He runs slants at full speed, rarely breaking stride through the arm tackles that follow; he deftly shields incoming passes from defenders with his body on both deep sideline comebacks and short end zone fades; and you better believe most one-on-one jump balls downfield will end up in his hands rather than the defender's. He's part wide receiver, part football player, and one hundred percent competitor. And after nearly a season (save for two games) of watching others perform in a feeble passing game as a freshman, Golden Tate burst onto the national scene last season …a "one-route receiver" no more.
Tate led the Irish in receptions (58), receiving yards (1,080), and yards-per-catch last season (his 18.6 average was the highest among BCS receivers with at least 50 receptions in 2008). He posted five one-hundred yard games; seven games with at least one touchdown; and eight games with at least five receptions. Fifteen of his receptions covered at least 30 yards. Numbers aside, he's a difference-maker – a one-man jump start when the offense bogs down or finds itself in a 3rd down disadvantage.
While the Irish running game labored for every foot and every yard, the passing game needed simply to look deep to Tate to gash a defense for 40 quick ones through the air.
Now a junior, Tate's far from a finished product. He'll occasionally round-off short routes and is a borderline poor run-blocker both in-line and downfield – though interestingly not in the kick return game. (Technique is likely the main issue for Tate's lack of execution, but it's nonetheless curious that Tate isn't a more consistent blocker as he displays such a physical, aggressive approach to every other aspect of the game).
But if there's a more dangerous amateur football player with the ball in the air I'd like to meet him.
Golden Tate was one of the most improved overall football players in the nation last season – a similar elevation of his game is improbable for '09, but its equally unlikely that an athlete of his caliber will stagnate with so much left to prove over the next two seasons.
Tate's Season Outlook:"I didn't feel any emotion on the sideline," said Tate after last season's loss to Syracuse. "Even I was kind of just, eh."
Tate's admission of what every Irish fan in The Stadium and most of those watching on NBC already knew was ultimately judged and received with minimal distress in the wake of the Syracuse debacle (providing 146 yards, the team's only two touchdowns and its only three relevant offensive plays in a 24-23 loss has a way of overriding any off-field moments of brutal honesty).
Aside from refraining from joining his teammates in moments of unearned apathy, Tate must become a more willing blocker, consistent route-runner (Tate's square-ins and short outs alternated somewhere between crisp and lazy/sloppy over 13 games last season), and maximize his ability in the kick return game, as there's no reason a player with his open-field running skill should be limited to seven kick returns over 25 yards (and none longer than 30) again this season. On the flip side, look for Tate to break more than a couple of punt returns in 2009 as he's consistently one missed (late) block away from going the distance. He could also stand to learn subtlety in the valuable art of the "push-off" from his running mate, Michael Floyd, though that penalty is rarely called in the college ranks.
Tate should again dominate press coverage with his explosive leaping ability, strong hands, and deft hand-eye coordination and body control. He's already a weapon on the short slant and, teamed with Michael Floyd for 13 games over the next two seasons, is sure to make a run at a few program receiving records – most of which were set early in the Weis era.
Tate's freshman season of 2007 was a study in dichotomy: The Purdue game and the other 11. It's difficult to recall a player that looked dominant for 30 minutes and then so inconsequential after.(Tate had three receptions vs. the Boilers - all on 3rd or 4th down - 104 yards and a touchdown for an offense that had previously been 0-22 on 3rd down conversion attempts of 10 yards or greater prior to Tate's debut).
In the seven games that followed to end 2007, Tate was inexplicably targeted for just eight more passes after his amazing breakout performance – five of which fell incomplete (sacks, intentional thrown-away passes, not included).
The reason offered? Tate, a star high school running back, had little understanding of the passing game; the timing necessary on pass routes, and did not show enough in practice to justify a spot on the field on game day (which of course begs the question: were the game day starters therefore benched in practice for not showing enough during the games?)
Fast forward to the Summer of 2008: Tate and sophomore receiver Michael Floyd are chiefly responsible for the No. 1 national ranking bestowed upon the Irish receiving corps in Phil Steele's College Preview. Steele also ranked Golden Tate as the nation's No. 6 draft eligible receiver (sophomore Michael Floyd is not draft eligible). Additionally, Tate garnered third-team pre-season All America honors from The Sporting News while Athlon Sports ranked Tate, Floyd, and the Irish receivers as its No. 2 overall pass-catching unit in the country.
Not bad for a guy that can only go deep.
Click here for Tate's Game-by-Game breakdown in 2008.