Tua Tagovailoa was always there for Jalen Hurts.
When the critics chirped, criticizing Alabama’s starting quarterback, his backup backed him up. Hurts, the sophomore starter who had won SEC Offensive Player of the Year honors the season before and was on his way to taking the Crimson Tide to a second straight national championship game appearance, would sometimes mention the barbs to his teammate.
“With the criticism, we hear it sometimes,” Tagovailoa, UA’s freshman from Hawaii, said about a week before Alabama’s 26-23 victory over Georgia in last weekend’s College Football Playoff final. “When he hears it, sometimes we joke around with it and he can sometimes bring it up, and when he does we just laugh about it.
“I just tell him, you ain’t got to worry about it: You’re the man right now, you’re the man for this team and I’m just here to support him.
“If the roles were flipped, I’d want him to do the same for me.”
In the championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, those roles were reversed. Tagovailoa came off the bench to start the second half and passed for three touchdowns to lead Alabama to a come-from-behind, overtime victory over the Bulldogs.
And Hurts was there every step of the way.
When Tagovailoa threw his first touchdown pass of the title game, Hurts was the first one to greet him with congratulations.
When the rookie came back to the sideline after every series, Hurts was there to provide encouragement and counsel.
And now that Tagovailoa is the toast of college football, after throwing the most significant pass in Alabama football history – a 41-yard heave to DeVonta Smith for the game-winner in overtime – he’s backing up Hurts again.
Tagovailoa showed his support last Thursday in a post on his Twitter account that included a photo of the two quarterbacks together:
Tired of people not appreciating the fact that if this man led us to the National Championship. And for all the fans that are against Jalen, you against me too. You either WITH US or AGAINST US. Love you 2 🐐#BigBroLittleBro @JalenHurts pic.twitter.com/ExjHAB7yHh
— Tua Tagovailoa (@Tuaamann_) January 11, 2018
Tagovailoa spoke before the Sugar Bowl semifinal about the relationship between the two quarterbacks, and how they pushed each other – and helped each other – all season long.
“Every day Jalen’s out here throwing the ball, I’m out here throwing the ball,” he said. “We’re going to do what we have to do to get each other better.
“If I throw a bad ball or make a bad read, (I) come to the side before Jalen gets his rep and Jalen tells me this is what I’ve seen, maybe you should throw it to this guy, maybe you should look this guy off and throw it to this guy. I get that opportunity to learn.
“I think that’s the amazing part of this, being able to be behind Jalen, is he’s a man who not only takes in things that you say but he also shares his knowledge too.”
Before the national title game, Tagovailoa did most of his learning in practice and on the sidelines. He appeared in eight contests in mop-up duty. His most recent appearance prior to the Georgia game had come on Nov. 18 against Mercer, and before that he hadn’t seen action since Oct. 21 against Tennessee.
He had completed 33 of 53 passes for 470 yards with eight touchdowns and an interception going into the championship game. Those experiences, even thought they hadn’t put him in pressure situations, were designed with future success in mind.
“I think all year long we had lots of confidence in Tua,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said after the title game, “and we played him so that if this situation occurred he would be ready to play.”
Tagovailoa was talented when he arrived at UA, but he had to learn.
“I think it all started with preparation through our practices,” he said. “I think those are key.”
Said offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, “He’s learned a lot in terms of defenses and coverages. Look, when you come from being a freshman, it’s like being a rookie in the National Football League – there’s so much to learn, so many different things. It’s a new system, you’re in a different place, you’re learning where the classrooms are.
“Every day he’s grown. Really a fun guy to work with. He’s a good player. Talented, has good work ethic, has a good mind.”
By the end of the regular season, Alabama’s braintrust had decided that Tagovailoa was ready. The offense had sputtered at times late in the year, and coaches figured his passing ability might be able to shake things up.
“I felt that we had this in our mind that, if we were struggling offensively, that we would give Tua an opportunity, even in the last game,” Saban said.
At halftime of the championship game, with Alabama trailing 13-0, Saban made that call. Tagovailoa completed 14 of 24 passes for 166 yards and three scores. He showed uncommon maturity, shaking off an interception and a devastating sack on the first play of Alabama’s overtime possession. He played like a veteran, looking off defenders and pump-faking, reading defenses and throwing the ball on target into tight coverage.
And in the most crucial situation Alabama faced in its championship season, he executed and made the play to deliver the Crimson Tide’s 17th national title trophy.
No one was less surprised than Hurts.
“He was going to step in and do his thing,” Hurts said in a televised interview right after the game. “Did his thing for the team. …
“He’s destined for stuff like this. He’s built for stuff like this. He has that ‘it’ factor, and I’m so happy for him and for this team.”
Reach Tommy Deas at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 205-722-0224.