Tua Tagovailoa’s moment is coming.
His next moment, anyway. Alabama’s sophomore quarterback has a small anthology of instant classics, milestones and breakthroughs.
He isn’t alone in those moments, surrounded by teammates, coaches and onlookers. But no player receives the attention that a quarterback does. No one handles it quite like Tagovailoa.
“You never felt like there would ever be a moment that would be too pressurized for him,” said Kevin Wallace, who was Tagovailoa’s position coach at the 2017 U.S. Army All-American Game. “He just had the personality to handle the moment.”
Another one could come this weekend as Alabama travels to Ole Miss in the first true road game of Tagovailoa’s career as a starter. The Crimson Tide’s last trip to Oxford created a moment that required a 21-point comeback in crockpot-like conditions. There’s no telling what awaits Alabama there or on the remainder of its schedule.
“I have no doubts in his ability to be able to go in front of a hostile environment and command the team like he always does,” tight end Hale Hentges said. “We’re extremely confident in him, and he’s going to do a phenomenal job.”
There’s no question what Tagovailoa’s biggest moment has been. His second-and-26 completion to DeVonta Smith against Georgia seized Alabama’s 17th national championship. Tagovailoa went from recruiting phenom to football folk hero.
It changed his life even if it didn’t change him.
“It’s definitely changed a lot, and I think that goes for anyone who’s in the spotlight or whatnot, and who nobody really knows about, and performs in a big situation,” Tagovailoa said at the start of fall camp.
Those who had seen him before knew how he would perform when given a chance in a big situation. Former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer coached Tagovailoa during The Opening, Nike’s 7 on 7 prospect showcase. He also spent 11 days with him at Nike’s Elite 11 camp for quarterbacks.
Tagovailoa was named MVP of the Elite 11 competition, beating Georgia’s Jake Fromm and Ohio State’s Tate Martell, among others. Dilfer was watching the national championship game with friends when Alabama made its switch to Tagovailoa at halftime.
“I didn’t make any bold predictions, but I did say that if he comes in, you’re about to see something you’ve never seen before. You will see a kid that looks like he’s a 10-year NFL vet playing quarterback,” Dilfer recalled. “I said ‘I guarantee you, one time in this half, he will look the safety off to the right and rip something down the left for a touchdown.’”
It was a moment he was ready for. Tagovailoa’s look-right-throw-left might have seemed like a split-second judgment. In fact, it was a well-practiced play.
“We started realizing that there’s plays that you can run with him that you can’t run with other people,” Dilfer said. “One of the greatest plays in football, if run correctly – everybody runs it but very few run it correctly – is the play they ran to walk off the national championship. That’s the three verticals to one side, (with) the backside vertical. Most people read it to the three vertical side because it’s the easier way of teaching the play. But if you can get a team in a cloud look to the weak side, the cover 2 looks to the weak side and the No. 3 receiver to the strong side gets a free release, if you can use your eye and get in on No. 3 and hold that safety, that corner is naturally going to let the No. 1 receiver from the weak side go.”
The replay shows Smith lined up alone to the left on the boundary side of the field across from cornerback Malkom Parrish. Safety Dominick Sanders was also on the weak side of the play. Alabama lined up tight end Irv Smith Jr. to the right along with wide receivers Calvin Ridley and Jerry Jeudy. Running back Damien Harris ran a short route out of the backfield.
Dilfer’s halftime premonition proved true. Tagovailoa looked to the strong side, loaded with receivers. Sanders cheated toward that side of the field. Smith got past his cornerback and there was no one left between him and the end zone.
“It’s (the corner’s) job to let him go,” Dilfer said. “He thinks that safety is going to be high over the top. You’re basically puncturing a giant hole right where the defense thinks they’re strong. We started running that play with Tua and he must have thrown 15 touchdowns on it at The Opening. I just knew, because every team runs it. I bet you (Brian) Daboll and that staff had run it that year in practice and were like, ‘Crap, no one has ever run it this well.’ Because we taught him the way that Aaron Rodgers reads it and Troy Aikman read it and Brett Favre read it. We had taught Tua to read it the way that only the elite NFL guys read it. That’s three to one, three strong to one, pinning the inside weak safety. It takes a tremendous amount of discipline with your eyes. It takes a tremendous amount of foot energy to flip your hips, and you have to have the arm, the downfield accuracy and ball speed, in case you’re a little wrong, to beat that safety who should be in position to defend it. He walked off with the exact play that we taught him how to run.”
Ready for the moment
The down and distance wasn’t too great for Tagovailoa. The weight of a national championship wasn’t either. He could find time to joke about it shortly after the game ended.
“I asked Tua after the game, I said, ‘Why did you take a sack when we needed a field goal to stay in the game?’ He said he just needed more room to throw the ball,” coach Nick Saban said to reporters in February. “That’s how it happened.”
He’s been in pressure-packed situations before. He won a state championship during his senior year in high school in 2016 after losing in the finals in 2015.
Tagovailoa was driving the offense during the 2017 Army All-American Bowl when head coach Mike Kirschner saw his ability to stay composed.
