DESTIN, Fla. | Just over a month after hip replacement surgery, University of Alabama head football coach Nick Saban was talking about “getting back into great shape” on Tuesday — but he wasn’t talking about himself.

 Surprisingly, he was talking about Crimson Tide quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, last year’s Heisman Trophy runner-up and the focal point of the Crimson Tide’s offense in 2019. The question came up at the end of Saban’s annual media opportunity at the Southeastern Conference Meetings.

   “Tua has to challenge himself to get back,” Saban said. “Being hurt was an issue at end of (last) season. He has to challenge himself to get back into great shape. He should take the perception he has a lot to prove – as do all of us – relative to how the season ended.”

 Saban’s reference to Tagovailoa “(getting) into great shape” did not seem, in context, to mean that the Crimson Tide junior is chubby and needs to spend the rest of the summer doing pilates and beach yoga. Instead, it seemed connected with Tagovailoa’s strengthening of the knee and ankle that clearly bothered him from mid-season on. Tagovailoa has busied himself this month with an appearance at the Steve Clarkson Quarterback Retreat in Pacific Palisades, Cal., and an upcoming appearance at the Manning Passing Academy in Thibodaux, La. in late June.

 Meanwhile, Saban emphasized that Alabama’s entire team, not just Tagovailoa, should strive for improvement.

“The question here is who on our team is happy with the way things ended last year? … We have a plan to improve,” he said.

  SABAN ALSO addressed the NCAA transfer portal, one of the hot-button topics at this year’s meetings, but his answer was calm, not atomic.

 “I’m for whatever benefits the student-athlete,” he said.

  “There’s so much emphasis now on playing time, that guys have visions even when they’re in high school because of the attention that they get that their college careers are just a conduit to get to the NFL,” Saban said. “I don’t think that’s a good scenario. You don’t go to college with the right sort of goals and aspirations about what’s important and what’s going to impact and affect your life long term. I think some of this stuff is created by all of us, the attention that high school players get now. We accelerated the recruiting calendar forward so guys that are freshmen and sophomores are expected to get recruited.”

 ALABAMA’S FRESHMAN class of football players reported for summer classes and conditioning on Tuesday. Saban noted that some players would not be available to begin until their high school graduation in the next few days but said there were no players who were not expected to be academically eligible.

 Saban also noted that he was “excited” about the Alabama softball team as it heads to Oklahoma City for the Women’s College World Series.

 “I even watched a couple of games last week,” he noted.


 Reach Cecil Hurt at or 205-722-0225.