MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Statistics are kept for Alabama quarterbacks the same as at any other college football program. But the measure of excellence at Alabama goes beyond yards and touchdown passes. It’s about wins and championships.
Both Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa have made their mark on the program in recent years. They’ve both been the starter and both been the backup. Hurts was named SEC offensive player of the year in 2016 while Tagovailoa won it this year. They both helped Alabama win a national championship last season, and they take aim at another one this weekend. They have few peers in college football.
But they have historical peers. Alabama’s history of quarterbacks is marked with national championships, All-Americans and legends of years gone by. Here’s what the men who came before Tagovailoa and Hurts said about their season.
Tyler Watts, 1999-2002
“From the outside looking in, we always try to put people in different camps and try to paint a picture or label them with what they are. … We always try to put people at odds. When there’s competition, it’s ‘nobody likes each other.’ It’s just refreshing to see that within that locker room, one thing remains consistent about football, that it really doesn’t care. They’re looking for the best person to do the job and if someone else has an opportunity to step in to try to complete the deal, then the rest of the team is counting on them to do that. I’ve been caught in that situation before, where when I wasn’t the starter and Andrew (Zow) got hurt, I wasn’t ready to play. I promised myself right there, it was never going to happen again that I was going to be physically and mentally prepared whether or not I ever got another shot. Fortunately for me, a couple weeks later, I got a chance. Well, Jalen had a similar situation. It took him a whole lot longer for that to be realized. He had to wait almost an entire year before he truly had an opportunity to help his team out again. Because of the decision he made after that national championship game, he was prepared to go in for the fourth quarter with his football team down a touchdown and lead them back to not only a conference championship, but potentially a national championship.”
Steve Sloan, 1962-1965
“It’s a lot different game. We didn’t have any spread offenses back then. I thought the offensive staff really did a good job. The play calling, in my view, was really good. Tua has an uncommon gift of vision as far as the secondary goes. I don’t think many people have that gift. He sees everything so clearly. Then the other thing is, he can throw a touchdown pass while he’s falling down and not many people can do that. I thought that he was extraordinary. He had a couple injuries that he fought through really good. He seems like a great kid. I was really impressed, particularly, with his long passes. They were just right on the money. Then those receivers, too. The receivers compliment him well. They’re sort of like the receivers we had back in my time, really great receivers.”
“I think (Tagovailoa) certainly could be considered one of the best quarterbacks in Alabama history. Things were different 50 years ago. Sometimes you punted on third down. Field position was everything, you know. You didn’t ever throw backed up very much. It’s just a lot different. He is an extraordinary quarterback. I think he kind of has a vision gift. Alabama has had so many really good quarterbacks, all the different times, different receivers, different offensive lines. But Tua would definitely would be considered one of them if he keeps going like this.”
Jay Barker, 1991-1994
“Braxton (Barker) is there with them every day at practice, my son. He thinks the world of them. He said they’ve been great mentors, both great leaders. Tua was really nice to him when he first got there, ‘Do you need a ride? Do you know where you need to go?,’ just kind of showing him the ropes. I would say on a personal note, knowing that you’ve got good guys ahead of him that he’s sitting there learning so much from. This team really cares about each other and especially at the quarterback position.”
Brodie Croyle, 2002-2005
“We’ve got a home for children and we take in orphaned, neglected, abused, abandoned kids. I meet with those kids once a week and have a breakfast, time to share. It was recently there, after (Jalen Hurts) came in against Georgia, and I just told them ‘You know what? When things don’t go your way, put your head down, go to work, do the right thing, be a good teammate, be a good friend, be a good person, and good things tend to happen.’ Man, could not be more happy for him or more proud of him. Never even had the chance to meet him. But just watching him from afar, the way he has handled himself and carried himself, man, what a testament to who he is. Whatever he does in life, he’s going to be amazing at it. To carry that characteristic into any aspect of life is pretty special. The fun part is, you can say the exact same thing about Tua. I’m sure everybody is saying this, but it’s déjà vu from the year before. This guy is the top recruit in the country and he puts his head down and he couldn’t be happier for Jalen and his success. Then his moment came and he seized it. It goes right back to being prepared for your opportunity.
“Man, what a year he’s had. Obviously, people want to ask you a million questions as a former quarterback, ‘What do you see?’ When you talk about Tua, the word I always say is that ‘He’s special.’ He sees thing that not everybody sees. He makes throws that not everybody can make. To me, out of all the things that he’s done, the most impressive to me was after last year’s national championship game. Hadn’t ever really played, gets thrown into that situation but is obviously prepared for it. My wife looks at me after the game and goes ‘Why are you smiling?’ I said ‘Because that kid’s special.’ She’s like ‘Why do you say that?’ I said ‘It isn’t because of the throws that he made.’ Literally, after the biggest moment of his life, he gets a microphone put in his face and that microphone asks the question, ‘What do you see?’ and he immediately follows with, ‘We were in three by one, they were in this coverage, I knew if I could get this guy to step down to this guy, I knew that my outside X receiver was going to win. All I had to do was move the safety and then rip it.’ I said ‘NFL guys can’t articulate what they just saw a lot of times.’ That is just a photographic memory. To be able to articulate what you just saw and why it processed that fast in your head, he’s special. Man, we are blessed as a university to have those two guys on our team.”
