Nothing like taking over a college football program and opening the cupboard to see what kind of talent your predecessor has left behind — only to find he’s left you a Heisman Trophy candidate!
That’s Kevin Sumlin‘s good fortune as he prepares for his first season as the head football coach at University of Arizona. Sumlin was hired in mid-January to take over the Wildcat program after Rich Rodriguez was fired amid allegations of workplace misconduct that included sexual harrassment charges by his administrative assistant.
Before he left, Rich Rod made a quarterback switch four games into the 2017 season that gave Kahlil Tate the starting job — and set in motion the meteoric rise of the dual-threat quarterback from Inglewood, Calif.
Arizona was off to a mediocre 2-2 start to the season when its starting quarterback, Brandon Dawkins, took a nasty hit out of bounds on the opening drive against the University of Colorado. The coaching staff decided to keep the redshirt junior on the sidelines as a precautionary measure.
Enter Tate. The true sophomore took the reins of the offense and led the Cats to a 45-42 victory, and in the process set a new FBS rushing record for a quarterback. His 327 rushing yards were also the second-most in school history. He ran for four touchdowns in that game and added a fifth via the pass while throwing for 142 yards — nearly 500 yards of total offense. How’s that for a splashy debut?
Suddenly, the Wildcats had a new starting quarterback. And Tate continued to make the most of the opportunity.
Tate followed up the Colorado victory with wins over UCLA and California before upsetting No. 15 Washington State. He was named the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week after each of his first four outings, the first player to win four consecutive POW honors and just the second to win four in a single season; the other was USC quarterback Matt Barkley.
By that time, the Heisman talk had begun. However, Arizona went on to lose three of its last four games of the season and got beat in the Foster Farms Bowl. They don’t give Heisman trophies for directing a team to a 7-6 finish.
Much of the blame for that seven-win season lies with a defense that was sorely inadequate, finishing the season ranked near the bottom of the national rankings in both points allowed and yards allowed. However, the Cats did all right on offense, averaging 41 points a game, which was fifth-best in the country.
Tate, a sturdy 6’2″ and 215 pounds, finished a 3,002-yard season with 1,411 yards rushing and 1,591 passing — the very definition of a ‘dual-threat’ quarterback. He led the conference in passing efficiency in 2017, finishing No. 14 nationally in that category.
This season, Tate finds himself in the Heisman discussion even before the first game is played, a meeting with BYU that will provide an early test.
Earlier this month, Sports Illustrated ranked the junior No. 4 among all players coming into the 2018 season, highest among quarterbacks. And last week he was named to the Maxwell Award Watch List and the Davey O’Brien Award Watch List.
The Maxwell is presented annually to the player voted college football’s Player of the Year and the O’Brien goes to the nation’s best college quarterback. Tate was a semifinalist for the Davey O’Brien award last season.
For Coach Sumlin, the care and feeding of elite-level quarterbacks is nothing new. During his time as head coach at Houston, he developed Case Keenum into the NCAA career leader in total offense and touchdowns passes, and at Texas A&M he mentored Heisman winner, Johnny Manziel.
Now he’s got a chance to do the same at his latest career stop. Some guys have all the luck.
There is a downside, however. When you’ve got a Heisman-quality quarterback on the field, expectations run high — even if it is your first year as head coach.
Another seven-win season won’t cut it with the long-suffering fans in Tucson.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)