Unpacking The Pac-12: Khalil Tate Finally Shines; N'Keal Harry Takes Over

The Pac-12 South is eating itself alive and I love it more than my own children.

The only team fully in control of their destiny is actually those little Sun Devils there, who face UCLA, Oregon, and Arizona on their remaining conference schedule. With wins over Utah and USC, a win over Arizona would give them the requisite tie-breakers necessary to take control of the division in Herm Edwards' first season. Huh. How do you like them apples?

Speaking of Herm and Sparky, let's chat about the Sun Devils' star player and his performance in the key win against Utah.

Arizona State v. Utah

Arizona State WR N'Keal Harry has been a topic of debate and interest since the offseason last year. With an unbelievable production profile at 6'4 and 220 pounds, Harry is attractive to the stats crowd; with insane highlight reel catches that typically involve less than two hands, quick analysis also looks promising.

But I was wary of Harry entering the year, and that concern has been shared by a few tape heads early into the season. As I wrote in the summer, there are warranted concerns with the details of Harry's game. While he seems to have great long speed, it doesn't show up on his deep routes, and he fails to recruit his hands in a lot of his route stems to discourage physicality. He seems a bit like a player so physically gifted, he doesn't like to do the little stuff.

Harry's had a difficult season. His depth of target has decreased dramatically, and he's gotten dinged up a couple of times. Apparently, coming into the game against Utah, there was a discussion about working Harry into the slot more, giving him some more isolation looks, and just feeding the monster.

Boy, did that pay off.

Harry showcased in his routes and in the open field today how that physicality could translate into dominant play. He still isn't a particularly brisk player through his breaks, but he sure is strong to deal with contact. That contact could be mitigated with better hand fighting early, but Harry is able to power through it. It remains to be seen if that will translate to the NFL.

To this point in his evaluation, Harry reads to me as a "both can be true" player. Yes, he is unbelievably productive and may test out of the building. Yes, his film leaves a good bit to be desired, and his translation to the NFL will have some bumps. The truth, as per usual, is somewhere in between.

But man, Harry is an entertaining player to watch work.

Other notes:

  • As N'Keal Harry, so Manny Wilkins, the QB who fed him the rock. Wilkins did a nice job placing the football downfield, which is by far his best trait. Under pressure, Wilkins can be a bit up and down -- especially when his team is behind and he's trying to force it. With a lead for most of the Utah game, Wilkins' game under pressure was clean and controlled.
  • Last Sparky note: Renell Wren, the athletic defensive tackle, had one of his better games. You'll still find me a bit lower on the powerful interior player than a lot of analysts, as I think he's undisciplined and often a liability in the run game. But man, when he has the freedom to attack a gap as a pass-rusher, it's a lotta goodness.
  • I seem to have a note on him every week: Utah LB Cody Barton, a true junior, impresses with his instincts reading backfield motion and his cover skills as a short zone and man defender. I've gotta get him under the microscope.

Arizona v. Colorado

Man, this was a fun one. I'm sorry if you missed it -- what were you doing with your Friday night? -- as it was truly the dawn of Khalil Tate, the Heisman candidate we expected to see on highlight shows every Monday. Tate ended the game with 17/22 passing, 350 yards, and 5 touchdowns, including a streak of 12 consecutive completions. That and the yardage total are both career records.

Tate's ball on the move has always impressed; his arm is live and he can put 50+ yards underneath it. I like his throwing motion -- it's very compact -- and it helps him add some heat to his intermediate throws like this one here. But the placement is what interests me the most: it turns the receiver back upfield, which transitions him immediately into YAC opportunity. Tate is the reason this play was six.

Throughout the night, Tate excelled at placing balls into intermediate windows and down the field with air underneath them. To be frank, it was the best game I'd ever seen from Tate from a pro perspective: he looked like a pro passer. His one interception on the night was a scramble drill play on which the deep safety deserved a lot of credit for tracking him across the field.

Tate extends plays well from the pocket and it nigh on impossible to bring down with the first rusher. Once he's out of the pocket and a threat to run, he has natural gravity that pulls defenders in and opens up space for the improv passing game. His game seems to be rounding out in his first season under Kevin Sumlin, and if he continues to develop as a three-level passer...wheew.

2020 class? Who knows.

Other notes:

  • Tate's running mate, redshirt sophomore RB J.J. Taylor is one of the best kept secrets of the college world right now. Goodness Mary, the man is Top-5 in rushing yards in all of college football, with 40 (40!) runs for 192 yards against the Buffaloes. He's eclipsed 150 rushing yards in his last three games. He is one of the best pass protecting backs I've seen. He is 5'6 and I love him.
  • Love for Colorado WR Juwann Winfree, on whom the Buffs relied heavily in the absence of their stand-out sophomore Laviska Shenault. Winfree struggled to get healthy in the early parts of the season, but he looks up to speed late. There are conditioning/communication questions -- he cut two deep routes short, much to the chagrin of QB Steven Montez -- but his routes look crisp and hands strong across the middle.
  • Colorado LB Rick Gamboa's lack of athleticism continues to be a massive problem for him. Hate to see it: hard-nosed player with a good motor; loved in the program. But he isn't an NFL athlete, and I don't think he's draftable.

Washington v. Stanford

In a thick TE class, what is the one thing that Stanford TE Kaden Smith has above all the others? Is he a better athlete than a Jace Sternberger or Dawson Knox? I hardly think so. Run better routes than Noah Fant, or block better than T.J. Hockenson?

It's none of this.

He just gets more volume.

Smith ended a desperate comeback bid in Stanford's 23-27 loss to the Huskies with 8 receptions, 107 yards, and a touchdown. Especially with stud receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside sidelined early in the second quarter, Smith became the immediate possession guy for the Cardinal, on top of his typical red zone responsibilities.

Smith excels as an above-the-rim player, but to be as successful as he is, you need more than just size and length and hands. His two traits that impress: concentration and body control. You can see the concentration here -- there are so many bodies, and so much potential for contact, but Smith is still able to lock in on the football and put himself on the line for the catch.

When you add in the acrobatic back-shoulder catches he regularly displays, you have a true "open even when he's covered player," and that sort of player demands the volume that Smith receives. He'd get even more looks if David Shaw would feed his dogs and throw the football early, but that's none of my business.

Other notes:

  • Big ups to Myles Gaskin, my favorite running back in the Pac-12, who seems to be healthy again for Washington. He looks quicker in 2018, and he still runs as one of the smartest backs in this class. Given his pass protection and pass catching ability, he's a clear Day 2 back despite the lack of hype.
  • You know who's good? Byron Murphy III. (This is not breaking news.) Though he did give up a late touchdown on a scramble drill style play, Murphy was super active around the football once again, with a PBU and an INT. He even nearly jarred the ball loose on the touchdown. I was asked if he's a better prospect than Sidney Jones was coming out -- he just might be.
  • As mentioned above, Stanford WR JJ Arcega-Whiteside came up grabbing his ankle after a 2nd quarter catch and run. He returned to the sideline with a boot on his right foot. There's no update to this point (midnight CST), but I feared an Achilles injury at first brush. Given that he was walking in a boot, hopefully things aren't as severe as that.

Pac-12 Power Rankings

  1. Washington State (game against Cal still undecided)
  2. Oregon
  3. Washington
  4. Stanford
  5. Arizona
  6. Arizona State
  7. Utah
  8. Cal
  9. USC (game against Oregon State still undecided)
  10. Oregon State
  11. UCLA
  12. Colorado