Scott Hunter, 1967-1970
“That’s something that has to play out. You have a ways to go on (being the best quarterback in school history). Gosh, you have some great quarterbacks way back there. Pretty good ones. But if (Tagovailoa) continues, stays healthy, that’s the big question here, and keeps on producing like he did in the normal course of the season, I think he’d have to be considered right up there. As Dizzy Dean said, ‘I don’t know if I was the greatest, but I was up there amongst them.’ He’d have to be up there amongst them.”
Greg McElroy 2007-2010
“I have no problem saying Tua Tagovailoa is definitely the most talented quarterback has had under Nick Saban. That’s not close. That’s not a slight against me or AJ or anyone else. Just Tua is the best quarterback that Alabama has had. You have to defend every part of the field because he can push it over the top, he can work sideline to sideline. Along with some of the philosophy changes that they’ve started to include in the offense, it just makes more guys viable in the progression.”
Walter Lewis, 1980-1983
“One of the things that I’ve observed about Tua and his abilities that’s really intriguing to me, he interprets the game at top speed when he’s playing. He’s able to comprehend what he wants to do in a very rapid manner out there on the field. That’s a unique trait for a quarterback. When you can take it in and spit it out as quickly as you get it, every quarterback wants to be able to do that. And he does that exceptionally well. It’s almost like he sees it in 3D. He sees it from all angles and he’s reacting to it quickly. That’s what I see in Tua. He is a serious competitor. I’ve never had a conversation with him, I’ve just watched him and I look at comments that he makes. He’s confident in what he’s able to do and he enjoys the game from a competition standpoint. That’s a trait that you really like to have as a quarterback. When you’re enjoying it, you’re invincible, you’ll do what it takes to make things happen. That’s what I see with him.
“Jalen, in my opinion, he’s one of the calmest guys in terms of being able to be in the moment and not allow things to rattle him. Even in the midst of his situation with Tua and the competition there. He may have gotten rattled somewhat, but he handled it in a unique fashion. You need those qualities as well at that position. Great quarterback. Both of them are. Both of them have qualities that you need to play at that position. That’s what I see. I see that from the both of them. But I see with Jalen, he’s able to take in things that he’s dealing with and deal with them, but you don’t know how he’s dealing with them. That’s a unique trait in my opinion.”
John Parker Wilson, 2005-2008
“We kind of ran out of superlatives there for a little while, just based on (Tagovailoa’s) play and what he’s been able to do. I think it’s been really impressive to see him come in. It’s really easy to forget that this is his first year starting. He was able to do a lot of things, break a lot of records, and he was a lot of fun to watch the whole year, getting it done and throwing it around to a lot of different people.”
“The whole offense in general is something special. You start with the offensive line and the things they were able to do with pass protection and running, Pierschbacher and Jonah Williams. Three elite running backs. Five elite receivers. I put Irv Smith in there as a receiver because he really can do both amazingly well. He’s been a mismatch nightmare for most teams. Hale has done a great job blocking. I think it’s one of the most dynamic offenses that we’ve had from a playmakers standpoint, being able to run the ball, throw the ball, and being able to do both at a very high level.”
Richard Todd, 1972-1975
“I think Tua would agree with me, a quarterback is only as good as his team is. Tua is a great, unbelievable athlete. He has a great feel for what they’re trying to accomplish in the offense. He’s got great receivers, he’s got great running backs, he’s got a good offensive line, he’s got a good defense. He’s got everything going for him. Jalen, what can you say about Jalen? In this environment of ‘What have you done for me lately?’ he’s one of the few quarterbacks that hasn’t abandoned. I think a couple years ago, we had three quarterbacks leave the university. When he got the job, they all left. You have to give him credit for staying around. What poetic justice it was in the SEC championship, when Tua’s not having that great of a game and he’s banged up and Jalen gets in there and does his thing, wins the ball game for them.”
“We ran the wishbone when I was there. We threw an average of six times a game, maybe. I started my junior year and my senior year, the only games I ever played the whole game were Tennessee, Auburn and the bowl game my senior year. We played two or three quarterbacks a game. Totally different. I would love to be a quarterback in this offense nowadays. It’d be awesome.”
Steadman Shealy, 1976-79
“Tua is probably more of a complete quarterback, but Jalen has a skill set that is second to none as far as being able to improvise and do different things. Maybe the straight-up defense is giving you a hard time. I think we can win with both of them. … What you want in a quarterback is character. The fact that someone wants to compete is they’re a competitor. That’s the way we did it. We always had a two-quarterback system. You understand that and you know how much you get to play is how well you do. I knew I was going to play every week when I was backing up Jeff Rutledge. Sometimes there were situations where it wasn’t necessarily the best ideal for him, and there were other situations that were sure not ideal for me. I think about the Penn State game. They were just so good, their two tackles, that just running the straight wishbone was not good. We had to do other things. It’s just like Georgia had a great plan for Tua. Of course, when you’re a little bit nicked, all that can take a little bit away. So Jalen was the perfect answer to overcome, because they didn’t have an answer for him. It just worked out that way. We’re blessed at Alabama, but this is insanity.”
Staff writer Terrin Waack contributed to this story. Reach Ben Jones at email@example.com or 205-722-0196.