“Tua was leading the last two-minute drive right before the half, we were up a couple of scores and we had him spike it, kill the clock,” said Kirschner, now the coach at Mt. Vernon High School in Indiana. “He takes the ball away from the center and just drops it. He never raised his arm, which is technically a fumble but they blow it dead. I run over to him and said ‘What are you doing?’ He says ‘What do you mean?’ I said ‘You have to raise your arm to kill a ball.’ He just starts laughing, he goes ‘Coach, I got you. I was just having too much fun.’ When you think about that, when he said that to me, ‘I was having too much fun,’ when I watch him play at Alabama now, he does. You can just tell the way he bounces around that field. He has fun when he plays. It’s not a chore, it’s not stressful, because he’s having fun. He’s just letting it roll. That’s a neat characteristic to have as a kid.”
His team held a 27-17 lead later in the game when Wallace, the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, turned to Tagovailoa to put the game away.
“I kind of looked at him and said, ‘I don’t want to get you hurt, but are you OK with doing some quarterback run-game stuff? Some counters, we’ll use you to run the football a little bit,’” Wallace said. “That same grin you see being flashed a lot, he kind of put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘I’ve got you, coach.’”
Dilfer saw it as well. Before the 7 on 7 finals at Elite 11, he called Tagovailoa and Stanford commit Davis Mills together. They were the quarterbacks on the two remaining teams. Tagovailoa had pulled ahead in the race for MVP, but Dilfer told the two players that the winning quarterback would win the award.
It was a strategy “to get you to pucker” when the heat was turned on, Dilfer said. Both players had played in bigger moments, but it upped the stakes nonetheless.
Tagovailoa’s team beat Mills’ 49-7. Dilfer remembers that Tagovailoa completed 19 of his first 20 passes for five touchdowns.
“These are the DBs going to Clemson and Oklahoma and Auburn and whoever,” Dilfer said. “These are the best with NFL coaching staffs coaching them. The best coverages, the best technique, disguising, all that stuff.”
Defending it all
There’s no way to equate 7 on 7 statistics to SEC football. But Tagovailoa’s first two starts have shown just how difficult a matchup he can be for opposing defenses. He’s completed 71.4 percent of his passes for 455 yards with six passing touchdowns. He’s also run for 46 yards and another touchdown.
He’s delivered with both his passing and his rushing. On third downs, he’s completed 10 of 10 passes for 207 yards with four touchdowns and four more first downs. He’s also rushed for two more conversions on third downs. Alabama’s first two opponents haven’t found a way to stop him. There’s no consensus on what might be the best approach to slowing him down.
Kirschner wouldn’t be as aggressive with his pass rush in an attempt to keep Tagovailoa contained in the pocket. That might limit his ability to run for yards or extend plays, then deliver a big strike when a receiver breaks off his route.
“If I was going into it, I’d work really hard at disguising defenses, at making it so he doesn’t get a read,” Kirschner said. “Are we in two-high? Are we one-high? Whatever the coverage might be, but make it so he has to read while he’s sitting in the pocket. I know that’s what the colleges do. That’s what I would be after. I would try to make it so one, he couldn’t get out of the pocket. Two, he’d have to figure out what coverage we were in after the snap, not before the snap.”
Dilfer doesn’t think that would work. He thinks Tagovailoa’s passing is too advanced to allow him the time to see through defenses from the pocket.
“I’d pressure him inside to his arm side,” Dilfer said. “From inside the left tackle to inside of the right guard, I’d bring massive pressure, twists. I want the pocket to push in his face and when he escapes, I want him escaping to his right. I would actually want him moving to his right. He’s top shelf going to his left. He’s average still going to his right, away from his arm.
“Now you’ve cut the field, you’ve forced the field in half when you do that. The other thing Tua does that pretty much no other college quarterback does, he reads the whole field. He’s not a guy who’s just reading off a defender or half a field or picking up a guy and sticking with him. He’s actually reading the entire field. So if you get him moving to his right away from his arm, now you’ve cut the field in half.”
Most of Tagovailoa’s impact through two games has come from his passing. Statistics from his freshman year, when he scrambled for 133 yards and two touchdowns in limited action, show what he can do when he takes off.
That also doesn’t account for what the rest of Alabama’s offense can do. Sell out to defend the pass or contain Tagovailoa and there’s more room for Alabama’s running backs to work.
“The first thing, you have to account for the quarterback in the run game, which is always like a wildcat when you play against that type of quarterback,” Ole Miss defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff said on Monday. “It’s wildcat every snap. We’ll mix up our chase calls and our cue calls with regard to the zone read to make sure we account for him and have a hat on him every single time. As you know, they have the talent to score from any place on the field.”
More to come
The Saturdays this fall and in seasons to come might contain more moments for Tagovailoa. His college career has barely begun.
Dilfer saw Tagovailoa grow in leaps and bounds during the time they worked together. In the summer before his senior year, he gave Tagovailoa three or four concepts to learn in his final season before college. Instead, he had mastered them in six weeks.
“At 17 years old, he threw a football like Aaron Rodgers,” Dilfer said. “It wasn’t that different. So you’re not going to get much better. You’re going to get smarter, you’re going to get physically stronger and more athletic, which he’s done, and you’re going to become more mentally resilient and sharper, which I think he’s done.”
They worked together again this summer when Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts returned to the Elite 11 camp as counselors. He’d made progress during that time, too. His footwork had improved. His body has continued to develop. He had learned more about the college game.
He’d also seen how he managed his moment.
“I think he’s having more fun, too,” Dilfer said. “He was so serious back when we had him. I think he’s allowing himself to enjoy the journey. People like me put this praise on him and these expectations on the country, it’s hard to do. I think he’s embraced the fun part of that.”
Reach Ben Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0196.