The stage is set for the epic first chapter of the next great Alabama quarterback battle
Paul Tyson vs. Tualia Tagovailoa. Bear Bryant’s great-grandson vs. Tua’s little brother. Friday night, the 2 Alabama commits play against each other. But the stars could align for the ultimate legacy and the ultimate heir apparent in Alabama history to compete for the most high-profile position in the sport. If you thought Tua vs. Jalen was high drama … just wait.
This past summer, Trent Dilfer was chatting with his fellow Elite 11 coaches when he had an epiphany.
One of the quarterbacks he had in camp was Paul Tyson, who’s the great-grandson of legendary Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. Another Elite 11 quarterback was Taulia Tagovailoa, who’s the brother of Alabama star quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. The younger Tagovailoa and Tyson were actually roommates at camp, which wasn’t surprising given that both were 2019 quarterbacks from the state of Alabama.
More surprising was the realization that Dilfer came to. Tagovailoa and Tyson weren’t just Elite 11 roommates from the same state. They both verbally committed to Alabama a couple months earlier.
Dilfer mapped out a quick timeline in his head and laid out the unprecedented situation that could dominate headlines come 2020.
“I was like ‘If it goes as I think this is gonna go with Tua (with him leaving for the NFL after the 2019 season), you’re looking at one being the brother of the greatest quarterback that’s ever gonna play at Alabama and two being the great-grandson of arguably the greatest coach in the history of college football,’” Dilfer told SDS. “We just laughed at it. It’s like, are you kidding me?”
What Dilfer didn’t know this summer at Elite 11 was that while everyone was focused on the all-time off-season quarterback battle between Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts in Tuscaloosa, there was another in-season battle that high school football fans in Alabama already had marked on their calendars for months.
As fate would have it, Thompson (Ala.) and Hewitt-Trussville (Ala.) were in the same region in 2018. That meant on Oct. 26, Taulia Tagovailoa and Tyson would get to face each other.
“Oh my gosh. I gotta see this,” Dilfer said upon hearing of the matchup. “Is it on a regional cable affiliate or anything?”
Fortunately for Dilfer and Alabama fans across the country who can’t make the trip to Alabaster, Ala., ESPN2 will have the broadcast. As if the made-for-TV script couldn’t get anymore interesting, there’s another wrinkle to Friday night’s clash.
It just so happens to be Alabama’s bye week. A star-studded cast of Crimson Tide characters will likely make the hour-trip east to witness the unique matchup of future Alabama quarterbacks.
“There’s no telling who’s gonna show up,” Hewitt-Trussville coach Josh Floyd said.
Thousands of Alabama fans from across the state will descend on Alabaster, Ala. to watch the 4-star quarterback recruits. And they’ll actually see the Crimson Tide’s top-rated 2019 recruits in Hewitt-Trussville’s Pierce Quick and Thompson’s Amari Kight, both of whom are blue-chip offensive tackles ranked among the top 50 overall nationally.
But all the attention will be on the first chapter of the next great Alabama quarterback battle.
-- Trent Dilfer on Tualia Tagovailoa vs. Paul Tyson
Last April, Mark Freeman was driving to the lake with his wife early on a Saturday morning when he got a phone call. It was Tagovailoa’s dad, Galu. He had news to share about his son’s future.
Later that day, Taulia Tagovailoa was going to announce his commitment to Alabama before attending the program’s spring game in Tuscaloosa that afternoon. Galu Tagovailoa relayed the message that Taulia was hoping Freeman could make it to Tuscaloosa to be there for it. Freeman turned the car around, headed back home and eventually to Tuscaloosa. He wouldn’t miss it.
It wasn’t a shock that Tagovailoa committed to the in-state school where his brother completed a historic comeback and won a national championship 3 months earlier.
The timing was what shocked Freeman.
Sixteen days before Tagovailoa’s announcement, Tyson gave his commitment to Alabama. That meant Saban got commitments from a pair of 4-star quarterbacks in the same month. Rarely does any school sign multiple quarterbacks in a class anymore, much less 2 of the top 10 quarterbacks in the same recruiting cycle who happen to be from the same state.
