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November 26, 2009

Golden is his name, game and fame

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What can't Golden Tate do on a football field?

He can run by most defensive backs. He can catch a football in any kind of traffic. He can score touchdowns in every game. He can score touchdowns as a kick returner. He can run with the football like a halfback. He can carry defenders with him.

Simply put, Golden Tate is one of the greatest and most productive players in Notre Dame football history.

"He has shown that he can do it all," acknowledged Irish head coach Charlie Weis. "He can play in the slot. He can play inside. He can play outside. He can run the ball. He's broken a long punt return…

"When he goes to play on Sundays, whether that's six months from now or a year-and-a-half from now, there are some things that he's going to have to get even better at to be a more refined guy. But I'll tell you what, the sky is the limit for the kid."

At 5-foot-11, 195 pounds, Tate doesn't have some of the advantages that the bigger receivers possess. But nothing has stopped Tate in his pursuit of a football career, including his inability to run anything but a go route just two short years ago.

Even then, he managed to catch six passes for a 21.8-yard average when everyone in the stadium knew what he would be doing.

Tate still wouldn't be considered a precise route runner at this stage of his career. But he has improved dramatically, and what he lacks in precision, he makes up with speed, instincts and a vice-like grip that latches on to anything within his vicinity.

Last week against Connecticut, Tate moved past Jeff Samardzija on Notre Dame's all-time single-season list for receptions (83) and receiving yardage (1,295). With possibly two games remaining, Tate could send that record up near the century mark if he follows recent form.

In each of the last three games, Tate has caught nine passes and has cracked the century mark in yardage. In fact, he has accumulated more than 100 yards in six of his last seven games, including a nine-catch, 244-yard masterpiece against Washington. His eight games of 100 yards or more equals the single-season mark set by Tom Gatewood in 1970.

But nothing epitomized his greatness and sheer will to succeed more than his remarkable 50-yard end zone catch as time expired in the first half against Washington State with three defenders surrounding him.

With or without Michael Floyd in the lineup, Tate is an automatic go-to guy for Irish quarterback Jimmy Clausen. Tate has scored touchdowns in seven straight games, and 16 of his last 24.

"It was great to break a record at Notre Dame," said Tate after surpassing Samardzija's single-season marks. "When I came here as a freshman, I never even thought I'd have the chance to achieve something like that. It's a great honor to be mentioned with a name like Jeff's."

And now he's being mentioned with a name like former Florida State All-American and Oakland Raiders Hall-of-Famer Fred Biletnikoff. Tate has been named one of three finalists-along with Bowling Green's Freddie Barnes and Texas Jordan Shipley-for the award.

"It's a great honor," Tate said. "I'm glad I'm seen as one of those elite athletes."

The elite athletes refuse to be beaten, and no one epitomizes that better than Tate, who blends his strength and will to succeed into a lethal combination. There are times when opponents simply can't bring him down to the ground.

"He is a rocked-up unit," said Weis, using his familiar term for an athlete who has honed his physical skills in the weight room. "He's a strong, physical, rocked-up unit, and he has a great center of gravity. He's well grounded when he gets hit a lot of times. How many times have we seen people bounce off of him? Between that and a strong will, it's a good combination."

Weis sees a direct correlation to one of the premier wide receivers in the NFL.

"He's a Steve Smith clone," said Weis, referring to the Carolina Panthers' All-Pro wideout. "I know Steve Smith well. I'm a big fan of Steve Smith. He's a little trash-talker just like Golden. Their personalities are alike. They're fiery guys. They make big plays. They're tough. They don't back down from anyone.

"I don't know Steve's size exactly, but I would imagine it's probably pretty close. He reminds me a lot of Steve."

Actually, at 5-foot-9, 185 pounds, Smith is listed a bit smaller than Tate. But they both have that playmaking ability and that sheer determination to beat the man opposite him.

Where Tate needs to improve-and the one thing that would play the greatest role in his return to the college ranks in 2010-is the lack of precision in his route running. As a freshman in '07, he was a go-route alternative and nothing more. No reading of coverages or adjusting on the run. Just run as fast as you can, look back for the ball, and make a play.

Tate has come a long way from those days.

"That's the area where he has improved the most," Weis conceded.

But he's still not at the NFL route-running level.

"He has work to do yet," Weis said. "He's capable of running even better routes, and with his strength and quickness getting off the line of scrimmage versus a jam, when he starts using better technique, it's going to be scary."

Tate is in accord with his head coach's assessment.

"I totally agree with Coach Weis," Tate said. "My route running is getting better, but there are definitely a lot of things I need to learn with technique and getting leverage on the defensive guy."

And yet, Weis believes Tate is well on his way to fulfilling his dream of becoming a top-notch professional receiver.

"It really comes down to two things, and he already has one of them in the bank," Weis said. "When you start studying a player in college, you're looking for him to make plays. Well, it doesn't take long to find this guy. He's a highlight reel. How would you like to be his agent when it came to that? There would be plenty of evidence, and it's all from this year."

So now it comes down to whether Tate has elite speed.

"I think he's pretty fast," Weis smiled.

Irish fans think the time with Tate at Notre Dame has gone much too fast, particularly if he chooses to bypass his senior season. Tate repeatedly has deflected talk of turning professional early, saying that he will decide upon the conclusion of his junior season. He hinted to NBC's broadcasters last weekend that Clausen's decision as it pertains to 2010 will play a role in his own decision.

One thing is certain: Golden Tate is one of the greatest players in Notre Dame football history.

"I don't know if he's going to be here for another year," Weis said. "For Notre Dame's sake, the program's sake, it would be a wonderful thing. But he's special."

Golden is his name, his game and his fame.

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