Khalil Tate and Arizona’s QB Run Game

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Khalil Tate burst onto the college football scene in 2017 to the tune of 1411 rushing yards (at an FBS best 9.2 yards per attempt) to go along with 1591 yards passing and 26 total touchdowns (14 passing and 12 rushing). After Tate took over as Arizona’s starting quarterback following an injury to Brandon Dawkins in their game against Colorado, the true junior from Inglewood, California never looked back, asserting himself as a preseason Heisman Trophy favorite.  

Tate has elite burst and speed in the open field, part of the reason for his whopping 9.2 yards per carry that largely came from big plays down the field. Arizona’s rushing schemes, though, certainly helped the young QB rack up rushing yards throughout his sophomore season. Even though head coach Rich Rodriguez was fired after the 2017 season, the Wildcats brought in a new head coach in Kevin Sumlin who should retain some similar spread offense principles. Regardless of Sumlin’s overall philosophy on offense, he almost certainly will go through the 2017 film to see which run schemes Tate thrived in.

That’s what we’ll be doing here, looking through the 2017 Arizona film to see which schemes led to the most success for Tate in the rushing games. For the sake of an exciting college football season, hopefully Sumlin does the same.

Zone Read

This is by far the simplest and most common of the rush schemes the Wildcats used to get Tate in advantageous situations in space. The zone read is a pretty well known play through just about all levels of football, but we’ll do a quick breakdown of a simple zone read that Arizona runs.

Here you can see Arizona and Khalil Tate generate a long touchdown off a zone read on his first full drive after the injury to Dawkins in the Colorado game. Coming out of the timeout to a first and ten at their own 42, Arizona dials up a zone read to the left (boundary side) with Tate reading the defensive end on his right (the defense’s left).

As many readers are likely familiar, this is a simple read for Tate off of the defensive end (Leo Jackson III (#52)). Tate will put the ball in RB Nick Wilson’s (#28) gut and watch Jackson. If Jackson keeps outside discipline, Tate will give the ball to Wilson on the outside zone run. If Jackson slides inside to defend against the handoff, then Tate will pull the ball.

Jackson shuffles in with the right tackle on the edge to stay in his lane while defending against a potential. Tate decides to tuck and run.

Tate’s athleticism with that much space… is tough to defend.

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Rich Rodriguez’s core philosophy on offense was centered on box counts, which I wrote about last year. Plays like the one above where the offense and defense have equal numbers in the box (5 in this case) the offense can run the ball if it’s a zone read. It worked to great success on the play above, as well as many other times during the season.

Lead QB Sweep

The zone read is definitely a common play for the Wildcats. A play that was almost as widely used by Arizona was the lead QB sweep, where the Wildcats would have Tate receive the snap and follow his RB on an outside zone/sweep play. If the defense accounts for the offensive line (and potential tight ends) as blockers on a traditional run play then turning the RB into a blocker and Tate into a runner gives the offense a plus one advantage on a sweep play like this. Given that Tate was not only Arizona’s leading rusher on the year but was also second in the entire Pac-12, that’s a play that can (and did) pay dividends for the Wildcats.

We’ll go to the Colorado game once again for a look at this lead sweep play. The blocking is essentially an outside zone call to the left out off 11 personnel. Tate is in the shotgun with RB JJ Taylor (#21) to his left and a wingback in Bryce Wolma (#81) on the left of the offensive line as well. Tate will take the snap and read it like an outside zone run, with Taylor lead blocking.

The ideal execution for Arizona, given the Buffaloes defense, looks something like the image below. The center reach blocks the nose tackle while the LT and LG combination block the 5-technique, with one of them then climbing to the second level. Wolma would kick out the outside linebacker and Taylor would lead through the hole to take whichever second level defender was left over from the LT/LG combination.

Colorado, however, will send Drew Lewis (#20) on a blitz call to attack the offense’s left A-gap. This leads to left guard Christian Boettcher (#69) abandoning the potential double team of 5-technique Chris Mulumba (#16) to prevent Lewis from wrecking the play. LT Layth Friekh (#58) is left alone on Mulumba.

Friekh gets outside leverage, but appears to think Boettcher is there with him because he sheds and climbs to linebacker Rick Gamboa (#32). JJ Taylor is already through the hole to block safety Evan Worthington (#6) and cannot block Mulumba.

So this play nearly worked as designed with Tate following Taylor through the hole, almost as though the running back was the one making the outside zone read. With Mulumba filling the lane, Tate is forced to improvise and will switch to his bounce read on the sweep play.

Tate’s athleticism and vision lead to a success, though. Taylor and Friekh still make their blocks, even if Mulumba runs free. Tate bounces outside of Wolma and has some room to run. He beats Worthington to the corner and is in the clear.

