BALTIMORE—College football recruiting services apply the “athlete” label to high school players who could potentially play multiple positions at the next level. For prospects who project as wide receivers or running backs, the tag is representative of their versatility. For others, the term athlete is considered pejorative. Perhaps a player hasn’t demonstrated the capability to play one position in particular, even if he is highly regarded for his impressive physical tools.
To Khalil Tate’s chagrin, he is classified as an athlete by two of the four major recruiting services, including Rivals.com, which ranks him 23rd at the position in the class of 2016. The 5’11”, 208-pound Tate has long tried to show talent evaluators that he is, in fact, not an athlete, and that he possesses the necessary skills and temperament to play quarterback at a Power Five conference school. Though he has succeeded to some degree, Tate is still fighting an uphill battle.
The lack of clarity about Tate’s college position explains why his recruitment got off to a relatively slow start. As a sophomore at Junipero Serra High in Gardena, Calif., Tate served as the backup to Jalen Greene, who is now at USC. Tate expected to inherit the starting job as a junior, but he was initially part of a platoon with transfer Caleb Wilson (who will join the Trojans as a walk-on in 2015) before taking over in a full-time capacity about midway through the season.
In 2014 Tate completed 55.7% of his passes for 1,395 yards with 17 touchdowns and six interceptions while adding 1,287 yards with 17 scores on the ground.
He played well enough to draw a scholarship offer from a Pac-12 program (Utah) in late January 2015, and both Florida State and USC followed suit within less than a week. Yet even as his profile continued to grow in the West Coast recruiting circuit, Tate had not convinced some of the programs recruiting him that he could play his preferred position. Tate estimates about half of the 15 schools that have extended scholarship offers want him as an athlete, and one as a nickelback.
One program that believes in Tate’s ability to play quarterback is Arizona. Tate issued a verbal commitment to the Wildcats in March after receiving an offer the previous month. His decision made sense given Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez’s up-tempo offense and history of deploying dual-threat signal-callers—from Pat White at West Virginia to Denard Robinson at Michigan to, most recently, Anu Solomon at Arizona—to great effect.
Tate also picked Arizona because of the campus culture. “I knew I wanted to pick my college based on how I would feel if I didn’t play football,” he says. “So how I would feel if I was just a regular student or if I got hurt?”
His pledge to the Wildcats was called into question about a month after he gave it, when Arizona received a commitment from Tesoro (Calif.) High quarterback Devon Modster. However, Tate says he was aware that Arizona was looking to recruit two passers in this class before he issued his word.
Meanwhile, as speculation over whether he would stick with Arizona mounted, Tate stewed over the way he remained perceived by potential alternative options. USC, in particular, is more notable than others that offered Tate at positions that are not quarterback because of the Trojans’ well-known connection to Serra. The school is viewed as a Trojans pipeline, with former Serra graduates Robert Woods, Adoree’ Jackson and Rasheem Greene, among others, picking USC in recent years.
According to Tate, USC said he could come in and compete at quarterback, but the Trojans would slot him at receiver if he didn’t beat out others at the position. Tate says he got the feeling early in his recruitment that at USC—which signed two four-star quarterbacks in its 2015 class and has one three-star committed for ’16—it would be unlikely that he’d ever line up under center. “I kinda knew that if I go to SC, I’m going to be an athlete,” Tate says.
Asked how he would react if USC said it wanted to him as a quarterback, Tate responded skeptically. “I would think they were lying to me because if you tell somebody one thing, that they’re going to come in as a quarterback but switch, and then you tell them, ‘No, play quarterback,’ I probably wouldn’t believe them.”
At the Rivals Five-Star Challenge at M&T Bank Stadium in June, Tate said his commitment to Arizona remains solid, but he wants to take official visits and is staying open to other programs. “I don’t want to just shut the whole recruitment down and narrow myself,” he says. “I just want to explore basically.”
Why are some programs hesitant to offer Tate as a quarterback? One of the main concerns is his throwing motion. Rivals.com analyst Adam Gorney notes that Tate’s delivery is not compact and he tends to bring the ball “over the top” upon releasing it. The clip below depicts footage from the inaugural Rivals quarterback challenge, after which national recruiting director Mike Farrell gave Tate the award for having the “most deliberate delivery.” (Scroll over image to play.)
Tate said he was battling a minor finger injury during the challenge, the result of a warm-up session the previous day with 2017 blue-chip quarterback Tate Martell.
It’s also worth pointing out that Tate is young for his class. When he graduates from Serra next spring, he will only be 17. Though he says many coaches have overlooked his age, it’s no huge leap to suggest—because he is younger and has less experience than many of his peers—Tate could require additional seasoning. Some programs may balk at the idea of a more protracted developmental timeline, but the final product could prove just as fruitful as that of some other passers who are more highly regarded than Tate.
Serra coach Scott Altenberg says Tate could improve his game-management skills and notes there are times when he’s inconsistent with his release. But he refutes the notion that Tate isn’t effective dropping back. The clips of Tate scrambling away from pressure and making plays with his legs, Altenberg argues, may cause some coaches to neglect his throwing ability.
According to Altenberg, Serra has some plays in which Tate is asked to alter his release. “A percentage of the passes that he throws are within the running game—what we call ‘best available release,’” he says. “And sometimes that means sidearm, sometimes that means over the top." Altenberg adds: “Now when he drops back, you look at him and he looks … he gets his elbow up, his tech looks great. He gets the ball out and he can throw the ball a mile.”
Tate's classification as athlete continues to motivate him to improve. On the occasions in which he makes plays that don’t fall into the realm of what typical signal-callers accomplish, Altenberg will rib Tate with jokes about where he belongs. That was an athlete play right there, he will say. Nice job, are you a DB right now? Tate’s goal for this season is to smooth out some of the rougher edges of his quarterback skill set, including his release and decision-making.
Will that lead to more programs changing their opinion about what position he could play? That remains to be seen. But Tate believes he can play quarterback at the next level, and it doesn’t appear he will give up that dream any time soon.