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Arizona football: Khalil Tate impresses in debut with Wildcats, possibly creating quarterback controversy

Might we have another quarterback competition?

NCAA Football: Arizona at UCLA Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into the second half against the UCLA Bruins, Arizona Wildcats head coach Rich Rodriguez had a critical decision to make with his team trailing by seven points.

His top two quarterbacks, Brandon Dawkins and Anu Solomon, were injured — the latter didn’t even make the trip to Pasadena — and his remaining options were walk-on Zach Werlinger and true freshman Khalil Tate, a former four-star recruit.

On the surface, that may seem like a no-brainer — you go with the four-star talent — but there were broader implications to consider. Tate was in the process of redshirting and inserting him into the game meant burning a year of eligibility.

There were also questions about Tate’s readiness to play, given that he’s only 17 years old and this is his first season at the collegiate level.

And presumably taking those things into account, Rodriguez stuck with Werlinger, despite the walk-on leading Arizona to a three-and-out in their final possession before halftime.

But when the second half began, UCLA quickly drove the field for a touchdown, putting the Bruins up 21-7.

Werlinger tried to answer, but his struggles continued, and the Wildcats went three-and-out again, this time in their first possession in the second half.

Werlinger’s first five pass attempts all landed incomplete.

Meanwhile, UCLA tacked on three more points on the ensuing possession, extending its lead to 24-7.

The game was quickly getting out of reach for the Wildcats, so Rodriguez did something that many thought was unlikely — he summoned the 17-year-old Tate into the game, disregarding the possible long-term ramifications.

“I felt like he gave us the best chance to win,” Rodriguez told reporters after the game.

Tate was the youngest player on the field, but he sure didn’t look like it.

The freshman sparked a stagnant UA offense, leading the Wildcats all the way from their own 10-yard line to UCLA’s three-yard line, where they’d eventually settle for a field goal to make it a 24-10 game.

“I just felt like I was doing this since I was four years old, so I knew what to expect,” Tate told reporters after the game. “I knew just to be ready. We practice every week. We always get about the same amount of reps so I knew it was going to be just like practice.”

Tate didn’t complete a pass on the drive, but he ran for 38 yards, often putting his shoulder down and barreling over defenders to pick up yards after contact — things that teenage quarterbacks shouldn’t be able to do at the collegiate level.

“I thought he competed well,” said Rodriguez. “[Quarterbacks coach] Rod Smith has done a great job of getting him part of our offense to learn but when Anu [Solomon] was in, (Tate) was fourth and going to redshirt. He’s a young guy but in the last couple weeks he’s gotten a few more reps just in case, so we put him in there and I thought he made some plays, competed, and ran well and did some decent things.”

Tate’s success continued after the initial scoring drive and he finished the night 5-for-9 for 72 yards, along with 79 rushing yards on 15 carries in the Wildcats’ 45-24 loss.

Tate’s talent level was on full display and not just on the ground, as he threw for two touchdowns.

On the first one, he escaped the pass rush and flicked a 31-yard pass to Shun Brown.

Later he showed off his touch, dropping a pass into the hands of Cam Denson for a 12-yard touchdown.

Tate shined and was well-prepared for the limelight.

“All throughout the week, [coach] kept telling me to be ready because I’m one or two snaps away,” Tate said. “So when Brandon got dinged up I knew I was next in line so I just prepared for that and excelled.”

That he did, and now the question now becomes: who starts at quarterback for Arizona next week in Utah?

It’s a question that Rodriguez himself might not be able to answer at the moment.

Will Dawkins be healthy enough to play? What about Solomon, who won the job in fall camp? Or should Tate be given the keys now that his redshirt’s been burned and he’s the hot hand, even if the playbook would be limited with him in the game?

Arizona had an open quarterback competition before the season started, and now we’re five weeks in and it appears we’re back to square one — it’s now anyone’s guess as to who will lead the offense next weekend in Salt Lake City.

But now that Tate’s redshirt has been burned, he becomes a more available option, and he insists he’ll be ready to play once again if he’s called upon.

“Coach Smith encourages competition,” Tate said. “Every week it’s anybody’s job. If you practice really well, you’re probably get a shot in the game and that’s what happened.”

“I’m going to take it day-by-day... and get ready and prepare for Utah.”

But will he even play in that game? We’ll have to wait and find out.

You can follow this author on Twitter at @RKelapireUA