If there is one thing that Kevin Sumlin has to get right to make sure that his second season with the Arizona Wildcats is better than his first, it’s this: his relationship with star quarterback Khalil Tate.
That relationship, along with that of Tate and the UA’s offensive coordinator, Noel Mazzone, will ultimately hold more weight on Arizona’s success in 2019 than anything else.
If Sumlin and Mazzone can get Khalil to resemble the player Wildcats’ fans saw in 2017, when he broke onto the college football scene in somewhat legendary fashion (racking up over 3,000 yards from scrimmage and 26 touchdowns, mostly by running the football) then the Wildcats have a good chance of exceeding their very modest expectations this year.
If his coaches can’t get the best out of him, though, and the senior looks closer to the player we all saw last season (injury plagued and with less of an emphasis on running), then Sumlin could realistically begin to feel some heat after missing out on a bowl game in his first two years in Tucson.
Speaking at Pac-12 Media Day Wednesday afternoon in Los Angeles, Sumlin seemed to understand the importance of making sure that he and his staff put Tate in positions where the quarterback feels best equipped to help the team be successful this season.
“There was a concerted effort (this offseason) on my part to sit down and say, ‘hey, man, here’s what we see. Where do you want to be? What do you want to do? Here’s how we can help you,” Sumlin said to the assembled media members. “We looked at everything together this offseason. When you only win five game you’ve got a lot of things to work on.”
On top of a better understanding of where Tate wants to be on the field, Sumlin went on to add that he feels the pair’s relationship has gotten better after what was something of a rocky 2018 (there were times when Tate seemed disgruntled with play calling) and said that he’s seen growth in Tate over the last year, not just on the field but as a person as well.
“I think a year later into this thing, he knows us a lot more, and we know a lot more about him. That’s just natural,” Sumlin said. “The experiences that he had last year were experiences that he could learn from, and part of maturity is how you handle everything, highs and lows. He’s certainly in a different place right now than he was last year walking in the door and sitting back there. He has a perspective that he didn’t have at this point last year.”
Tate, for his part, has said all the right things so far heading into the upcoming season and it’s clear that the disappointment of not having lived up to the hype of being a preseason Heisman candidate and being on the cover of Sports Illustrated last year has given him the maturity that Sumlin talked about.
“That was my first time ever having attention like that on that level,” he said of last year. “It was definitely different.”
Tate didn’t have a bad year, per se, as he threw for over 2,500 yards and 26 touchdowns in 2018, but the lack of winning and the noticeable absence of him running the ball (which was his trademark as a sophomore) certainly left something to be desired from him, and the general consensus was that he didn’t live up to expectations.
“When you don’t win anything, it doesn’t mean anything,” he said Wednesday in LA.
While it makes sense to think that Tate will perform better in his second year in Sumlin and Mazzone’s pocket passing system, the team’s play calling will still be under almost constant scrutiny.
If the Wildcats (and particularly Tate) struggle on offense early on and Sumlin and Mazzone don’t give him the opportunity to get loose as a runner, expect the scrutiny to increase.
In fact, that scrutiny already started on Wednesday at media day, when Sumlin was asked if Tate’s ankle being 100 percent healthy meant that we would see a more athletic and mobile quarterback this season - insinuating he would run and scramble more than in 2018.
In response, the head coach gave a stoic and almost laughable answer.
“Yeah, he’s athletic and mobile,” he said.
While Sumlin might not be giving anything away in terms of his play calling, he made it clear that he thinks he and Tate can make it work this year.
“It takes maturity, just like anything else, to know where your flaws are, to accept those, and then know that we’re being critical for a reason, because our goal is the same,” he said. “It’s knowing that we want you to be great. We want to be Pac-12 champions, and in order to do that, here are the things that you can do to help yourself be the best player in this league.”
When asked about rebounding after a frustrating year for everyone involved, Tate summed things up with a fitting response.
“It’s all about putting your ego to the side and really saying, ‘I can bear down and do this.’”