Tua Tagovailoa leaves Alabama with plenty of "next man up" competition for QB1
There are few people in the world, and likely none who will read this (which includes the author), who know what it is like to be among the best in the world at what they do.
Tua Tagovailoa knows the feeling. He knew it from his first glimpse of the spotlight at Alabama, and he is about to know it again as 1 of just 32 NFL starting quarterbacks.
Monday’s announcement by Tagovailoa that he is forgoing his senior season at Alabama to enter the 2020 NFL Draft is bittersweet in the Crimson Tide Nation. Just a day ago, I posited here that the message Alabama’s sweet Hawaiian prince would deliver from the lectern would be different — that Tagovailoa’s strong faith would guide him in a different direction.
Alas, Monday’s news conference — carried live on ESPN along with crashing website traffic on the state’s various remaining media outlets — delivered a different sermon to the congregation.
That message: Next.
Even as he was bidding adieu to Alabama while nattily attired in an olive green-and-white Hawaiian shirt and no crutch to support his injured hip, Tagovailoa pivoted neatly to the fact that his brother — freshman Taulia — will be among the quarterbacks vying for the starting spot in 2020.
Mac Jones, of course, becomes the incumbent. As a redshirt sophomore in 2019, Jones started 4 games in place of the elder Tagovailoa — including the Vrbo Citrus Bowl victory against Michigan. Jones went 3-1 as a starter, tossing 13 touchdowns and just 2 interceptions (both against Auburn in the Iron Bowl loss).
Incoming freshman Bryce Young, the No. 1-ranked dual-threat quarterback in the 2020 class, arrived in Tuscaloosa this week as well as an early enrollee — which makes spring practice and the A-Day spring game suddenly must-see TV.
“There will still be a Tagovailoa around here playing football, my little brother Taulia,” Tagovailoa said. “It’ll be a good competition. Bryce Young looked really good at his All-American game. If you love competition, now is the best time for it — for Mac, my little brother and Bryce Young.”
What Taulia, Jones or Young can’t replace is Tagovailoa’s remarkable spirit in Tuscaloosa. Alabama coach Nick Saban was quick to sing Tagovailoa’s praises Monday, adding that the quarterback is on pace to graduate on time.
“Tua has probably had as much of an impact on our program here as any player that we’ve ever had,” Saban said. “And I’m not talking about just as a football player. He has great character. He is a great leader. He has done a wonderful job in the classroom. There is a spirit about him that has impacted myself and everybody around him in a very positive way.
“He has had great accomplishments on the field, but you probably don’t really fully understand the significance of the contributions he has made off the field with his teammates and the people who are around him every day. He is an unbelievably positive spirit.”
Entering 2019 as a favorite to win the Heisman Trophy that he was a runner-up for in 2018, Tagovailoa had a star-crossed junior season. A hot start had Alabama at No. 1 in the country, Tagovailoa injured his ankle in the 1st half against Tennessee — a high ankle sprain that required the same “tight-rope” surgery he had on his other ankle late in 2018.
Tagovailoa returned to play against LSU in a 1-vs.-2 blockbuster, which the Tigers won 46-41 en route to capturing the SEC West and a berth in the SEC Championship Game. Just a week later, with Tagovailoa injured his hip when 2 Mississippi State defenders landed on him as he was scrambling for a pass play. He fell awkwardly and his knee drove into the ground, causing his hip to dislocate and his posterior wall to fracture. He also broke his nose and sustained a concussion on the play.
Tagovailoa had surgery 2 days later in Houston, and thereafter and has been rehabilitating with the team since. Alabama team orthopedic surgeon Lyle Cain said that Tagovailoa wouldn’t be able to resume athletic activity until around mid-February and won’t be ready to begin throwing again until sometime in the spring.
“I’ve had a great deal of ups, and just a handful of downs,” Tagovailoa said Monday during his announcement. “My 3 years have been the epitome of a roller-coaster.
“I don’t think any of the doctors can really tell the foreseeable future as to how how my rehab is going. You can’t really tell until the 3- or 4-month mark. With my hip, a lot of general managers and owners I have talked to look at it almost like a knee injury. Do we take a chance on him or not, and can he do a pro day or not? The biggest thing is seeing if we can move and play like we did before the injury.”
Despite those medical concerns, ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. had him rated 3rd overall in his latest Big Board. The Miami Dolphins are expected to show great interest in Tagovailoa with the 5th pick in the draft if he gets that far.
Tagovailoa is still uncertain whether, and how much, he will be able to work out for NFL scouts in advance of April’s NFL Draft. He will remain in Tuscaloosa for the immediate future to continue his rehab.
“These kind of things don’t take the doctors or myself. It pretty much boils down to 1 thing, and that’s faith,” Tagovailoa said. “Coming from a family that has a lot of it, I am definitely willing to take that challenge. We seek guidance from a good amount of pastors, including pastors back home. They all said the the same thing, to follow my heart.
“It was a really hard decision. I have been going back and forth, because some things make sense and some other don’t. I had to factor in a lot of things as to whether I should stay or go. We set a date just to get everything over with.”
Tagovailoa’s Alabama career ends with 7,442 passing yards and 87 touchdowns against 11 interceptions. He threw for 43 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2018 and 33 TDs in just 9 games as a junior in 2019. Tagovailoa completed 69.3 percent of his passes at Alabama and averaged 10.9 yards per pass.