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Pac-12 South Extra Points: Heisman Hopeful Khalil Tate Stays Motivated

Arizona Wildcats QB Khalil Tate

Arizona Wildcats QB Khalil Tate

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- Typically, Media Day interview sessions are reserved for reporters to ask athletes questions. But Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate reversed roles for a moment at the July 25 Pac-12 event in Dolby Theater.

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"Where did I go to high school?" the junior signal-caller and 2017 breakout sensation posed with a smile to one journalist.

The reporter knew -- California Interscholastic Federation powerhouse Serra in nearby Gardena -- but a media scrum just 19 miles from the high school campus is more likely to have that information. Tate made a broader point alluding to his still relative obscurity on the college football scene, and the motivation that keeps him driven heading into a highly anticipated 2018 season.

"I've always kinda been in the shadows; never super-respected," Tate said. "I use it to my advantage."

It was at Serra this tone was set. Though a 4-star prospect, Tate did not generate as much buzz on the recruiting scene as teammates and Serra predecessors like Adoree' Jackson, Rasheem Green, C.J. Pollard and Oluwole Betiku. And if you sense a theme with those names, well, consider all ended up at USC and it adds another dimension to Tate's outlook.

Serra has been a veritable conveyor belt into USC football, and Tate received an offer from Trojans head coach Clay Helton and his staff. But from the Serra-to-USC pipeline, Tate said he gleaned a precedent in Jalen Greene that ultimately led him away from Southern California.

"That's one of my close friends," Tate said of Greene, who transferred to Utah State with the aim to play quarterback this offseason. "I was his backup at Serra High School. So when he goes there and changed him to receiver, then they tell me, 'Yeah, play quarterback...' Jalen lived around the corner from me, used to give me rides to school.  That's one of my best friends, so it's like, 'How you gonna get me [playing quarterback] when you just switched [Greene]?'

"I'm a pretty smart kid," he added with a Cheshire Cat grin.

A class of 2014 signee, Greene entered into a situation at USC similar to that which Tate would have faced. The former arrived in the same signing class as 5-star recruit Max Browne, with veteran Cody Kessler still around for two more seasons. Tate was recruited in 2016, one year after USC added Ricky Town and Sam Darnold -- the latter of whom became a star in that season -- and the same year that Matt Fink came into the mix.

Though spread principles have been integrated in USC's offensive approach with increasingly regularity in recent years, the Trojans' scheme isn't exactly synonymous with a quarterback who rushed for 2,130 yards and 26 touchdowns his senior year of high school. What's more, Tate shared snaps with Jacob Eason, a more traditional, drop-back quarterback who landed at Georgia (and since transferred to Washington).

Meanwhile, Tate did not come to college with the lengthy resume typical of a blue-chip quarterback prospect. He was not invited to the Elite 11 Camp, nor was he selected for the Army or Under Armour All-American Games.

Tate rushed onto the national scene quite literally last October, setting a Football Bowl Subdivision quarterback record of 327  yards on the ground alone in a 45-42 Arizona win at Colorado. That win snowballed into a stretch for the Wildcats with victories over UCLA, which Arizona had not beaten since 2011; on the road at Cal; and a rout of a then-top 15-ranked Washington State bunch, a team that had blasted the Wildcats by 62 points just 11 months prior.

Each week brought a new round of eye-popping statistical output, as well as a fresh set of jaw-dropping highlights. Tate's profile gained traction commensurately, as college football's Mr. October entered into the Heisman Trophy discussion. His name was mentioned not just in passing fancy, either: Tracking a composite of national media's weekly Heisman rankings saw Tate peak as high as the top three.

Still, Tate notes his meteoric rise began with him coming off the sidelines only after Arizona starter Brandon Dawkins was injured on a late hit. And despite the headline-grabbing month, the Wildcats lost four of their final five games, including a failed, near-comeback at USC.

"Teams started catching on, which happens. It's football," Tate said. "They start making adjustments, start stopping things that were working early on. Me being able to throw will start helping."

Arizona's last game of 2017 gave the first strong indicator Tate can and will pass with the same gusto he carries the ball. He tossed for five touchdowns and 302 yards in a 38-35, Foster Farms Bowl loss to Purdue.

