It seemed to Arizona's Khalil Tate that he had been waiting his whole 19-year life to show what he could do at quarterback. Well, five games into last season, he got his chance, and he made the most of it. The question is, What can he do this year, now that the whole college football world is watching (at least those who stay up past 9 p.m. in the East)?
THE JERSEY hung off Khalil Tate's tiny frame, the bottom dangling down to his knees and the sleeves hiding his small hands. Akili Tate lent his three-year-old brother an old youth football jersey because Khalil begged. What little Khalil really wanted was to play tackle football with his brother and the other six-year-olds and so, in his big, baggy jersey, he quietly crept onto the field, slipping into a line of boys during prepractice stretching. When the coach booted him, he'd cry to his mother, and she'd tell him the same thing she always told him: Wait.
It was like the time later, as an eighth-grader, when he traveled with his brother on the summer 7-on-7 circuit, tagging along with an older group and occasionally participating in a practice by rifling 70-yard passes to high school receivers. They'd turn to their coach and ask, "Why can't he play in the games?"
So he waited, and he waited.
Khalil Tate has spent a lot of his 19 years waiting. He waited to finally play tackle football at age five, and when the coach put his son in at quarterback and stuck Khalil at defensive end, he waited until the next year to play the position he wanted to. He waited in high school, at last winning the starting quarterback job midway through his junior season. Khalil waited in college too, at Arizona, getting his shot a month into his sophomore season only after starter Brandon Dawkins suffered an injury.
Finally, the wait for Khalil Tate is over. He put a thunderous ending to it all last fall, erupting for one of the most sensational six-week stretches in history, a series of games in which a little-known backup quarterback thrust himself into Heisman Trophy contention.
Tate wowed the country with his big-play ability over the six-game span, rushing for eight touchdowns of at least 45 yards each, completing seven scrambling deep balls of more than 40 yards and stunning the sport with his offensive productivity: 1,207 yards rushing—12 yards per carry—957 yards passing and 19 total touchdowns.
The 6'2", 215-pound Tate wasn't running like a quarterback either. He sought out contact like a big, burly running back, shaking off arm tacklers and shouldering into defenders. He outran defensive backs and slashed away from speedy linebackers, making cuts in the open field like a silky, smooth receiver. As his mother, Lesli, says, "It almost looks like he's skating."
He ran for more yards in a single game, 327 on Oct. 7 against Colorado, than any other quarterback in NCAA history, and his 840 rushing yards last October were the most by a Football Bowl Subdivision player at any position in that month in more than a decade.
It was a satisfying moment for someone who at Junipero Serra High in Gardena, Calif., was categorized by recruiting services as an "athlete" and not a quarterback, a recruit whom some schools wanted as a defensive back. "I've always been the underdog, even in high school. I wasn't superrecruited. Didn't get invited to Elite 11, The Opening, none of that," he says, of high school showcases. "A lot of guys were ranked ahead of me. Funny to see if you look at those lists now, and it's like, 'Huh, O.K.' I've always been the underdog. I enjoy that. I like to let people know that you can go from one day being nothing to the next day being the talk of the world."
Back home, "they all knew," Khalil says, but "for everyone else, it was like, 'Who's that guy and where did he come from?'"
ACROSS THE kitchen, Brian Tate's eyebrows scrunch up. What the heck is his son trying to tell him?
Khalil is flashing hand signals and before Brian can decipher them, Lesli barks out the answer: "Drink water!" or "Go eat dinner!" or "Take a nap!" Khalil is slowly teaching his parents what he's learned from sign language class, and his mother is learning it the more quickly.
Khalil is scheduled for his fourth class of sign language this semester at Arizona. Overall he is an honor student, with a GPA north of 3.0, something he keeps to himself, his father says. Khalil is studying Information Science & eSociety, a new major at the school.
Khalil's social media classes got personal last October, when Twitter campaigns—#Khalil4Heisman, for instance—became a teaching lesson. When tweets, some his, were projected on the screen in front of the class, Khalil slumped into his chair. He's a shy kid. He says, "Everybody is looking at me like, 'That's him!'"
That's what happens when you go from seldom-used backup to big-time star in days. By October, Khalil was a talking point for coaches and players at Serra, a coeducational private Catholic school with an enrollment of about 400. Before practice cranked up each Monday last October, they'd gather around to chat about their now famous alum. "Did you see him do that!?" says Serra defensive backs coach Marvin Pollard. "It was like every time you looked up, he was on SportsCenter's top 10 [plays]."
There was his scrambling 30-yard TD pass on fourth down and 161 rushing yards against USC and the deep bomb he placed perfectly for a 56-yard score versus Cal. There was the jaw-dropping highlight when five Oregon State players missed him on an 18-yard touchdown run. There was the video game moment against UCLA, when he nearly fumbled a snap, broke two tackles in the backfield and turned on the jets for a 71-yard score.
"I knew he was going to be a great player," Brian says, "I didn't know he was going to be this good."
Khalil does not have a tattoo, his father proudly notes, and his ears aren't pierced. Brian, a schoolteacher, and Lesli, a pharmacy assistant, were strict on their two boys, raising them 15 miles southwest of downtown Los Angeles in Inglewood, where gang violence and drug activity are not uncommon. They filled the kids' schedules with schoolwork and sports. "It can be treacherous out here. Sports got us away from a lot of different things," says Akili, now 22 and working as a freelance filmmaker and videographer.