Saban signed 2 quarterbacks in one class on 3 occasions — not including 2019 — though this would be the first time at Alabama that he landed multiple signal-callers rated among the top 300 recruits overall (the Tide signed 5-star recruit Phillip Sims and 4-star recruit Blake Sims in 2010, but the latter was listed as an “athlete” and he was rated outside the top 300 overall).
And never have they been such historic names in the state of Alabama.
“Tagovailoa” is already as recognizable as it gets in Alabama, much like “Bryant” or “Saban.” But when the Tagovailoa family decided to move 5,000 miles from Hawaii to Alabama once Tua enrolled in the spring semester of 2017, it meant Taulia had a new place to make a name for himself. He was neither the same player, nor the same person as his brother.
“He’s wanted to be his own guy and now he’s proven that he can be his own guy, and the comparisons will be there,” Freeman said. “In this football-crazy state, he’s gonna be Tua’s little brother. But when he gets this opportunity, everybody will know Taulia, too.”
There are the obvious differences. They throw with opposite hands, Tua is an inch or two taller and he’s roughly 20 pounds heavier than Taulia. Actually the once-chubby Taulia used to be Tua’s center back when they played on the same team as kids in Hawaii. It took some intense training with Tua and Galu for Taulia to rebuild himself before high school.
Taulia has since developed into an elite quarterback prospect since coming to the mainland. In Thompson’s pass-heavy offense last year, Taulia passed for 3,820 yards, 36 touchdown passes and just 8 interceptions as a junior in 2017. Earlier this season against Oak Mountain, he threw for 507 yards and 4 touchdowns and became the 10th player in Alabama High School Athletic Association history to hit 500 yards in a game. That was his fourth career 400-yard passing game, which was an AHSAA record. His accuracy on the move — he completed 66 percent of his passes — drew the eyes of Power 5 schools and earned an invitation to the highly-exclusive Elite 11 over the summer.
Dilfer said that it took a few days, but Taulia’s charisma was evident once he got settled in.
“(Taulia) is just discovering who he is outside of being Tua’s younger brother. In a good way. He admits it,” Dilfer said. “He came out of his shell this summer at Elite 11. He’s super joyful like Tua is, and super appreciative. He also has what I call ‘the assassin’s streak’ in him. He wants to slice and dice, he wants to be the dude, he wants the ball in his hand, he wants to make a play. He wants to show off.
“It’s very similar to what we saw with Tua years back.”
Dilfer, remember, told SDS over the summer that Tua was the best prospect he’d ever coached at Elite 11, and that he wouldn’t be surprised if Alabama won every game that he started 50-3. Taulia might not be as highly rated as his brother — Taulia is No. 173 overall compared to No. 32 for Tua — but the younger Tagovailoa does have the benefit of playing his final 2 years of high school ball in the state of Alabama.
On a given night in October, Taulia can line up opposite of a quarterback who’s just as decorated as he is.
Tyson shares a first name, not a last name, with his late great-grandfather. Once upon a time, he might have been able to blend in as just another kid who grew up going to Alabama games in the stadium named after an ancestor he never got to meet. Those days are gone. Now that he’s a nationally-regarded quarterback recruit, Tyson’s family lineage is a constant topic of conversation among high school football fans in Alabama.
“That’s pretty much every second of the day, honestly, especially in this state,” Hewitt-Trussville defensive coordinator and former Alabama defensive lineman Rudy Griffin said.
Though he doesn’t play it up, Tyson has plenty of stories about interactions with people who knew he had the same DNA as the great Bear Bryant. Many will show up just to watch him play. One Alabama fan who heard who Tyson was even greeted him by kissing him on the head.
When Hewitt-Trussville held its annual preseason intrasquad Red-White Game last year, a couple of, as Floyd put it “older ladies,” made the trip from out of town. They brought a picture of them with Bear Bryant so that Tyson could autograph it and, of course, take a picture with them.
