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Coach’s Corner: Khalil Tate is terrorizing Pac-12 defenses

Here’s how #SpeedD will stop him.

Northern Arizona v Arizona Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Rich Rodriguez is considered one of the progenitors of the spread to run concept, as well as the coach who brought the concept of the zone read into the limelight. From D-2 Glenville State in Glenville, West Virginia, through stops at West Virginia University, Michigan, and now Arizona, Rodriguez has put together offenses that are potent, explosive, and usually helmed by a dynamic athlete at quarterback. Khalil Tate is no exception. Since replacing Brandon Dawkins as the starter for the Arizona Wildcats, all Tate has done is set the FBS single-game rushing record for a quarterback (327 yards on fourteen(!) carries against Colorado) and become the first quarterback in twenty years to notch consecutive 200 yard rushing performances. Oh, and the ‘Cats are undefeated since he took over and are now tied in the loss column for the South division lead and control their own destiny with games against USC and Arizona State still on the docket. So there’s that.

Northern Arizona v Arizona
The Godfather of the Zone Read
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Tate is a big play threat every time he touches the ball. His touchdown runs have all been from long distance: 58, 28, 47, 75, 45, 71, and 76 yards. And, what with him being the quarterback and all, he touches the ball fairly often. There is quite a bit of improvisation in Tate’s game; he is not shy about going against the grain to pick a different gap or avoid a particular defender. But most of his damage is done within the framework of Rodriguez’s zone read concepts.

Let’s take a look at the zone read and how we can expect Alex Grinch and #SpeedD to attack it.

We’ll start with the basic zone read that is all over every level of football these days. The end zone camera angle on this clip gives a really good look at what Khalil Tate is seeing as he reads the defensive end. The offensive line zone blocks left, and Tate simply reads the end to the running back’s side. If the defender stays home or attacks the QB, Tate hands it off to the zone. If he crashes to the back, which is the case here, Tate pulls the ball and outruns him to the edge.

If you’ve watched football with any regularity over the last twenty years or so, you’ve seen this thousands of times. And there’s a reason for that; it’s a devastatingly simple and effective play. Tate matched up in space against a defensive end or outside linebacker is going to cause a lot of headaches for a defensive coordinator.

Speaking of space, this was the end result of that play. I feel compelled to assure you that this image is not photoshopped or otherwise altered in any way.

This is not a good way to defend Khalil Tate. WSU should not do this on Saturday.

So what’s better than a one read option? A two read option, of course. Tacking on a bubble screen or another short route has been pretty common among the zone read disciples in recent years. It’s yet another way to isolate a defender and put a horizontal stress on him, forcing him to be wrong regardless of whether he chooses to attack the quarterback or defend the bubble/route. Arizona uses this modern version of the triple option to great effect, though they get the most out of it when the flat defender stays on the bubble and Tate is able to race upfield.

Here, Arizona will run zone to the offense’s left with Zach Green and Tate will read the backside end, circled in red. The nickel corner, circled in blue and showing blitz pre-snap, will back out and cover the slot receiver in the flat. Tate gets a keep read from the end, then attacks the flat defender, who is covering a quick out route. And now he’s stuck with the ogre’s choice. Come off the receiver and Tate throws a quick pass for a medium gain; stay on the receiver and give Tate a free run at the safety down the hash.

Okay, great, Khalil Tate is terrifying in the open field. What does #SpeedD do to keep him bottled up? It starts with confusing the quarterback’s read, and that is something that the Cougar defense does naturally. The pre-snap shifting that the defensive line does is designed for exactly that purpose, as well as forcing the offensive line to adjust its blocking scheme. That’s particularly important in a zone scheme.

Here’s an example of how it can clutter up both a quarterback’s read and the offensive line’s blocking scheme.

Colorado isn’t running zone read here, but let’s assume they are. Lindsay would theoretically run zone to the left, and Stephen Montez would read Derek Moore at the bottom of the screen. Considering Moore’s inside alignment, it would almost certainly give Montez a keep read. For the line, the left tackle is one-on-one with Frankie Luvu, the left guard and center would be able to double through Hercules Mata’afa to Jahad Woods, the right guard would have a tough scoop block to get to Daniel Ekuale, and the right tackle would get around or through Moore to get to Justus Rogers.

But almost all of that changes after the Coug D-line shifts.

The left tackle still has Luvu, but now the left guard has Woods and the center has Mata’afa by himself which seems like a really bad idea for any offensive lineman. The right guard no longer is scooping Ekuale, but is going second level to Rogers. The left tackle is left to scoop Ekuale. Montez now has a true read on Moore, who could track Lindsay or slow play to Montez. That’s a fair amount of information to process in the span of about two seconds. Any time you’re making a player think fast, that can create hesitation. Hesitate in front of this defense, and they’re running right past you.

The other way that defenses will try to obscure the quarterback’s read is by exchanging defenders’ responsibilities. Traditionally, the defensive end is responsible for the quarterback and the linebacker will take the running back. But if you consistently give a read option quarterback the same look, he’ll make you look pretty foolish.

The first, and most common, responsibility switch is the scrape exchange. The defensive end will crash down hard to chase the running back, giving the quarterback a strong keep read. But instead of having the linebacker take the usual running back responsibility, he scrapes wide to get outside any linemen and shadows the quarterback, breaking hard for him when he commits to the keep read.

Last week, Cal used a scrape exchange on Khalil Tate on a few occasions. This clip is from fairly late in the game, and it’s a good example of how it puts a defender where Tate doesn’t expect. The near linebacker scrapes to quarterback, and the quick out by the wing is covered as well, giving Tate nowhere to go with the ball.

Earlier in the game, Cal ran a different exchange with the boundary side corner. The defensive end to the short side shot the inside gap across the tackle’s face, giving Tate a keep read. The corner, who was singled up on a receiver with no slot receiver or tight end to his side, jammed the receiver until he read run, then released and picked up quarterback responsibility. He ends up missing the tackle, but should have stopped Tate for a minimal gain. A defense can run this exchange in pretty much only this specific situation: zone read into the boundary at a single receiver. But it’s effective when the opportunity is there. Rarely do offenses scheme to take a press corner into account in the run game.

The Cougar defense has the athleticism and flexibility to employ these exchanges, along with any others that the defensive staff can dream up. Look for the safeties—Jalen Thompson and Robert Taylor—to be down helping out in the run game more than they have been so far this year. That extra man in the box should help limit Tate’s explosive plays. What you may not see as often as you might expect is a box defender acting as a spy. This isn’t Sam Darnold escaping out of the pocket, and Arizona will only call a relative handful of designed drop back passes. Instead, these are designed runs by the quarterback, requiring defenders to properly hit their run fits. Taking away a defender from that rush gives Tate an additional potential lane to run through. That’s not something you want to give to an athletic quarterback.

The Washington State defense is going to face a unique challenge on Saturday night in defending Khalil Tate. Arizona runs the ball more than other team in the conference, and runs the quarterback more as well. And that quarterback is a fantastic athlete. Working in our favor, however, is that we have a pretty good collection of athletes on that side of the ball ourselves. The combination of speed and athleticism on defense plus the schematic prowess of WSU Defensive Coordinator Alex Grinch presents the stiffest opposition Tate will have faced in his young career. The Cougs have the tools in place to stop Tate; all that remains is to execute.