Remember that list of the best players A.J. Francis has ever seen? That rarefied group of awe-inspiring athletes who “do things 99.9 percent of those who play their position can’t do”? The one with Sammy Watkins, Tavon Austin and Stefon Diggs? Well, Kenneth Tate is on that list as well.
Tate, hereafter referred to as the Linebacker Formerly Known as Kenny, made his season debut against West Virginia, returning from a 2011 knee surgery with an open-field tackle on Austin and a pass breakup in his first two plays.
He was on the field for 54 snaps against the Mountaineers, more than double what Coach Randy Edsall anticipated, but came away healthy, an ice pack strapped to his knee, champing for more time.
He’s asked to be called Kenneth this season, the name his mother and teammates always knew him by, but hasn’t changed in the slightest on the field.
“Like Joe [Vellano] always says, whenever he makes a play, lucky that guy is on our team,” Francis said. “That’s how Kenny makes a lot of plays. His first play in over a year, he makes an open-field tackle on one of the best athletes in college football. If that isn’t a definition of who he is as a player, I don’t know what else you’re looking for.”
After the bye week, Tate will most likely start against Wake Forest. He and Alex Twine were listed as co-starters on Tuesday’s depth chart, but it’s hard to envision a situation, save a medical relapse, in which the former all-ACC safety doesn’t receive the bulk of snaps Saturday at Byrd Stadium.
“I thought he had a good presence for us in the West Virginia game,” Edsall said. “I thought he went in there and did a good job. You could see he was a little bit rusty. But just his presence and he made plays and did his job. There’s a sense of calmness with everyone else when he’s out there when you have a guy that’s very talented and very smart and has seen a lot of things so he can react to it and maintains his poise and composure.”
Before they became teammates, Tate and Francis had faced each other for seven years, dating back to their days as kids in the Unlimited Football League. Tate played for KLM and Francis for Crofton in sixth and seventh grade and Revere Beach in eighth grade. The kept squaring off in high school, Tate at DeMatha and Francis at Gonzaga.
His senior year, Francis had 18 tackles in a game. But one missed play lingers with him. Lined up at quarterback in the Wildcat formation, Tate ran for a touchdown. Gonzaga lost 7-6.
It’s those instincts, Francis said, that make Tate such a valuable weapon. He considers himself adept at reading stances and jumping snap counts. “Kenny’s pretty good at reading the entire offense,” Francis said, a trait he hypothesized came from film takeaways and his prior prowess on offense.
“Kenny’s like the defensive version of Diggs,” Francis said. “When he’s on the field, you can expect something special to happen. The feeling’s a little different, but the main thing is, his football knowledge is some of the best of anyone I’ve ever played with. Kenny’s football knowledge is the upper echelon. I feel like I’m pretty smart on the football field, but I’m nowhere near as smart as Kenny. He’s in another league, and it shows on the field.”