Looking back, I'm not sure how it could have ever worked with Taulia Tagovailoa at Alabama
A year and a half ago, I talked to Thompson High School (Ala.) coach Mark Freeman about his senior quarterback. Taulia Tagovailoa was already a household name in the state of Alabama thanks in part to his brother, Tua, and thanks in part to a record-setting senior season that followed his commitment to the Crimson Tide.
The 20-minute conversation with Freeman included the obvious question — how is the younger Tagovailoa going to handle living under that microscope?
“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 told SDS in 2018. “In this football-crazy state, he’s gonna be Tua’s little brother. But when he gets this opportunity, everybody will know Taulia, too.”
A year and a half later, everyone indeed knows Taulia. But unfortunately for him, he’s known as the Tagovailoa brother who couldn’t make it work at Alabama.
Friday night’s news that Taulia Tagovailoa entered the transfer portal unofficially put a close on his relatively uneventful Alabama career. Still, it wasn’t met with shock. Alabama reporter Aaron Suttles called it “the worst-kept secret” after Tagovailoa reportedly discussed transferring openly following his brother’s decision to leave Alabama early for the NFL.
The younger Tagovailoa left Alabama before he really got a chance to battle for the starting job. That decision, though not surprising, fueled a question.
How could it have ever worked for him at Alabama?
Tagovailoa’s time at Alabama was strange from the start. He committed to the Crimson Tide just 16 days after 4-star quarterback Paul Tyson, the great-grandson of Paul “Bear” Bryant, gave his verbal pledge to Alabama. Two in-state legacies battled on the field months after that, and they were expected to battle following their true freshmen seasons.
It was actually Taulia who saw the field 3 times as a true freshman — that was under the 4-game threshold to preserve his redshirt year but he’ll have 3 years of eligibility left assuming he transfers and sits a season — while Tyson got the traditional redshirt. Mac Jones was No. 2 on the depth chart, and all he did was help his case to be the 2020 starter after he performed admirably in relief of Tua Tagovailoa.
The highly-anticipated arrival of 5-star true freshman Bryce Young only complicated matters for Taulia. Young’s longtime relationship with offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who wasn’t on Alabama’s staff when Taulia committed, could expedite his rise up the depth chart.
So again, how could it have worked for Taulia at Alabama?
If his brother had stayed, the assumption was that he would have stayed, as well. But again, it’s not like he would have started.
After Tua left, there was a 0% chance that Nick Saban was going to outwardly name a starting quarterback in the middle of spring ball, which makes any notion that there was some sort of Tagovailoa family ultimatum — “declare Taulia the starter or he leaves” — seem foolish.
Perhaps Sarkisian leaving to accept one of the Power 5 jobs that he was offered could have altered the path of Young, and opened the door for Tagovailoa to stay? There’s no guarantee of that.
This comes back to a couple of things. If Taulia and his family believed he was going to be Alabama’s starting quarterback to start the year in 2020, transferring would have been, um, bizarre? Clearly, they didn’t get that vibe. Otherwise, why walk away from that? Wasn’t that exactly what Taulia signed up for?
Well, maybe not. I go back to what Trent Dilfer told me a year and a half ago. Dilfer, as many know, coached both Tagovailoa brothers at the Elite 11 camp and has since spoken quite highly of them.
“(Taulia) is just discovering who he is outside of being Tua’s younger brother. In a good way. He admits it,” Dilfer said in 2018. “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.”
Taulia wanted to be “the dude.” He wants to “show off.”
Yeah, man. I get that. Why wouldn’t he?
This is the same kid who had to pack up and leave Hawaii for the mainland in the middle of his emerging high school career because the family wanted to be there for Tua’s career at Alabama. Is history repeating itself?
The assumption — by both college football Twitter and the oddsmakers — was that the close-knit family would want Taulia to transfer to a school in the state of Florida following the Miami Dolphins’ selection of Tua Tagovailoa in the 2020 NFL Draft.
During his latest appearance on Birmingham-based WJOX 94.5 FM radio show “The Roundtable,” Paul Finebaum was asked to share his thoughts on Taulia’s decision to transfer from Alabama’s football program and where the second-year signal-caller might end up next season.
“Well, there’s an old line in journalism that’s called follow the money, in this case, it’s follow the family,” Finebaum said. “I don’t think it’s hard to figure out. I think it was doomed from the beginning. He should have never gone to Alabama, he did for reasons which I’ll let his parents explain – and it didn’t work out, and good for him. He’ll probably go to south Florida or somewhere down there and play football and I hope he does better than he did at Alabama.”
Here’s the thing. This decision, whether it was family-influenced or not, has upside for Taulia. He has a much better chance of being “the dude” outside of Tuscaloosa. He can go to an offense where he’ll have the chance to “show off.” Why didn’t he realize that before he committed to Alabama? Maybe he didn’t have a say in the matter. Or maybe it took a year of him in Tuscaloosa for that reality to really sink in.
Perhaps hearing his name discussed third in the pecking order for a few months got to him. And hey, there could have even been some second thoughts about whether Alabama was really the job he even wanted to win. For what? Just to continue living in his brother’s shadow?
It’s unpopular to say that this situation could be a win-win for the Tagovailoa family. Three years from now, we could be talking about both Tagovailoa brothers thriving in their new surroundings, whether they’re in close proximity of each other or not.
For all we know, this was always the plan. That could explain why Tyson’s commitment didn’t matter to the Tagovailoa family, and neither did Young’s. Taulia got to face SEC competition and learn from the best coach on the planet for a year. He should be better for that. If Taulia was always going to follow Tua based on what NFL city he ended up in, no, that doesn’t seem fair to him. Having an expiration date at a big-time college program is strange any way you draw it up.
Then again, that was reportedly what would have happened with Tua had he not taken over for Jalen Hurts in the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship. Should we have seen this coming with Taulia? Possibly. In hindsight, it was inevitable that Taulia was going to leave Alabama before his college career was over.
Now, though, is his chance to be known as something other than the Tagovailoa brother who couldn’t make it work at Alabama.