play to the quarterback’s strengths. Whether a guy’s 6-6 or 5-10. The real things are, he’s gotta understand situational football … he’s got to be accurate when he throws it. And then he’s got to have some leadership skills and not let things affect him.”
If that’s the criteria, then Tate’s the perfect apprentice. He combines tremendous skill with plenty of room to grow.
During last season’s October for the ages, Tate seized the starting job, led the Wildcats to a 4-0 record against Pac-12 competition and put up a season’s worth of stats, including 840 rushing yards, 743 passing yards and 14 total touchdowns. But the team’s third-down conversion rate was less than 40 percent.
His accuracy shouldn’t be a question. During that awesome autumn run, Tate completed 71 percent of his passes, 41 for 58, and threw just two interceptions. At the time, former UA coach Rich Rodriguez described Tate as the most accurate quarterback he’d ever coached. But with just 14.5 pass attempts per game, Tate wasn’t running an offense that would fully test him.
As for leadership and steadiness, Tate answered question after question about the Heisman hype, acknowledging that it’s special but returning to the theme of “trying to get better, each and every day.”
“Accolades come with winning,” he said. “As long as you take it game by game … then everything will work out how it’s supposed to.”
Sumlin, who is famously reserved, must be thrilled. Even if he’d never volunteer as much.
“I like a lot (about Tate),” he said. “He’s growing. It’s a little bit different now, offensively, what we’re asking him to do. We’ve thrown a lot at him in the first couple weeks. … He’s picking that up well.”
And Sumlin also must know the 19-year-old from Inglewood, Calif., who grew up pretending to be a big-time football star the way other kids pretend to be super heroes or kung-fu masters, remains hungry to prove he deserves all the attention.
“As I’ve said before, he really hasn’t played a lot of football at this level,” he said.
Hand him the hype, man
The offseason hype has been outsized for a school that was 7-6 last year and has finished in the AP Top 25 only twice since the turn of the millennium.
There was the SI headline that borrowed language from the 1994 cover that introduced the world to Alcorn State’s Steve McNair, “Hand Him the Heisman.”
There was Sumlin’s hire, a splash move that countered Arizona State’s decision to lure Herm Edwards back to the sidelines after a decade in television.
And there was speculation triggered by an online sports outlet, Bleacher Report, that Khalil Tate orchestrated the decision with a tweet “I didn’t come to Arizona to run the triple-option” that “essentially torpedoed Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo’s candidacy” to replace Rich Rodriguez.
Athletic Director Dave Heeke has said the deleted tweet wasn’t the deciding factor.
But the stories are out there just the same.
Sumlin could be the perfect guide to see the football program through it all.
Cardinals tight end Ricky Seals-Jones was a teammate of Johnny Manziel under Sumlin at Texas A&M.
“When we were at practice, when Johnny was there, it was like a circus,” he said. “We had everybody there. You’re in the spotlight.”
He said Sumlin made sure it wasn’t a distraction.
“We had just moved into the SEC,” Seals-Jones said. “They had beaten ’Bama the year before I came. The attention was already there. So, everybody was just kinda used to it. After a while it was like another day at the office. … Coach Sumlin had it where (reporters) were there for the first 30, 40 minutes of practice, then they were gone.”
Sumlin has been criticized here for being too guarded. He and Tate haven’t done many interviews since the start of training camp.
Sumlin’s response has been that with a new staff, people within the program are still getting to know one another. Access has been limited because at this point, they don’t have much information to share, as he frames it.
He’ll have the last word if he wins big, and UA has a shot. The schedule right now includes just two ranked opponents, No. 15 USC and No. 24 Oregon.
Tate, meanwhile, seems to already have absorbed a great deal from the coach who first noticed him fighting to earn playing time at a powerhouse Southern California high school and insisting coaches recruit him as a quarterback, rather than a safety or receiver.
He’s all business.
“No joking around,” Tate said. “Really, just making sure that the team understands that I’m not playing any games.”
He’s not worried about hype, distractions or interview requests.
“I don’t pay any attention to that,” he said. “… As long as I get better each and every day, I’ll tell my story.”