We have all seen it. The upward angle photo sprawling across one of the country’s most prestigious sports magazines, known for its iconic and timeless covers. The latest edition is now being graced by Arizona’s own Khalil Tate.
He’s cocking his throwing arm, showing off the red number “14” on the front of his jersey. As he prepares for a season that will leave many defenders looking at the number on the back of his jersey, he also looks to make a run at the illustrious Heisman trophy this fall.
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A Sports Illustrated cover was a pipe dream when Tate stepped on campus two years ago as a freshman, at the time ineligible to play due to a redshirt. Even as a 4-star recruit coming onto a team with only a handful of 4-star recruits, the expectations of Tate were met and have been exceeded in just the handful of games that Tate started last season. He took over for Brandon Dawkins in what was seen at the time as a desperation move by former head coach Rich Rodriguez in the middle of a season that was going nowhere fast.
The desperation move ended up being Arizona’s adrenaline shot to the heart; Tate pulled his fellow young and inexperienced Wildcats across the seasonal finish line, winning seven games and leading them to a bowl game.
Tate’s impression on the Pac-12 was felt then, but his official statement to the nation came on a fall night in Boulder. As Tate ran through, under and around Colorado, he ended the night with 327 yards on the ground, shattering the national record for rushing by a quarterback.
The highlight reels are well worn, but Tate’s legacy isn’t going to be the number of magazine covers he’s plastered on, nor the yardage that he amassed during his stay in Tucson. It will be how he takes on the sole leadership role for a team that has dealt with scandals and disappointment over the last year, to not only stablize the ship but also be able to lead it to and through uncharted waters.
Arizona football has had sporadic success in the last 20 years. The most successful seasons are usually followed by disappointing ones, undermining any kind of momentum past coaches have tried to muster.
When Tate walks out onto the field at Arizona Stadium with his teammates on Sept. 1, the 19-year-old junior will not only be carrying their hopes and dreams on his shoulder pads, but the future trajectory of the program he is playing for. No pressure.
Luckily for him, there are multiple examples in college football the last 20 years that display what kind of long-term impact a dynamic quarterback like Tate can have on a specific program — changing the complete image of an institution in just a handful of exciting nationally-televised games spread over a couple months.
For example, Michael Vick at Virginia Tech helped propel Frank Beamer’s program into a perennial top-25 team for a decade and a half after his electric run to the 2000 BCS Championship Game. Dennis Dixon made people all over the country comfortable with Oregon being a top-10 team year-in and year-out.
Robert Griffin III’s magical 2012 Heisman season helped change the entire outlook on Baylor’s football program, jump-starting their metamorphosis from Big 12 punchline into a program that was considered a top-5 team for consecutive years just a few short years ago. Furthermore, a guy named Johnny Manziel helped Texas A&M transition into a competitive SEC program with a Heisman campaign as a redshirt freshman.
The blueprint has been laid out for Tate by fellow groundbreaking dual-threat quarterbacks who have come before him. In just a couple days, Tate gets to show whether he will join those quarterbacks or fall by the wayside.
All eyes on Tate means more eyes on the University of Arizona. And with new indoor facilities being built, there is no better time for the Wildcats to strike, while interest and outside intrigue for Arizona’s program is at its highest in years. Tate’s unpredictable and exciting play will have a heavy hand in determining Arizona’s unpredictable and exciting future as a program years after his playing days are over.
The entire country is on notice and will be watching. If Tate ends the season holding that bronze trophy in New York, expect those eyes to stick around a little longer.
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