Arizona-Utah preview: Tate, corners, what to watch, prediction

Arizona-Utah preview: Tate, corners, what to watch, prediction

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - The Arizona Wildcats released their injury report Thursday and it wasn't hard to read between the many lines -- hey, it was a long injury report -- that true freshman quarterback Khalil Tate will make his first start at No. 24 Utah on Saturday night.

If so, the 17-old will join a small club.

Arizona has started only four other true freshman quarterbacks in the Pac-10/12 era, all after multiple other starters became injured or were ineffective. The Wildcats have never used a true freshman QB in a season-opener.

The other five are:

*Tom Tunnicliffe (1980) -- How's this for a starting debut: At No. 2 Notre Dame. Tunnicliffe got the nod after starter Mark Fulcher suffered a season-ending injury and backup Kevin Ware was ineffective. The Cats lost 20-3 in South Bend in Tunnicliffe's starting debut, but he led Arizona to an upset over No. 2 UCLA a week later and he ended his career as the school's career leading passer.

*Ronald Veal (1987) -- In coach Dick Tomey's first season at Arizona, SMU transfer Bobby Watters won the job but sustained a thumb injury in the third game. Pro-style QB Craig Bergman left the team in September, disappointed over not winning the job and being an ill fit in the run-and-shoot offense. That left Veal to handle the starting job the rest of the way in a bizarre 4-4-3 season. Veal would split time with Watters and George Malauulu the rest of his career.

*Kris Heavner (2003) -- Redshirt freshman Ryan O'Hara and sophomore Nic Costa weren't getting the job done, so Heavner came in during the Week 4 game against Purdue and started the rest of the way (mostly for interim head coach Mike Hankwitz). Heavner ended that season with a UA freshman record 1,501 passing yards, but his career never took flight.

*Willie Tuitama (2005) -- Arizona was already past the halfway mark of the season when coach Mike Stoops had seen enough of Richard Kovalcheck through a 1-5 start. Stoops pulled the redshirt off Tuitama in the seventh game vs. Oregon, then started him a week later in a win over Oregon State. Tuitama was on his way to legend status a week later, directing a 52-14 win over seventh-ranked UCLA and being carried off the field on fans' shoulders, but concussions in later seasons dimmed the full brightness of that potential.

As for this week, Anu Solomon (knee) is doubtful and Brandon Dawkins (ribs) is questionable, which makes Tate ready to add his name to this list.

The good news is that UA coaches have had all week to prepare a game plan that suits his skill and comfort level in the offense. Tate will still have a limited package, but there will plenty of offense to go around if he looks as good as he did last week in a second-half relief effort at UCLA.

"He'll be able to do a little bit more this week," coach Rich Rodriguez said.

"The last thing we want to do as coaches is put too much on his plate where he can't function and he's thinking too much."

CORNERBACK QUESTIONS

Junior college transfer Dane Cruikshank has been solid at one cornerback spot after winning the job in the spring. Returning starter Davonte' Neal hasn't been as sharp.

It was Neal who gambled and missed last week on what turned out to be a 62-yard catch-and-run touchdown by UCLA receiver Kenneth Walker III.

"The first problem is it was a blitz and there was a lot of time," said defensive coordinator Marcel Yates.

"The quarterback stepped up and scrambled out. So, (Neal) had a tough job. The one thing you want to tell him is, stay upside shoulder and just make the tackle."

Yates said it's OK to undercut the receiver and make a play on the ball if there is a "100 percent" chance of picking off the pass or knocking it down. Neal whiffed. A 20-yard gain for UCLA turned into a touchdown.

"His angle was bad and it hurt us a bit," Yates said.

Rodriguez said the coaching staff was "trying several other guys" at cornerback this week. That could mean more Jace Whittaker, Devin Holiday or even true freshman Isaiah Hayes, who has played safety and corner. Or someone else.