Khalil first learned to dodge defenders and toss TD passes at Darby Park, helping lead the Inglewood Jets to four youth league Super Bowls and, at one point, a 40-game winning streak. The biggest influence on him: a 73-year-old woman Khalil calls Oma—a word roughly translated as grandma. An accomplished athlete in her youth growing up in Compton in South Central Los Angeles, Oma later dominated as a pitcher in adult softball leagues. "She could fire that ball," Brian says. Oma showed Khalil how to pass the football, how to crossover dribble and how to throw a stiff arm. She grew up a Lakers fanatic, purchasing a handful of tickets for her family every year and attending every championship parade, and she passed that fandom along to her daughter Lesli.
Khalil has a strong sports lineage on his father's side too. Brian's grandfather played football for Prairie View A&M in Texas in the 1930s, and in Khalil's room he has a black-and-white team photo of his great-grandpa wearing a leather helmet. Khalil grew up tailgating at UCLA football games while a cousin, Manuel White, later a fourth-round draft pick, played running back.
Khalil's uncle, father and brother are all graduates of Serra High, and Khalil was a ball boy for the varsity as a young teen. The lowest-priced tuition plan on the Serra website is $8,400 a year, and sending Khalil there required sacrifice. "We wanted to know when we dropped him off, he'd be safe," Lesli says. Serra's campus in Gardena is seven miles from their home. Despite being the smallest of the three Catholic high schools in their district, the school has recently produced some of football's most talented receivers: Washington's Paul Richardson, Jacksonville's Marqise Lee and the Rams' Robert Woods.
At Serra, Khalil had sat behind an incumbent starter his first two years. Just when he was about to get his chance, a 6'5", 225-pound senior quarterback named Caleb Wilson transferred onto the team after his father joined the USC coaching staff. Khalil wondered if he'd now be stuck behind a new guy. Says Pollard, the Serra assistant and a former cornerback at USC, "I watched Khalil and I knew this was going to bring the best out of him. He was like, 'I will not lose this position.'"
Khalil took the starting job halfway through the season and never turned back. In 10 of Khalil's final 15 games of high school, he ran and passed for more than 100 yards each, and he had a pair of six-touchdown, 500-yard performances as a senior that finally got college coaches thinking he could play quarterback at the next level.
Lesli had been frustrated by Khalil's rankings—he was not a five-star and not even listed by 247Sports as Top 10 at his position—so she created a website for her son, posting his highlights and his gaudy high school stats: 7,168 total yards and 82 touchdowns. He eventually received 15 scholarship offers that included his playing quarterback. The process was tough on Khalil.
Oma helped him, says Lesli. She had twice beaten breast cancer, the last time in 2008, undergoing a double mastectomy and 37 radiation treatments. During that time she was living with Khalil's family and the boys saw her fight the disease as she continued at her job as a social worker. She still throws the football with Khalil today. Khalil says, "I've really got to make her proud."
ON SEPT. 22 the Wildcats fell to Utah 30--24. For a second straight game, Khalil, a sophomore, did not take a snap, stuck behind starter Brandon Dawkins as Arizona fell to 2--2. On the field after the game, a Utes assistant coach approached the Wildcats' backup QB. "Glad, they didn't play you," he told him.
The coach's comments got Khalil thinking: I should be playing. In a meeting a few days later he told that to coach Rich Rodriguez. "I'm only 19, but I know what I want," he says. "I knew I had to ask him, 'What can I do to get on the field?'"
He spent the next weekend, a bye week, in Los Angeles and told his former high school coach, "If they put me on the field, they're not going to be able to take me off." He got his chance when Dawkins was injured in a sideline collision on the opening drive of Arizona's game at Colorado on Oct. 7.
On his third snap, on a zone-read option play in which he faked out nearly the entire left side of the defense, Khalil sprinted for a 58-yard touchdown. On his fourth play he completed a 28-yard pass. On his ninth snap he ran for a 28-yard score. He finished with 481 yards and five scores as Arizona began a four-game winning streak.
Rodriguez's firing two months later, in the wake of a sexual harassment suit, shook the Tates. He was like family. But the hiring of Rodriguez's replacement, Kevin Sumlin, was, says Khalil, "from God." Sumlin and Khalil were already acquainted: Sumlin, a rare believer in Tate as a quarterback, had recruited him to Texas A&M. Noel Mazzone, Arizona's new offensive coordinator, had recruited him too, while coaching at UCLA. "Funny how we all ended up in the same place," Khalil says.
Sumlin and Mazzone are tweaking Rodriguez's spread-centric, QB-run heavy scheme to what Khalil describes as a more NFL offense, asking him to make more "next-level reads" in an offense that includes more passing from the pocket. Sumlin's offense had turned Johnny Manziel into a Heisman Trophy winner in College Station. Conference rival and USC coach Clay Helton predicts that Tate will "continue to be a pain in the butt."
Comparisons between Manziel and Tate are all around. Khalil is the next Johnny Football, they say. He's a righthanded Michael Vick, others proclaim, or he's a West Coast Lamar Jackson.
Tate begins this season in the spotlight: a Heisman Trophy candidate and the leader of a team expected to make some noise in the Pac-12. He knows he'll have to be extra special this year, if he is to claim the top individual prize in college football. At a school with a 24-year conference championship drought and one that routinely kicks off after 9 p.m. ET, the hill is steep. The waiting may not be quite over for Khalil Tate, but his time has come.
Back home, "they all knew," says Tate. "But everyone else was like 'Who's that guy?'"
BY THE NUMBERS
Rushing yards by Tate in 2017, the 12th most in a season by a college QB. Tate started just nine games last year.
Games in which Tate ran for more than 200 yards in 2017.