Of all the assistants that Kevin Sumlin brought to the Arizona Wildcats last year, none came with as much experience and as lofty a reputation as Noel Mazzone.
The longtime offensive coordinator was known for his success developing quarterbacks, including Philip Rivers and Josh Rosen, so pairing him with a rising star like Khalil Tate seemed like a match made in heaven.
Remember that ‘Just Hand Him the Heisman’ Sports Illustrated cover? That was as much about Tate as it was about how much better he’d be with Mazzone pulling the strings. Or so it seemed.
Instead, Tate looked nothing like the dual-threat QB who ran all over Pac-12 defenses in 2017 and Arizona’s offense failed to be anywhere close to as explosive as expected.
On Monday night Mazzone described Tate’s 2018 as “up and down, kind of like our whole football team,” putting a good amount of blame on both player and coach learning how the other operated.
“I think it was a whole new offense for him, he was a new player for me, so we went through our growing pains,” Mazzone said Monday in his first interview since before last season. “I can understand him more and he understands me a little bit more. Playing in the system a little bit more, once he feels comfortable with that then he can give us the pizazz plays more.”
Tate threw for 2,530 yards and 26 touchdowns last season but only ran for 224 yards, nearly 1,200 fewer than the previous year. Mazzone said the ankle injury suffered in the second game at Houston played a big role in that decrease, but so did Tate’s efforts to do what his coach was asking of him.
“We were asking him to develop his dropback game, so he was going through some learning curve on that part of it,” Mazzone said. “We weren’t strictly just a ‘hand it off or you pull and run’ type deal. He really has a better understanding of all this.”
Asked what it will take for Tate to find some sort of middle ground, where both the run and pass become equally potent for him, Mazzone said it’s a matter of making the most of what he does best.
“When he just starts to play to his strengths, which is his athletic ability, and understands how the pieces all fit in the offense, I think he can do both things really well,” he said. “I ran this offense with the Brett Hundleys of the world and the Josh Rosens of the world.”
Quarterbacks getting equal reps
While Tate is the presumptive starter—though Mazzone wouldn’t say as much—for the fall, during spring practice there are six starting QBs. Or none, depending on how you look at it.
“Pretty even as far as reps, we’ve tried to make it very competitive,” Mazzone said. “We’ve got our red group and our blue group, there’s three in each, and they alternate.”
While Tate and junior Rhett Rodriguez, the main backup in 2018 who started the UCLA game, are known quantities, the rest of the QBs are all freshmen. Only Jamarye Joiner saw action last season, getting in against Cal and Utah, while Kevin Doyle and walk-on Luke Ashworth never saw the field and Grant Gunnell was still in high school.
Mazzone said even that limited playing time “really helped” Joiner going into this spring. Reading between the lines, he apparently was further along in his development than Doyle, though Doyle appears to have made great strides from a year ago.
“He’s starting to process the information better than he did,” Mazzone said. “As far as throwing the football, that’s not his problem. Where he’s kind of learning, learning, learning more, and has to keep improving, is him processing information and making good decisions for us.”
Mazzone described Gunnell, an early enrollee who is one of the centerpieces of Sumlin’s first full recruiting class, as “smart” and someone that will greatly benefit from being in spring ball.
“You can’t put any value on it,” he said. “He’s so much further ahead than he’d have been if he showed up in June or July.”
Open competitions abound
Arizona has some major holes to fill on the offensive line and at wide receiver, but Mazzone considers nearly every starting job on offense to be up for grabs during the spring. The only exception is running back J.J. Taylor, who earned All-American status in 2018.
“We’re going to give everybody equal shots,” he said. “Everybody’s going to go in, we’re going to rotate them all through. It’s a pretty level playing field right now. On our offense, that was kind of our message this spring, everybody’s coming out and you’re going to go out every day to compete for your job and earn the right to be a starter for this team.”
Mazzone said he’s excited about Josh Donovan and Paiton Fears, the two junior college offensive linemen Arizona brought in, and he’s anxious to see how a mostly inexperienced receiving corps develops.
“I think Cedric (Peterson) and probably (Devaughn) Cooper are probably the only guys who have had real substantial playing time,” he said. “So it’s a whole new group.”