"The guys we got can play," Rodriguez said. "It's just sometimes you lose a little bit of confidence here and there, and I don't want the guys do that. We have good enough players that they should be playing with confidence."

5 THINGS TO WATCH

1. Arizona's running game. Rodriguez's spread offense has been vexing to Utah. The Wildcats ran for 320 yards in the 2012 game, 300 a year later and 298 in 2014. The Utes did a more reasonable job last season, allowing 158 rushing yards.

"We've been watching the last four years of film and last year, we did the best job, but they have gashed us," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham told reporters this week.

"Structurally, there's only so much you can do with how many guys are in the box. It's a lot like playing Air Force. It's assignment football with the read option, and we're just going to have to do a better job of playing assignment football."

2. Arizona's running game, Part II. If Nick Wilson can't go -- or can barely go, like last week -- the Cats' backfield options are limited. Converted receiver Tyrell Johnson had 16 carries, and running back Zach Green had five vs. UCLA. The next logical move is to see what receiver Samajie Grant can do at tailback.

3. Utah QB Troy Williams. The former Washington Husky is in his first season as Utah's starter. When our David Kelly asked defensive coordinator Marcel Yates about him this week, Yates exhaled and said, "Whew." Williams' strength is his deep-ball threat after the Utes pound the run. Williams has six completions of at least 40 yards. Said Yates: "He looks like he knows exactly what he's doing."

4. Utah's defense. This is the Utes' bread-and-butter, although injuries (see below) will be a factor. Utah is 22nd nationally in total defense (324.4 yards per game), 27th in rushing defense (117.4) and 20th in scoring defense (18.2 points per game). Watch for free safety Marcus Williams, rated a top 100 draft prospect by NFLDraftScout.com.

5. A medical redshirt for Anu Solomon. I've seen and heard people talking about a potential medical redshirt for Solomon, if he can't come back from his knee injury. Let's address that here. A medical redshirt is not possible. Solomon has already redshirted -- and you can only redshirt once, whether by choice or by injury. The rare exception that you sometimes see -- a "sixth" year of eligibility -- comes into play when a player has missed all or almost all of TWO seasons. That is not the case for Solomon ... at least not yet.

INJURY REPORT

We've talked about Arizona's quarterback situation. As for the rest ...

Probable: LB DeAndre' Miller, RT Gerhard de Beer and RG Jacob Alsadek.

Questionable: LG Freddie Tagaloa, RB Nick Wilson.

Out: DL Luca Bruno, FB Jamardre Cobb, WR Shawn Poindexter, DL Parker Zellers

Arizona could definitely use Miller, the team's strongside linebacker who often plays as a stand-up end and fourth lineman. Iowa transfer John Kenny has started in his place; he's been solid.

Utah is having similar issues.

Earlier this season, the Utes lost pass-rushing defensive end Kylie Fitts; last week, starting center J.J. Dielman, a potential top 100 draft pick, suffered a season-ending foot injury.

Utah was without standout first-team All-Pac-12 defensive tackle Lowell Lotulelei and receiver Cory Butler-Byrd last week. During the game, the Utes also lost leading receiver Tim Patrick, cornerback Reggie Porter and receiver Kyle Fulks.

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham doesn't much discuss injuries, so tune in for the 7 p.m. kickoff to find out who is playing and who is not.

PREDICTION

Utah, a 10-point favorite, is trying to bounce back after suffering its first loss of the season last week, when it was turned away near the Cal goal line on the final play. Arizona is trying to avoid an 0-3 start to conference play.

Arizona has played some of its best games of recent seasons against Utah, but it's hard to find a matchup to like in this one.

The best way to attack Arizona's defense is to come right at it; the Wildcats allow 183.6 yards per game on the ground. Utah can control the running game with a by-committee backfield led by Armand Shyne and Zack Moss, and then QB Troy Williams will take his shots down field.

It will be fascinating to see what Arizona's Khalil Tate can do at quarterback, but there might not be too many other highlights.

Utah 34, Arizona 20.

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