Golden Tate, and the winning edge
In 1984, a Tennessee State receiver named Golden Tate, Jr. was drafted in the fifth round by the Indianapolis Colts. Tate never caught a pass in a regular season game, but his progeny almost certainly will. Golden Tate III set Notre Dame school records with 93 catches and 1,496 receiving yards in 2009, was named the Fighting Irish's co-MVP along with quarterback Jimmy Clausen, and is projected to be selected in the first round of this month's NFL draft. So when I talked to him recently, the first question I had was whether Tate is his father's son from a scheme and technique perspective. The younger Tate is a tough receiver who will fight for every pass, but also has the speed to make plays outside and downfield.
"To be honest, I didn't learn very much from my father," Tate said. "I never asked him questions, because we're two different players. He's a taller guy, and I'm a shorter guy who's explosive and there's no telling what I'm going to do. So we didn't really talk about it too much for the most part."
In fact, Tate played running back and defensive back at Pope John Paul II High School in Hendersonville, Tennessee, and only became a full-time receiver when he went to Notre Dame. Why the switch? "I think when I came on my (recruiting) trip, I figured, 'Ok, Jeff Samardzija is leaving, and Rhema McKnight is leaving', if (Darius) Walker has one more year ... I wanted to come in and play right away. So, what I figured was I can catch the ball and I can run. So therefore, this can't be too hard. There's also fundamentals, and setting up a DB, setting up the route -- which I didn't know at the time, that's why I struggled so much my freshman year."
To add to the transition issues that come with every position switch, there was the complexity of the pro-style offense run by head coach Charlie Weis, who used to run the offense of the New England Patriots and currently does the same for the Kansas City Chiefs. Tate wasn't going to a simple spread offense with easy nomenclature, he was jumping into the deep end of the pool. As a result, he credits Weis with being the one who really taught him to be a receiver.
"It was more of the mental aspect of the game," Tate said. "Understanding why plays are being called, and understanding why we want to run this route at this depth versus cutting it short, and it's all about separation. Putting defensive backs in a bind, and kind of making them choose if they want to pick this under route, or if they want to choose the route that's coming right behind it. I think mentally, coach (Rob) Ianello did all the technique stuff, to kind of help me to get better at that."
After three years, and 157 receptions for 2,707 yards and 26 touchdowns in that offense, Tate now has an edge over receivers who ran fewer routes in those less complex offenses.
"Yeah, I think going into the draft, that's where I do have an advantage," he said. "At the combine, there were some coaches (talking to him about plays), and some of the plays that we run are exactly the same as what they call it for their team. I think learning the playbook, if I'm selected by the right team, will not be a problem at all. I'll keep learning on top of what I've already learned."
One aspect of Tate's development that helped him greatly was the fact that in each of his three seasons, he had Clausen as his quarterback. As a result, Tate and Clausen were able to develop a "mind-meld" that benefited them both.
"It's all about working together," Tate said. "He's been throwing to me for three years, and we just kind of know -- I can look at the coverage, and he can look at the coverage, and we'll think the same thing. That's what it came down to. Cover-2, and we saw that pre-snap? Okay, I'm going to give you this route. Cover-1, I'm going to give you another route. Especially late in the game, once we figure out what the opposite team was doing. I was lucky. I was lucky I played with a great quarterback who also made me better.
In fact, it got the point where Weis had less of problem handing the controls to his playmakers in certain situations. Clausen would have a read or "check with me" directive, but could shake off the signs and go with what he saw, based on playbook fundamentals.
"It was a little bit of both," Tate said. "A lot of the plays with "check with me" were what coach Weis put in at the beginning of the week, because he knew that a team had a tendency to do other things. So that was one of the things that we did. But also late in the game, when we kind of had a grasp on what they were doing, Jimmy wouldn't have a problem tapping me, or giving him a go, or giving me an in-route, or giving me a hitch against Cover-3 because we knew, we could see what they were doing the whole game. We kind of had an understanding of what basic routes we could run that would get us at least five yards."
At 5-foot-10 and just under 200 pounds, Tate brings Steve Smith of the Carolina Panthers in his prime to mind -- a smaller guy who has great versatility and has no problem mixing it up in traffic. "That's the thing with my game. I think I can do damage from everywhere," he said. " I can play outside, I can play the slot, I can play, if you want me to get in the backfield for draws, I can do that. I can do the 'Wildcat', I can do punt returns, I can do kick returns, and I think that brings up my value that I can do all those things, versus a typical, standard 6-foot-3 or 4 receiver who, he can play outside, and he can play outside well, but what else can he do when a defense evaluates the offense?"
Finally, what does he do best, and what will need some work? "My best attribute is being elusive. I think it's very tough for guys to take me down. I can turn a 6-yard hitch into a first down, a 20-yard gain, maybe even a touchdown. So, I think that's what I do best. I think I need to work on my route-running. Route-running and getting off press (coverage at the line). Everyone's studying film and trying to gain an advantage over you, so I think if I can work on those things, I'll be okay in the NFL."
That's Tate's primary angle -- he's always looking for an edge. It's what led him to great success at the major college level, and it's what will take him forward to the pros.
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