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This was a pretty common run call for the Wildcats, and they can run it out of a variety of sets and formations. Whether that’s 10 personnel in a spread out look or 12 personnel in a heavier set, this play is really about adding the running back as a blocker to capitalize on Tate’s running ability. That adds one more blocker than the defense has defender, which is when big plays can happen in the running game.

The beauty of the play is how it can open things in the passing game. If a defense feels they can stop the run effectively with an equal number of box defenders as there are blockers, they can play with two safeties deep (or anywhere outside the box). But, with someone like Tate at quarterback defenses might need to drop another safety into the box just to get a theoretically “even” matchup with the threat of Tate as a runner and the RB as a blocker. Then, with just one deep safety, Tate can really let it go on deep routes for explosive passing plays.

The threat of the Lead QB Sweep opens things up in both phases for the Wildcats offense.

QB Counter

The couple different types of counter designs below are probably my favorite QB runs from Arizona in terms of pure innovative and well designed schemes. The two below are not the only QB counters they run, but just a couple of examples of how Arizona further embeds Khalil Tate into the run game.

Counter trey is one of oldest plays in football, and has always served as a nice compliment to the traditional power run play. Ted Nguyen wrote an outstanding piece on how counter trey has evolved over the years, and mentioned QB counter as a modern example of the play still being a key part of all offenses.

Counter is about showing a run (or some sort of action) one way in the backfield, and having the offensive line down block in that direction. Then, two pullers come around to the actual  playside to lead block and knock the defense back. The fake in the backfield should freeze the defense while also giving the lead blockers a chance to get from one side of the formation to the other. Here’s a look at a traditional counter trey design:

Counter Trey

The way Arizona runs QB counter relies on these same principles, but involves a variety of different fakes in the backfield to confuse defenses while also asking the QB to be the runner.

The first play comes from Arizona’s game against the Cal Golden Bears. On the second play of the game, Arizona will run QB counter to the right side out of 11 personnel.

The entire right side of the offensive line, including both the center and tight end, will down block towards the left, looking to create both vertical and horizontal displacement. Tight end Trevor Wood (#8) and right tackle Gerhard de Beer (#67) will work a combination block on the defensive end, with Wood looking to climb to linebacker Gerran Brown (#41) after de Beer secures the DE. Left tackle Layth Friekh (#58) and left guard Christian Boettcher (#69) will pull to the right side.

With a counter run going to the right, there needs to be some sort of a fake to the left. Traditional counter trey would have the running back take a jab step that way before taking the handoff back to the right.

Here, since Tate will end up running the ball to the right, the Wildcats fake a pitch play to the left. Nick Wilson (#28) will go to the left at the snap while Tate fakes the pitch. Tate will then tuck and run back to the right. You can see below how this fake on the counter effects linebacker Gerron Brown.

Tate faking the pitch gives time for Friekh and Boettcher to get in front of him and lead block. Both the inside linebackers are drawn by the fake, which gives Tate the opening to run for an 8 yard game.

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This is a pretty easy fake for Tate to execute, and it has a visible effect on the Cal defense. The counter is a great play to take advantage of aggressive defenses and a fake pitch is one way to keep defenses guessing.

The other type of backfield fake Arizona used is a fake screen, with the below example coming from their bowl game against Purdue. This was a cool, innovative way to get defenses reacting one way before running counter in the opposite direction.

Arizona has 11 personnel, with all four receivers on the right side of the formation:

They’ll run counter trey to the left here, with the below blocking scheme:

The fake screen here will be to the receiver off the line of scrimmage on the right, Tyrell Johnson (#2). That’s meant to function as the fake sweep to the right, or a more traditional jab step from a running back. Tate will turn to Johnson as though he’s going to throw the screen, while also giving his blockers time to get their spots, before tucking and running behind his running back Nick Wilson (#28), who’s serving as an additional lead blocker.

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That’s the other advantage of QB counter, is that the offense now has the RB as a blocker with the QB running the ball. Like the lead sweep from earlier, running the ball is all about numbers, and having the QB keep it is almost always advantage offense.


Khalil Tate should be one of the most exciting players to watch this season, not only in the Pac-12 but across the country. Arizona seems poised to take the next step in a pretty wide open Pac-12 South this year with USC losing their starting QB/RB and Colorado returning just 10 starters overall. Utah is my other sleeper pick in the division and Arizona’s midseason trip to Salt Lake City could have big effects later on.

With Kevin Sumlin at the helm of the Arizona offense it’s tough to know how the offense will look exactly. However, given the success that Arizona, and Khalil Tate specifically, had on the above QB running plays, it’d be a surprise not to see them back in some form.

Follow Ryan on Twitter @DBRyan_Dukarm. Check out the rest of his work here, including his look at what Chip Kelly’s run game will look like at UCLA and his study of what effect making a pre-draft visit has on being drafted.

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