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SAN JOSE – Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence have arrived before they can legally drink. The precocious quarterbacks are undefeated as starters, unfazed by the moment and possess unflinching demeanors sculpted by Madame Tussauds.
In their first year as starting quarterbacks at college football’s dueling powerhouses, they’ve dominated the sport in a manner that few have done so early in their careers.
And for all their accolades and potential on the college level, they’re also projected as the No. 1 picks in the 2020 (Tagovailoa) and 2021 (Lawrence) NFL drafts. References to their potential NFL careers elicit a special kind of hyperbole. Their inaugural matchup on Monday night in the College Football Playoff title game presents a compelling duality as both a tantalizing table-setter for football’s future and a gilded showcase for the present.
“I think you’re going to look back at this one day [saying] it was a treat that you got to witness these two guys on the same stage,” said Alabama defensive backs coach Karl Scott. “They’re both special athletes.”
What’s so exciting about Monday night is that it feels like the first episode of a Netflix series that could extend well beyond 2030. Could they be dueling for the Heisman next season? Could they both be slinging in the Pro Bowl someday? Could they end up revitalizing NFL franchises enough to someday square off in the playoffs or Super Bowl?
NFL talent evaluators think highly enough of Tagovailoa and Lawrence that they’d both be favorites to be the first quarterback picked in this year’s NFL draft if they were eligible. Tagovailoa won’t be eligible for another season, and Lawrence has two more full years at Clemson before he can turn pro. But they both have shown enough poise, arm talent and victories to get NFL scouts excited off of their TV scouting.
Former NFL quarterback and private tutor Sage Rosenfels compares Tagovailoa to higher-end version of Alex Smith – copying his accuracy and decision-making but showcasing a stronger arm. A college coach told Yahoo Sports earlier this season that he considers Lawrence the best college quarterback prospect since Peyton Manning. As for their collective futures, Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables predicts: “I think they’ll both play a very, very long time in the NFL.”
Both quarterbacks have yet to lose a game as a starter, have completed more than 65 percent of their passes and operate with a preternatural poise that defies their ages. While their career paths project on a similar plane, they’ve cut very different styles with Tagovailoa’s polish and Lawrence’s power their key traits.
Lawrence, 19, is 6-foot-6, 215 pounds and has flowing locks of blond hair that sum up his low-key ethos. He arrived at Clemson as the country’s No. 1 quarterback recruit and supplanted Kelly Bryant in September after the upperclassman had started 18 consecutive games. Bryant transferred shortly after coaches announced the news, and Lawrence immediately established himself as an upgrade.
Lawrence finished this season with 27 touchdown passes, four interceptions and a distinct lack of moments where he looked like an inexperienced teenager.
“He’s exactly what you see,” said Ron Veal, a private quarterback coach who began working with Lawrence in seventh grade. “He’s like a surfer kid who lives north of Atlanta. I don’t think his blood pressure gets up.”
The coaches who’ve faced or studied Lawrence this year say that his elite arm strength separates him, as he routinely threw passes to the opposite hash with optimum velocity that few college quarterbacks can make. With the wider hashes in college, throws to the “field” – ie opposite sideline – are considered difficult. A 10-yard out, for example, may have to travel 35 yards. Not only does Lawrence throw them with ease, he’s wowed opposing coaches by appearing to prefer that throw.
Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott got so excited illustrating how rare this was, he grabbed a reporter’s notebook to illustrate the repertory of “field” throws that Lawrence can make – outs, corners and back-shoulder vertical routes.
“As a coordinator, very rarely do you have a guy with the arm strength to make that [field] throw consistently,” Elliott said. “He has the confidence to make every throw that you ask him to make.”
He added: “Kelly could make that throw, but the difference between Kelly and Trevor is that he can drive it with less arc on it.”
Clemson quarterback coach Brandon Streeter scouted Lawrence as a high school freshman and recalls asking his coach what the young gunslinger needed to work on. Joey King, the coach at Cartersville (Georgia) High School responded: “Really, nothing coach.”
Streeter chuckled as he told the story on Saturday. “There’s not a flaw,” he said.
Streeter added that Clemson coaches have cleaned up an elbow dip in his delivery and want to work on his footwork. But mostly, there are God-given gifts they’ve just tried to accentuate. Alabama coaches have been searching for weaknesses without much luck.
“I haven’t seen this quick of a release with this kid’s size and arm strength in a long time,” said Crimson Tide co-defensive coordinator Pete Golding. “I think he has the entire package right now at the quarterback position. For him to be a freshman is incredible. There’s no doubt he’s a top-10 draft pick in two years.”
Tagovailoa, 20, burst into college football mainstream a year ago, entering the second half of the national title game with Alabama trailing Georgia 13-0. When he completed his first two passes, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey turned to his wife, Cathy, and declared: “This isn’t a game, it’s a movie.”
Everyone knows how the movie ended. Tagovailoa threw a 41-yard walk-off touchdown pass to DeVonta Smith to win the national title in overtime, his lore exploding into the mainstream.
“Everything changed,” Tagovailoa said about winning the national title. “Just the way people look at you, the way people treat you. The family members, everyone wants to be your cousin too now. Just social media, everything else changes. Your life is under a microscope now.”
Tagovailoa’s career has taken a fly pattern similar to his most famous completion, as he finished the season with 41 touchdowns, four interceptions and passes the ball with an intuitive flair.
“Tua has it all,” Venables said. “His accuracy, quick release, decision making and competitiveness put him in that real special, elite category.”
The early breakdown the 2020 NFL draft will be Tagovailoa and Oregon’s Justin Herbert, who may have hurt his stock by returning to Eugene. After being the favorite to be the No. 1 pick in this NFL draft, Herbert is in for a tough duel with Tagovailoa for next year.
“[Tua] has better arm action, better arm talent and produced versus better competition,” said a coach who has watched both. “Winning matters, and Tua is dominating the best conference in college football.”
The biggest upset of this season may have been Tagovailoa getting edged out for the Heisman Trophy, as he’d been the prohibitive favorite until a late charge by Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray nudged him to second place.
With both Lawrence and Tagovailoa back next season, they’ll be the faces of the sport in the offseason, atop the Heisman lists next fall and dueling for first-team All-American in 2019. And if their star-kissed trajectories continue, don’t be surprised if the second episode of their rivalry doesn’t unfold a year from now in New Orleans.
The most exciting part of Tua vs. Trevor Episode 1 unfolding amid Bama-Clemson IV is the infinite possibilities that the spinoff presents.
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