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Golden Tate is…The Go-To Guy

Matt Gamber | Friday, September 25, 2009

It was just two years ago that sending No. 23 deep was the only way for an anemic Irish offense to strike downfield – and for an inexperienced freshman receiver to make a difference in a struggling passing game.

That freshman was Golden Tate, now a junior who has evolved from a high school tailback into one of the nation’s most explosive big-play wide receivers. Tate’s repertoire has surely expanded since the Golden-Go route made its debut against the Boilermakers on Sept. 29, 2007, when Tate hauled in three passes for 104 yards and a touchdown to provide a much-needed spark for a then-winless Irish squad.

“I’ve grown a lot, I can’t really even put it into words,” Tate said. “I came in here just knowing I can catch it and run, but there’s so much more to being a complete receiver. If you’re a receiver, everyone can catch the ball.”

“But how do you run your routes? How do you do in the blocking game? I think that’s one thing I’m still learning on, but I’m understanding the different concepts and ways to help the team more.”

That’s quite a progression from Tate’s freshman campaign, when he relied on straight speed and natural ball skills to beat single coverage and make tough catches. It worked against an unsuspecting Purdue secondary, but judging by Tate’s numbers the remainder of the season – three catches for 27 yards in seven games – defenses could easily bring a safety to his side to lock Tate up and throw away the key.

That’s simply not the case anymore. With a full grasp of both the Irish offense and what opposing defenses try to do to stop it, Tate isn’t a track star sprinting downfield or a baseball player (at least not on Saturdays in the fall) waiting under a fly ball.

He’s a wide receiver.

“I can run more than one route,” Tate said. “I’m ready.”

The Irish need him to be, now more than ever, with sophomore co-starter Michael Floyd sidelined for the regular season with a broken clavicle. Tate is now Notre Dame’s unquestioned No. 1 receiver – a distinction that will attract more attention both from quarterback Jimmy Clausen and from opposing defenses.

“I like being the guy that I know the ball’s going to come to, the guy they’re going to look at to make plays,” Tate said. “It’s always been me and my personality.”

Tate has certainly earned his status as a top receiver, breaking out in 2008 to tally 1080 yards and and 11 total touchdowns. As a sophomore he played a crucial role in breaking Notre Dame’s bowl losing streak, catching six passes for 177 yards and three touchdowns in the Hawaii Bowl.

There has been much discussion all week about the likelihood of defenses beginning to roll coverage to Tate’s side now that they won’t have to worry about Floyd opposite him. That approach may have stopped Tate two years ago, but he doesn’t believe it will Saturday in his return to Ross-Ade Stadium.

“I’m more prepared to deal with it now,” Tate said of the added attention from opposing defenses. “I dealt with it a little bit last year. I was also a little younger and always worried about beating Cover-1, which I specialize in. But this year, from day one, I knew I was going to get rolled up on every now and then. I think I’m prepared to handle the situation.”

The entire Irish offense, in fact, appears more prepared to deal with anything the Boilermakers will throw at them. A veteran offensive line has given an experienced Clausen time to spread the ball around, and junior tailback Armando Allen has consistently read his blocks well enough to make plays in the ground game.

None of those elements were in place two years ago, when Tate held his exclusive coming-out party in West Lafayette – a surprise party, so to speak, judging by Tate’s comments.

“I remember the week of practice, I thought I was not even in the game plan at all,” he said. “[Coach] gave me a chance and said pretty much run straight. I went up, made a play, and then he tried it a few more times and I ended up getting in the end zone. Great feeling – personally, I felt like OK, I got the first one out of the way.”

Tate’s first big day offered a glimmer of hope in a dismal season, which seemed to immediately cement his status as one of the faces of this Irish team. Almost immediately, the “Throw it to Golden!” chants – pleas may be more accurate – began in Notre Dame Stadium, and t-shirts proclaiming “Golden Is Thy Tate” and bearing his famous go route quickly circulated around campus.

Tate’s status as a fan favorite may have as much to do with the plays he makes as it does with the attitude with which he makes them.

“I love playing with emotion and actually showing it,” Tate said. “That’s one of the ways I stay relaxed. Kind of goof around, mess around a little bit.”

Tate is usually one of the first Irish players to motion toward the crowd after a big play, and he always seems to be right in front of the student section – and the television cameras – smiling as the team sings the alma mater – particularly the verse “golden is thy fame.”

And that doesn’t even broach the subject of his touchdown celebrations, which have certainly been noteworthy in the past two weeks. After holding the ball over the goal line as he pranced in for a score against Michigan in the Big House, he made a Clark Kent-like leap into the marching band after a touchdown against Michigan State Saturday.

The only problem? It wasn’t the home team’s band. Damn Sparty.

Tate explained that he wasn’t aware he was in Michigan State’s band’s territory, and that he initially jumped to avoid a little girl standing in his way – perhaps making the Superman reference all the more appropriate.

“I figured if I land on many people, that’s better than landing on one person, but they all got out of the way. And there was,” Tate said, pausing for effect, “the ground.”

Maybe Tate’s leap into the band was just his way of trying to meet some new people. He is, after all, one of the most widely recognized names and faces on campus, and not only because of how he performs on Saturdays.

It’s the same Golden, Monday through Friday, on the quad or in the dining hall.

“I like to say I’m a people person,” Tate said. “I love to walk around campus and say hi to random people, show that I’m not just this athlete who’s tough or too good for anyone. I try to treat everyone the same.”

Tate may be outgoing and confident both on and off the field, but he remains humble enough to recognize the bigger picture.

“I just want to stay within myself and do what I can to help the team,” Tate said. “We’ve still got a chance to be special.”