TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Sunday nights this fall, Tua Tagovailoa will be at his desk, iPad in front of him, notepad to his right, ready to dive in. The bruises and stiffness from Saturday have been worked through in the training room and a “stretch-and-stride” workout, and back home after dinner it’s time to exercise the mind.
There probably will be a bag of dill pickle-flavored sunflower seeds to keep him company, but otherwise this is some quality alone time devoted to the next defense the Alabama quarterback will face.
Upon accessing the download of the next opponent, Tua’s first goal is simply to get a broad-strokes read — how the defensive coordinator thinks, what the personnel looks like, favored alignments, things like that. Sunday night is overview night, with the grinding over the details of specific plays and situations set to begin Monday and continue throughout the week.
There will be notes. There always are notes. Tua is a note taker, in class and in football, the act of writing facilitating the importation of information to his brain.
The position of the notepad is noteworthy. The most prominent lefty quarterback in football is really a righty — he does everything but throw with his right hand. His father, Galu, himself a left-hander, was determined to make his oldest son a southpaw from age 4 or 5.
“I couldn’t touch the ball with my right hand,” Tua said. “Only my left.”
So he will take notes with his right hand while envisioning tossing bombs with his left. When the guy who last year authored the most efficient passing season in the history of FBS watched film, all he saw were touchdowns waiting to happen.
“Last year,” he said, “I always wanted that shot.”
The deep shot. The long ball. The hero play. Sitting in an office on the Alabama campus on a quiet July afternoon, Tua's dark eyes gleamed talking about those adrenaline-rush bombs.
They are the throws that have made Tua a riveting, must-watch talent. From the stunning bomb to beat Georgia and win the national championship his freshman year to his 43 touchdown passes on just 355 attempts as a sophomore, the Hawaii native has thrived playing gunslinger football. He is the current FBS record-holder for highest career TD percentage, with 12.5 percent of his passes resulting in six points, and his 11.2 yards per attempt in 2018 were exceeded by only the man who beat him out for the Heisman Trophy, Kyler Murray.
And now, somewhat antithetically, it may be time for him to try something a little different.
It may be time for Mr. Big Play to occasionally accept throwing the ball away or checking down to a mundane, five-yard gain. If this season is going to end the way he deeply desires, it may be time for Tua Tagovailoa to embrace the occasional in-game defeat in the quest for end-game victory.
Tua and his lavishly gifted set of receivers were so good in 2018 that they pushed an immovable object, Mount Saban, into a new frame of mind. Alabama legend-in-residence Nick Saban has won six national championships in largely the same fashion: dominant defense, a game-controlling running game and enough passing to keep defenses honest. In 2018, Alabama became a true passing powerhouse — throwing the ball early and often and occasionally with abandon.
The result was an onslaught of big plays. Tua had at least one completion of 25 yards or longer in all 15 games last year, and had at least one longer than 40 yards in 12 of 15 games. Tua’s ability to not just envision the big play but then make it happen — his touch on deep balls is truly remarkable — altered the well-established Saban paradigm.
Simply put, a fairly conservative coach let his deep-ball freak flag fly. Vertical shots were not only allowed but encouraged.
Consider: In Alabama’s decade of dominance under Saban, the Crimson Tide never averaged more than 9.4 yards per pass attempt. In 2018 the team shot up to 11.1, riding the golden arm and jaunty confidence of its sophomore quarterback.
But as the season progressed, confidence perhaps teetered over the line into overconfidence. And when weeks of torrid starts eventually gave way to early game mistakes against Georgia in the Southeastern Conference championship game and Clemson in the College Football Playoff championship game, Tua became a far less poised quarterback. A happy-go-lucky player started to look stressed out against elite defenses that created mistakes.
Alabama won so many games so easily, with Tua strafing defenses so routinely, that any alteration in that weekly formula became a shock to the QB’s system.
“You start trying to force plays, trying to make plays downfield, trying to make explosive plays,” Saban said, “when they’re not there.”
Mistakes proliferated. A guy who had thrown four interceptions in his entire college career prior to the SEC title game threw two against the Bulldogs, then two more against the Tigers plus a fumble. It took a Jalen Hurts bailout off the bench to beat Georgia, and there was no saving Alabama against Clemson.
“I know a big focal point of Tua’s offseason work was to understand situationally what the team needs to be successful,” said analyst Greg McElroy, himself a former Alabama quarterback under Saban. “The thing about Tua, things went so well so often for him, he didn’t often have to bounce back from a bad throw or a bad decision. And when those did happen, he tried to get it back on one play.
“Against Georgia, early pick, he’s pressing the rest of the game. Against Clemson, early pick, he’s pressing the rest of the game. If you’re down two touchdowns, you can’t throw one pass and score 14 points. I think he’s grown a lot from it and there’s a newfound focus.”
Tua disputes none of that critique. If anything, his internal dialog is far more critical than anything he hears externally. He only threw six interceptions last year and lost two fumbles, but those few mistakes stuck with him.
Tua described his mindset in 2018 thusly: “If we’re not up by 30 points already, we’ve got to go. We got to score as soon as possible. The second half of last year, it was just playing sound football.
“The experience last year, I feel that’s big. To be able to admit defeat — if you’ve got to throw it away, throw it away. If you’ve got to take a sack, protect the ball and take the sack as opposed to trying to spin away and make a play.”
If Tua does need to spin away in 2019, he should at least be more capable of it than last season. He’s dropped about 15 pounds by improving his diet, and between that and the full healing of some nagging lower-leg injuries his elusiveness and mobility is expected to be much improved.
That’s all well and good, but Tua is a special quarterback because of his arm and his attitude. He wants to make the hero plays and take the big shots, and his ability to execute those daring plays makes him a must-watch QB.
But to be the best QB possible, he may need to lose a few plays to win a game. When Tua Tagovailoa is studying film and taking notes this season, he will have to envision the occasional check-down when all he used to see is touchdowns.
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