“It’s crazy, man,” Floyd said. “This state’s different.”
If Tyson was going to get Power 5 interest, though, it wasn’t just going to be because of his family. In the midst of a dominant junior season in which Tyson led Hewitt-Trussville to a perfect regular season, the offers started rolling in. Schools like Notre Dame, USC and Wisconsin were in early on the 6-4 1/2, 215-pound gunslinger.
Alabama didn’t want to just give Tyson an offer because he was a legacy. There’s more to consider with quarterbacks.
“The whole legacy thing, if it’s a different position, I don’t know if it’d be as big of a deal. I think the fact that you’re talking about an actual quarterback, that just amps it up even more,” Floyd said.
Saban waited until December to visit with Floyd at Hewitt-Trussville. The Alabama coach wanted to know about Tyson’s character and how he handled the spotlight of his high-profile background. Shortly thereafter Saban’s visit, Tyson got that Alabama offer.
But he was in no hurry to commit to Alabama, or anywhere for that matter. Tyson wanted to go through the recruiting process like anyone else would. His parents supported his decision to keep his options open after his junior season.
As for fans in Alabama? That was a different story.
“I can’t even imagine the pressure of everyone in state,” Floyd said. “Once Alabama offered, everybody just jumped on it pretty quick as far as trying to pressure him into committing.”
After visiting the likes of Kentucky, Michigan and Alabama, of course, Tyson did eventually commit to the Crimson Tide in the first week of April. It was national news that Bear Bryant’s great-grandson was committed to play quarterback at Alabama. For at least a day, the Hurts-Tagovailoa battle that had just begun at Alabama that spring wasn’t the only quarterback news that had the state buzzing.
Little did they know that the “Alabama quarterback of the future” buzz was only beginning.
-- Hewitt-Trussville coach Josh Floyd on Paul Tyson
When the casual fan flips on ESPN2 on Friday night, it’ll be obvious how different the two Alabama quarterback commits are. It’ll serve as a reminder that there’s no longer a “prototypical Alabama quarterback.” They come in all shapes and sizes. Former Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin is responsible for that.
“Lane would call me up with guys with different traits and skill sets and I’d say, ‘But that doesn’t fit you,’” Dilfer said. “He goes, ‘Oh, it’s gonna fit us.’”
Alabama fans seeing Tagovailoa and Tyson for the first time Friday night will inevitably become enamored with their strengths.
Tyson’s are more traditional. He has the next-level frame to go with the big arm, mostly operates out of the pocket and has the calm, cool demeanor that Floyd says makes it easy to rally around.
Besides the fact that he broke the school record for career touchdown passes in September — he’s now up to 60 and counting — Tyson is also extremely accurate having thrown just 8 interceptions in 578 attempts dating to when he became the starter last year. Griffin said “we celebrate big-time when we get an interception off him in practice, I’ll tell you that,” which makes sense considering Tyson hasn’t thrown a practice pick since the summer.
Tyson models his game after Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers — Tyson also wears No. 17 — but Dilfer sees more Ben Roethlisberger in him. At least that’s what Dilfer projects once Tyson continues to develop.
“(Paul) is gonna be one of those 22-year olds that goes into the weight room and goes ‘Holy crap, I’m the strongest guy on the team and I didn’t even know it,’” Dilfer said. “We see it all the time. These kids are tall and long, and they don’t really know how to control it all yet, and all of us are sitting there going, ‘This kid’s gonna be a monster.’
“And that’s what he’s gonna be.”
“Monster” won’t be the word at the top of Tagovailoa’s scouting report. At least not physically. He’s getting stronger — Freeman said Tagovailoa’s compact frame is up to about 200 pounds — and faster after spending the summer doing drills with the Thompson receivers. Tagovailoa runs to scramble, though not necessarily to move the chains.
