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Healthy and centered, Khalil Tate ready to give it all in final season at Arizona

khalil-tate-arizona-wildcats-heisman-quarterback-senior-2019-training-camp-preseason-healthy-ankle Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Will the real Khalil Tate stand up this season? Please?

That may depend on what your definition of “real” is for Tate, Arizona’s senior quarterback and arguably the program’s single-most important player since Ka’Deem Carey.

Here are the versions of Tate we’ve seen since he stepped on campus:

  • A 4-star prospect who, as a 17-year-old true freshman in 2016, mostly didn’t look ready to compete when given ample chances to play during a woeful 3-9 season. A combination of erratic play and a tendency to get hurt quickly contributed to this assessment.
  • A mercurial athlete who seemingly came out of nowhere in October 2017 when, after being plucked off the bench at Colorado for an injured Brandon Dawkins, set an FBS QB record with 327 rushing yards. That was the start of six consecutive 100-yard rushing games, with Arizona going 5-1 in that span after a 2-2 start.
  • A mistake-prone passer who was intercepted eight times in the final seven games of 2017, completing only 59 percent of his throws.
  • A Sports Illustrated cover boy and major Heisman Trophy contender, with more hype than a Game of Thrones spinoff and some new coaches who were known for getting the most out of quarterbacks.
  • The neutered product that was on the field for the 2018 opener, a home loss to BYU, in which he ran only eight times for 14 yards (his lowest output since November 2016) and was 17 of 34 through the air.
  • The banged-up shell that hobbled through the remainder of the 2018 season due to a sprained ankle (and, according to his father, shoulder and toe injuries) but still managed to put up some promising passing numbers.
  • The one coach Kevin Sumlin says is “night and day” different from last year, both in terms of mobility and maturity, and that Tate himself says is “100 percent” healthy and “becoming that leader that everybody comes to” for his teammates.

For what it’s worth, every player and coach asked to comment on Tate during preseason camp has pointed toward that final choice. But the first chance to know for certain which Tate we get in 2019 comes in two weeks when Arizona opens the season at Hawaii.

When that game starts, Tate will become the Wildcats’ first senior to start at QB since B.J. Denker in 2013. Since then Arizona senior QBs (including a converted tight end) have gone a combined 55 of 121 for 754 yards with seven touchdowns and five interceptions.

It didn’t look like Tate would get to that point, at least not in Tucson, after speculation spread at the end of last season that he was considering a transfer or even a jump to the pros. But then Tate was on hand for spring practice, and after graduating in three years in May he was still around for summer workouts.

While that narrative has been quashed, there were still the ones related to his performance and demeanor. Turns out they may go hand in hand.

Asked about how he sometimes reacted to postgame questions last season, Tate said he came up with an easy fix for that.

“I think (after) the wins, you guys ask easier questions,” Tate joked. “I’m looking to win games. I think winning games is the most important thing as a quarterback. With the wins, that will die down.”

If what his teammates have said is true, Tate will probably be able to handle any losses much better, too, at least based on how he’s interacted with them.

“He’s been holding a lot of guys accountable,” junior tight end Bryce Wolma said. “The last couple years he’s been that leader, but maybe he’s just been a little more quiet. But this year if guys aren’t on their stuff or aren’t doing the right thing, he’s the first one to tell them what to do and how to face this in a certain scenario.”

Added junior center Josh McCauley: “He’s just more vocal, especially out on the field. He’s talking to us, communicating.”

The sample size was small before Tate injured his left ankle early in the second game of 2018 at Houston, but even in that short window it was evident that he, Sumlin and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone weren’t all on the same page. Not surprising, considering they were putting in a new system from the one Tate had operated in under Rich Rodriguez, and such changes often lead to growing pains.

“I think it’s kind of like when you’re married,” Tate said. “During the first year it’s always going to be kind of rocky. But after time and after you go through a few things, things are starting to become easier.”

That much could be seen late last year as Tate became more and more comfortable as a passer. He finished 2018 with 2,530 yards and 26 TDs, the latter number just two shy of Nick Foles’ single-season school record. And in the final four games, after sitting out at UCLA to let his ankle heal, Tate threw 15 TD passes and averaged 278.8 yards.

Mazzone said he’s seen even more progress in that area during training camp, as well as with becoming a more cerebral passer.

“I’ve really been impressed over the last two weeks of how he’s kind of embraced the mental side of the quarterback position, starting to study defenses and understanding concepts, and understanding that he’s got very talented legs and a very talented arm,” Mazzone said. “If he could use them both during the game … I mean I think he’s gonna be really good football player. So I think he’s really buckled down and started to study the game of football.”

But will be run the ball more? That’s the question almost everyone wants to know first and foremost.

“I hope so,” Mazzone said. “He’s fast.”

Sumlin said Tate “took off” a couple of times during Saturday’s scrimmage, giving what the defense gave him and looking comfortable doing so.

Tate later confirmed that he’s feeling completely healthy, though with the caveat that Arizona has yet to play a real game.

“I would say I’m healthy,” he said. “When I am healthy I can do a lot more. Anything my team needs, I’m doing it for them.”