Khalil Tate was the overnight sensation of the 2017 season. After no meaningful impact on Arizona’s 2016 season, Tate took over the Wildcats’ starting quarterback role four games into the ’17 campaign and simply exploded.
His first start, a 45-42 win at Colorado, saw him rush 14 times for 327 yards — an FBS record for a quarterback — and four touchdowns while completing 12-of-13 passes for 154 yards and a touchdown. The rest of the season went pretty much like that: 111-of-179 passing for 1,591 yards with 14 touchdowns against nine picks while carrying 153 times for 1,411 yards and 12 scores. Tate finished the season ranked 97th nationally in total rushes but 17th in rushing yards; his 9.22 yards per carry were 1.35 yards ahead of the next-closest ball carrier with a similar number of carries.
And as Tate’s fortunes rose, so did Arizona’s. After a 2-2 start, the Wildcats ripped off four straight wins in Tate’s first four starts. Arizona did drop four of its final five games en route to a 7-6 final mark, but the Wildcats averaged 32 points in those four losses.
Arizona figured to enter 2018 as a Pac-12 South contender until a wrench was thrown in those plans with Rich Rodriguez’s firing on Jan. 2. Arizona AD Dave Heeke started shopping the position, and Tate’s status as a true junior was a major selling point for the job. Who wouldn’t want to coach such a talented player?
One person aware of Tate’s influence on Arizona’s coaching search? Khalil Tate himself. As the rumor mill churned and Ken Niumatalolo’s name surfaced, Tate dispatched a tweet: “I didn’t come to Arizona to run the tripple (sic) option.”
The tweet meant exactly what it said: Tate was trying to submarine the Navy head coach’s chances at the Arizona job.
“I had to make sure I was heard, make sure the team was heard, because my teammates didn’t want to run the triple option, either,” Tate told Bleacher Report’s Matt Hayes. “So the idea was to tweet it out, let it get traction, then delete it. I knew people reading it would say, ‘Why did he delete it?’ But that just magnifies it more.”
We reported Jan. 12 that Arizona offered the position to Niumatalolo. That same day, Tate sent his now-infamous tweet.
By Jan. 14, Niumatalolo was no longer a candidate at Arizona, and Kevin Sumlin was hired later that day.
— Arizona Athletics (@AZATHLETICS) January 15, 2018
“I didn’t want to go about the situation and then just be, OK, he’s the new coach, I don’t care. Because I did care. We did care as a team,” Tate said. “I knew tweeting that would create a buzz and maybe not get (Niumatalolo) as our coach. I think Ken Niumatalolo is a great coach. It’s nothing against him. But I think it was important to say what I had to say and let everyone know that we’re not just going to be quiet and let things happen. We’re going to be heard.”
Tate’s quotes highlight a lack of visionary leadership from Arizona AD Dave Heeke. If he was convinced Niumatalolo was the guy to lead Arizona moving forward, he should have gotten Tate and other Wildcat leaders in a room and explained his vision for the program with Niumatalolo as its head coach (and the fact Niumatalolo runs the triple option because it’s the best fit for Navy, not because he’s married to it.) And if the players were united against Niumatalolo, don’t you think it would have been better for Heeke and Arizona to learn that behind closed doors, instead of on Twitter?