“Two things with (Taulia), I’d want to see more downfield passing. I think part of that is (Thompson’s) scheme, but that’s one thing that Tua is really exceptional at. We don’t see as much of that from Taulia in high school,” said 247sports analyst Charles Power, who did the full evaluation of Tagovailoa for the site’s premium members. “It’ll be interesting to see if (Taulia) can be a bit of a run threat in college. Even though he scrambles, he’s not running as much in high school necessarily.”
Freeman admits that while Tagovailoa checks all the boxes — he’s a leader, he’s coachable, he spends 3-4 hours a night on film, etc. — he’s still human.
One of those human moments came on the road last year against powerhouse Hoover with Thompson’s unbeaten record on the line in late October. With more than 15,000 people on hand, Tagovailoa threw a pass across his body that turned into a pick-6 and second-half Hoover lead. From that point on, however, he only threw a couple incompletions the rest of the night. He led a 99-yard go-ahead touchdown drive that clinched Thompson’s Class 7A Region 3 championship.
It was in that moment that Freeman realized he had a special player.
“It’s like we’re writing a book about a perfect kid. He’s not perfect. We’ve got some things that we work on and try to do better at,” Freeman said. “But the moment won’t bother Taulia.”
The elephant in the room — for lack of a better phrase — on Friday night is simple. What happens next?
It’s natural to think the winner of the head-to-head matchup will already have a leg up on the race to become Alabama’s starting quarterback.
“Nothing is too far in advance for these fans,” Floyd said.
However, it’s easy to forget that if both Tagovailoa and Tyson sign with Alabama, the program will have 6 scholarship quarterbacks on the roster when camp opens in 2019. That includes Hurts, who many expect will transfer as a grad student for his final year of eligibility, and current third-stringer Mac Jones.
Jones could certainly shake up the Tagovailoa vs. Tyson competition narrative in 2020. A lot can happen between now and then, which was why neither of their coaches predicted they’d be Alabama’s starter in 2020.
According to Power, who studied film on both quarterbacks, there’s one thing that could tip the scales if and when the starting job is up for grabs.
“I would slight lean for Taulia just based off of him having to do a lot with his high school team,” Power said. “A lot of times, the biggest issue with a freshman is dealing with a pass rush. You’re going to get less of that at Alabama because you’re playing behind a really good offensive line … but generally speaking, a player like Taulia is better equipped to deal with the pass rush that tend to give young quarterbacks problems.”
Power’s player comp for Tagovailoa was former Clemson star Tajh Boyd. Ironically enough, Tagovailoa models his game after a different Clemson legend — Deshaun Watson. It was Watson who spoiled the dream of Alabama’s perfect season in 2016.
“That’d be crazy if I get a chance to play against Bama and beat Tua, for sure,” Tagovailoa said in an interview in September with Maxpreps.
While Tagovailoa added that he doesn’t even have a Clemson offer, the speculation about either he or Tyson decommitting from Alabama isn’t going anywhere until both sign on the dotted line. The Early Signing Period is just 2 months away. For now, the 247sports Crystal Ball has Tagovailoa as 100 percent committed to Alabama while Tyson is at 93 percent.
As unique of a situation as it would be to have a pair of blue-chip quarterbacks sign with the same school, this might just be the perfect storm. The stars could align for the ultimate legacy and the ultimate heir apparent to take over the most high-profile position in the sport.
On Friday night, though, Tagovailoa and Tyson won’t be either of those things. They’ll just be two senior quarterbacks looking for a headliner win just before the Alabama state playoffs. Both of their coaches are confident that the high-profile audience won’t faze them, no matter who shows up at Thompson. Unlike those in attendance and watching on TV, the young quarterbacks won’t be thinking about 2020.
It seemed impossible that a quarterback battle could trump the one that unfolded in Tuscaloosa in 2018. A lot can happen in the next 2 years, but the summer of 2020 has the makings of some unprecedented dynamics.
Before we see how that plays out, there’s one thought that’ll be on the minds of many come Friday as this made-for-TV battle enters its first act.
Nobody could’ve scripted a sequel like this.