Tate since embarked on a stint at the Manning Passing Academy, where Tate said he gained knowledge working alongside such noteworthy names as Trace McSorley (Penn State) and Jake Fromm (Georgia). Not that Tate himself did not perform well; his arm earned some serious social media plaudits.

He's also set to operate under the tutelage of first-year Arizona head coach Kevin Sumlin, whose past quarterbacks include Case Keenum, who passed for more than 5,600 yards in two different seasons under Sumlin; and 2012 Heisman winner Johnny Manziel. Tate's dual-threat ability has drawn repeated comparison to Manziel from the moment Sumlin was hired in January.

Things have indeed changed for Khalil Tate, the quarterback who "was always kinda in the shadows." Just don't be surprised when some of those old slights continue to motivate him -- or prompt him to send some, like the Elite 11, straight to voicemail. He closed his media session posing another question to that very end.

"I wasn't invited in high school, why do they want me now?"

Extra Points

Desert Energy

New Arizona State coach Herm Edwardscommanded perhaps the greatest presence of reporters in terms of sheer numbers at Pac-12 Media Day, a tangible representation of the curiosity his return to the sidelines piqued since December.

No doubt at least some of the interesting in Edwards, at least from a media perspective, comes from the coach's exuberance. In his time as a TV analyst for ESPN, and before that as an NFL head coach, Edwards gained a reputation as an energetic, quote machine. That presence is no act, and according to at least one of his new players, can be infectious.

"Every day he walks in that building, he makes sure everybody around him feels that energy and it [rubs] off on everybody else," said quarterback Manny Wilkins.

Between Edwards and Sun Devils basketball coach Bobby Hurley, whose demonstrative sideline demeanor is renowned, Arizona State's athletic department generates more energy than a solar panel farm in the Sonoran Desert.

A Decade in the Making for Utah?

Utah heads into the 2018 season with the dubious distinction of being the only Pac-12 South program yet to play in the conference championship game. The Utes have the firepower to end that drought, however -- and there would be some nice symmetry in them doing so 10 years after a watershed moment for the program.

Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham

Utah became the first non-Bowl Championship Series conference program to reach a BCS bowl in 2004, but a pairing with three-loss Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl hindered that Utes team's national impact. Four years later, however, Utah ran the table -- the only Football Bowl Subdivision program to do so in 2008 -- and concluded the season with a two-touchdown win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.

The ensuing fallout included the Mountain West Conference ostensibly setting wheels in motion for a College Football Playoff, and Utah gaining the kind of clout necessary to make the jump to the former Pac-10 in 2011.

From that standpoint, the 2008 season still resonates in a manner felt today. What's more, Kyle Whittingham is still Utah's coach -- a remarkable milestone, given the rest of the Pac-12 welcomes five new head coaches this season alone. Aside from Whittingham, who began his tenure as Utes head coach in 2005, the next-most tenured head coach in the Pac-12 is Stanford's David Shaw. He began in that role six years later.

"Coach Whitt's consistency and what he's done for the university has built a culture, and that culture's allowed us to do a lot in terms of bowl games and wins," said linebacker Chase Hansen. "Now we've just got to get over the hump ... People ask, 'What's next?' And we've got to win a few more [to get a conference championship]."

To do so on the 10-year anniversary of the most landmark season in Utah history would be a heckuva way to celebrate.

USC Aims to Conquer Its Biggest Foes

If Disney ever needs a replacement for Chris Hemsworth to play Thor in Marvel's Avengers films, USC linebacker Porter Gustin should top the list. His long, blond hair and beard give him that superhero look, especially given his statuesque physique.

A showdown with a supervillain wasn't Gustin's offseason, motivation, however. The Trojans' Cotton Bowl loss to Ohio State, on the other hand, prompted more intense weight-room sessions, according to Gustin.

"Last year in the Ohio State game, I think it was obvious we weren't quite as strong, big and physical up front, specifically on the offensive end," he said. "We did have a lot of injuries, a lot of young guys out there, which was part of the problem. But that being addressed, it fired us up and gave us that motivation to get bigger and stronger."

If a hulked-up Gustin is any indication, the message from the Cotton Bowl was received throughout Heritage Hall loud and clear.

-- Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.