Oklahoma defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill likes everything about Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. McNeill likes Tagovailoa’s poise, his athleticism and his arm strength. The characteristic McNeill finds most engaging, though, isn’t one of those.
It’s that Tagovailoa throws the ball left-handed.
“I’ve coached football for 38 years,” said McNeill, who took over as Oklahoma’s defensive coordinator at mid-season. “I coached basketball for six years, played baseball when I was young. I love lefties — the left-handed shooter, the lefty pitcher. It just gives you a different look. The ball spins a little differently. It comes at you from different angles.
“In (Tagovailoa’s) case, it doesn’t limit him. Mike (Locksley) has done a great job of balancing their offense and with the throws that Tua can make. You have to defend the whole field, not just his strong side. Then the weapons they have around him — they can pass and they can run, and not just the old run-to-keep-them-honest that some spread teams can do. They can line up and run power. Their tight end (Irv Smith Jr.) is a real problem because he can go downfield like a wide receiver but he’s still a strong blocker. But it all goes back to their quarterbacks.”
Aside from McNeill’s affinity for southpaws, Wednesday was sort of an odd — not to say left-handed — day for quarterbacks on both sides of the ball. Tagovailoa, who met with reporters about 30 minutes or so before McNeill, estimated that he was “80 to 85 percent” in his recovery from surgery for a high-ankle sprain. That’s not cause for panic. However, it is somewhat less optimistic than Tagovailoa sounded in his interviews in Tuscaloosa last week.
Despite the sore ankle, Tagovailoa did make it to the media session. Kyler Murray did not, with the Oklahoma media staff giving the standard “not feeling well” explanation. Both managed to practice later in the day, so alarm bells aren’t clanging in Fort Lauderdale, even though every move by the Heisman winner and runner-up is scrutinized by the national media assembled here.
The alarm bells have been ringing for Oklahoma’s defense and not in a good way. The Sooners have allowed more than 40 points in a game five times this season, although they did hold Texas to 27 points in the Big 12 Championship Game, their most recent outing.
McNeill, a veteran coach — best known for a head coaching stint at East Carolina, which has never been very good since McNeill was fired after the 2015 season — took over for Mike Stoops in the middle of the year and while he did not turn Oklahoma into the 1985 Chicago Bears, he has had the month of December to make further changes that he hopes will allow the Sooners to “break serve,” as he put it.
“You’ve got to stop them enough times to give your offense a chance,” he said. “We can score, but you don’t want the pressure on them to score every time.”
That’s the goal, McNeill said, despite his respect for Tagovailoa’s left-handed magic — or the possibility of facing the improved Jalen Hurts.
“Our guys know what they are facing,” McNeill said. “They faced Baker (Mayfield, now with the Cleveland Browns) every day last year and Kyler every day this year. We just have to be ready.”
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.
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