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Looking back at Khalil Tate’s roller-coaster Arizona career

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khalil-tate-arizona-wildcats-career-football-pac12-quarterback-heisman-richrod-sumlin-mazzone Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There will always been 2017 for Khalil Tate and Arizona Wildcats fans. No one can ever take that away.

Several UA players saw their college careers come to an end on Saturday night with the 24-14 loss at ASU, which ended a disappointing 4-8 season with seven consecutive losses. But of the departing Wildcats who walked off the field at Sun Devil Stadium together late that evening, none stood out more than Tate.

As had been the case for a little more than two years, since he went from unknown to superstar in the blink of an eye.

“I would say my experience was definitely different,” Tate said of his time at Arizona. “There was a lot more going since the time I got here, the sophomore year doing pretty good, my third year battling injury and this year just going through a lot of adversity. It’s definitely been a learning experience for me.”

It was less than 26 months ago that Tate, then only 18 and yet to show his true potential, suddenly became the most electrifying player in college football. What followed was a roller coaster that even the most seasoned rider might have gotten motion sickness from.

In a perfect world, Tate would have finished his UA career atop nearly all the school statistical charts for quarterbacks. But injuries, coaching and system changes and various other hurdles prevented that from happening.

Here’s a year-by-year look at Tate’s wild ride with the Wildcats:

2016

A 4-star prospect out of Southern California, Tate was ranked as the No. 11 athlete in his class. He committed to Arizona in March 2015 as one of the highest-rated passers in school history, but when he arrived as a 17-year-old true freshman he was behind Anu Solomon and Brandon Dawkins on the depth chart.

Tate appeared in seven games, all of them during an eight-game losing streak, finishing with 243 passing yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions along with 237 rushing yards and a score. His snaps were often in mop-up duty and he was very inconsistent, showing flashes from time to time but also youthful mistakes while often getting hurt.

2017

Tate’s sophomore year saw him begin as Dawkins’ backup, seeing action in the first two games before not getting in the next two. Then came Oct. 7, 2017.

Called on to replace an injured Dawkins early in Arizona’s Pac-12 road opener at Colorado, Tate ran for an FBS quarterback-record 327 yards (on just 14 carries) and four TDs while throwing for 154 yards and a TD in the Wildcats’ 45-42 victory.

A week later, he ran for another 230 yards and two TDs in a home win over UCLA, part of a six-week run in which he rushed for 1,207 yards and 11 TDs while becoming a regular entry in live cut-ins during national CFB broadcasts and the first player ever to be named Pac-12 Player of the Week four straight weeks.

Tate would finish the year with 1,411 rushing yards, 1,591 passing yards and 26 total TDs despite only playing in nine full games. He only ran for 58 yards in the Foster Farms Bowl loss to Purdue, but in that same game he showed off his passing ability by throwing for 302 yards and five TDs, both career highs at the time.

With the prospect of doing both as a junior in 2018, the hype train started gaining steam early for Tate only to have that train go off the tracks several times over the remainder of his career, including a near-derailment less than a month later when Rich Rodriguez was fired.

Kevin Sumlin was eventually hired, but before that speculation centered on Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo coming to Tucson, prompting Tate to react via a since-deleted tweet:

Spelling error aside, Tate’s tweet marked a seminal moment in his career. No longer just a phenom, he was now a player with major expectations placed on him, ones that only increased over that offseason with the arrival of Sumlin and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone.

2018

Anyone remember ‘Hand Him the Heisman,’ the infamous caption on the Sports Illustrated cover that Tate was featured on in July 2018? Or is it still #toosoon?

Huge things were expected from Tate during his junior year, making the season opener against BYU one of the most highly-anticipated games in school history. But Arizona lost 28-23 at home, with Tate looking nothing like the QB who took the sport by storm the season before, running only eight times for 14 yards compared to 34 pass attempts, completing 17 for 197 yards and a TD.

Were Sumlin and Mazzone turning Tate into a pocket passer, or was this more a matter of growing pains going from RichRod’s spread system to Mazzone’s more pro-style approach?

We didn’t get to find out. A week later, at Houston, Tate injured his left ankle early in the game, setting the stage of an injury-plagued season that saw him be incredibly tentative on the ground—even after sitting out a game to let the ankle heal up—while often overly aggressive through the air. Tate threw for 2,530 yards and 26 TDs, topping the 300-yard mark three times, but he threw eight interceptions and had just a 56.3 percent completion rate.

Now draft-eligible, Tate had a decision to make: stick it out for another year at Arizona or move on, either by turning pro or heading to another school (he graduated in May 2019 after three years in school). Depending on which message board you read, Tate was gone one way or another … until he wasn’t.

2019

Back for one last go-around, the hope was that Tate, Mazzone and Sumlin could all get on the same page and find a way to maximize both his legs and his arm. But now came another wrinkle in the form of Grant Gunnell, a longtime Sumlin/Mazzone commit who flipped from Texas A&M to Arizona when that pair came to UA.

Gunnell set Texas high school career records for yardage and passing, bringing with him the kind of resume that would make it hard to keep him off the field as a true freshman.

But Tate retained his starting job coming out of training camp, and in the 2019 opener at Hawaii he threw for 361 yards and three TDs and ran for 108 yards, his first 100-yard rushing game since Nov. 2017.

Thirty of those yards came on the game’s final play. Sadly, Arizona snapped the ball from Hawaii’s 31-yard line.

The Wildcats would go on to win their next four games—in hindsight giving fans false hope—but it was during that Tate’s flame started to go out while his successor, Gunnell, began to get passed the torch.

Gunnell was 9 of 11 for 151 yards and three TDs in his collegiate debut against NAU, a game in which Tate threw for 138 yards and two TDs on 14-of-17 passing. Three weeks later, a hamstring injury would sideline Tate and allow Gunnell to make his first start in the Pac-12 opener against UCLA, and the newbie dazzled to the tune of 352 yards and a TD on 29-of-44 passing.

Did Arizona suddenly have a QB controversy?

Apparently not. Or not yet. Because a week later Tate was back in the lineup at Colorado, returning to the site of his coming out party two years earlier, and he responded with a career-high 404 passing yards and three TDs as Arizona moved to 2-0 in the league and were alone atop the South Division.

Every UA fan knows what happened next.

Seven straight losses, capped by Saturday’s defeat in the Territorial Cup, during which time Tate and Gunnell took turns running the offense to varying degrees of success and failure.

It was a full-on QB platoon over the final month of the season, with Gunnell starting twice including on Senior Night, which some people considered a slap in the face to Tate. Tate started at ASU, though, and played the whole way, throwing for 228 yards and two TDs along with three interceptions, the only three-pick game of his career.

Asked how bad he wanted to win that last game, Tate flashed a smile, looked toward teammate Jamarye Joiner—a converted QB who caught both TD passes that night—before answering.

“Everybody wants to win anything that you do,” he said. “You’re driving you car, you want to make a green light, you don’t want to get stuck at a red light. If you do lose, you can either use that as a learning lesson or let it affect you in a negative way."

That he was still smiling after all he'd give through speaks volumes about how much Tate matured over the years.

What’s next?

Tate, who is taking graduate classes, said he plans to start training for the NFL Draft right away. Whether he’ll hear his name called in the spring, though, is uncertain.

In late November Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller published a scouting notebook focusing on the 2020 Draft’s quarterback class. Tate wasn’t mentioned.

And DraftScout.com’s ranking of top senior quarterbacks in the country goes 15 deep without including the one from Arizona.

Like many athletic quarterbacks, the discussion of a position change has come up. Maybe that will be Tate’s path to an NFL career.