Cedric Peterson has noticed what everyone else has noticed about Khalil Tate this season.
“I feel like this year he’s mainly trying to focus on his arm,” the Arizona wide receiver said. “We all know what he can do with the ball in his hands as far as running-wise, but now he’s focusing on another key in his game, which is the passing game.”
Tate, one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the country last season, has mysteriously transformed into a pocket-passer this year, throwing roughly four passes for every rush. Last season, that ratio was nearly even.
It has not been a good change. Tate is completing just 54 percent of his passes, down eight percent from last year, while logging just 2.5 yards per carry, nearly a seven-yard dip from 2017.
Arizona’s offense, one of the most explosive units in the FBS last year, has suffered as a result, ranking 71st in offensive S&P+. It was eighth last year.
It’s hard to pinpoint a reason for Tate’s transformation because it’s likely due to several factors — his well-documented ankle injury (though the severity of it has been a hot topic of conversation), the new offense and, simply, Tate’s seemingly new preference to throw the ball or run out of bounds instead of cutting up field, leaving rushing yards on the field.
“I see the same things you see,” UA head coach Kevin Sumlin said after the loss to USC in which Tate rushed a season-high 13 times. “There are plenty of opportunities for him to run.”
The hope for Arizona fans is that Tate will utilize his legs more once he is healthier and/or as the new coaching staff continues to learn how to best use their QB.
Tate did have some success running against Cal this past week, rushing eight times for 40 yards, including a season-long run of 17 yards, and Sumlin knows there is more to be had there.
“I think you could see it,” he said Monday. “The other piece is that when he pulls it, there were some opportunities, but I think (defenses) are playing some other things.”
Sumlin said opposing defenses are vulnerable in the screen game because of how focused they are on keeping Tate contained in the pocket.
“Saturday we were getting pretty consistently 4,5,6 yards. Receivers did a great job blocking. The reason those are open is because there are two guys (on the edge) and only two guys to defend (the receivers), sometimes one when those guys are closer to the box to play the quarterback run game,” Sumlin said.
“If you’re going to get 4, 5, 6, 7 yards doing that, that is just as effective as him running the ball. It might not look as great, but … that’s as good as a run.”
Is it, though?
Sunday was the one-year anniversary of Tate’s record-breaking rushing performance against Colorado. You know, the one where he ran for 327 yards, including touchdown runs of 58, 28, 47 and 75 yards.
UA fans have been waiting for that version of Tate to reappear this season, and Peterson saw a glimpse of it in the Cal game when Tate burst along the sideline for 17 yards on a read-option.
Peterson thinks Tate still has that kind of ability in him, but also isn’t concerned about his new pass-happy tendencies.
“I thought he was going to take off, just like how he did at Colorado,” Peterson said. “People haven’t been really happy with him not running the ball, it’s not really a bad thing to me. It’s just a part of the offense. Last year, not too many people were ready for his running capabilities. Now a lot of people are kind of keying on it. He’ll take it when he gets it.”
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, whose team is tasked with defending Tate on Friday, agrees.
“They are getting about 450 yards a week offensively, so they are very productive,” he said. “Their quarterback is playing more from the pocket than he has in previous years, but he is still a huge threat to run the football. As the coaching changes take hold and get some traction throughout the season, I think you start to see more of what their true capabilities are.”