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Sleep on Khalil Tate at your own peril

Arizona State v Arizona Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images

For many, the lasting images of Khalil Tate’s 2018 season is the collapse against Arizona State in the Territorial Cup.

First there was the ill-fated interception when he probably could have run for a huge first down, one that led to an ASU field goal. The very next drive featured the lost fumble on a handoff to J.J. Taylor, which the Devils needed all of one offensive play to turn into the game-winning touchdown.

Amazingly, had Tate connected on a ridiculous deep ball to Shun Brown, Stanley Berryhill III held onto a pass in the end zone or Josh Pollack made a 45-yard field goal, the conversation would have centered around how Tate and the Cats rebounded from their miscues and found a way to win a big game.

The win would have made the Arizona Wildcats bowl eligible and given off a vibe that they, with Tate healthy, had found their stride as winners of three of their last four.

Instead, both Arizona and Tate were seen as underwhelming. That’s sports for ya.

As the calendar has turned to July and the Week 0 opener against Hawaii is less than two months out, there are no Sports Illustrated covers or huge outside expectations for Tate to live up to. And yet, the feeling here is he is set to be one of the best QBs in the country.

Why should one expect a bounce-back campaign? Well, let’s start with the fact that even though he did not live up to expectations, Tate’s 2018 was hardly something to look down upon as he battled injury and struggled to learn a new offense.

The ugly finish against Arizona State overshadowed what was otherwise a very good game, one that was part of a string of good performances. In four games played after missing a week to finally rest his balky ankle, Tate threw for 1,115 yards and 15 touchdowns with just four interceptions.

The rushing numbers weren’t what we saw the year before, but it was obvious he was moving much better than he had since initially injuring the ankle Week 2 against Houston.

A healthy Tate was pretty damn good. A healthy Tate who has a greater understanding of the offense will be really damn good.

In all, last season Tate passed for 2,530 yards and 26 touchdowns with just eight interceptions. The touchdown total is the fifth-best mark in Arizona football history, and while that says more about the program’s struggles at the position than anything, it was a sign Tate’s arm was able to get the Cats into the end zone.

Speaking of that arm, the talent is undeniable.

And when it came to handling the position when things went off-script, there were none better in the Pac-12.

Tate was wildly inconsistent at times, and put up some of his best numbers against the worst competition. Five touchdowns against Southern Utah is nothing to write home about, but that final stretch of the season — wins over Oregon and Colorado with a (bad) loss at Washington State and then the ASU debacle — show that as a junior, Tate could could feast on more than just the least of the schedule.

That’s all with his arm.

Now, imagine he combines his improvement as a passer with the running ability that made him so dangerous in 2017. At that point you have the QB who was a trendy preseason Heisman pick this time a year ago.

Does anyone doubt Tate could be that guy?

The thing is, health is never guaranteed and Tate’s accuracy must improve (56.3 completion percentage won’t cut it) and he must succeed without his top four receivers from last season.

There’s also the matter of excelling in an offense he visibly struggled with at times in 2018 and a reported rift between he and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone. Tate also needed to grow up a little, at least in terms of dealing with the media following losses.

Yet, my confidence in Tate stems from the very fact that despite the reasons why it would have made sense for him to leave, he is still with the Wildcats.

Reports from December talked about a conversation the QB had with head coach Kevin Sumlin paving the way for his return.

Based on that it would be fair to assume Tate has accepted Mazzone’s coaching, which is a great thing.

For all his faults, Mazzone has led some QBs to outstanding seasons, and it’s only fair to point out how last year’s “struggles” culminated with one of the top offenses in the Pac-12. Arizona led the conference in yards per-game and finished third in points per contest.

In other words, there’s little reason to think coaching will hold Tate back. At least, not if his time in the offense has created a passer who thinks less on the field and instead gets back to just making plays.

What does that QB look like? Think of the guy we saw over the last four games of the season, only with more experience, better health and no shortage of motivation.

Indeed, Tate’s senior season very well could be one to remember.