Why laid-back Tua Tagovailoa works so well with uptight Nick Saban

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The young man with the golden left arm was wrapping up an interview session while leaning against a wall behind one of the checkerboard end zones in Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium. He’d just shredded the home team on that field, another in a series of sublime performances from the Polynesian quarterback with the polysyllabic name.

His birth certificate says Tuanigamanuolepola Tagovailoa. But just call him Tua, the single-name star of this 2018 college football season. That’s the long and short of it.

“Thank you all,” Tua said to the reporters who clustered around him. As he started to walk away, the Alabama sophomore suddenly grinned and said, “You should all wear leis. That would be cool if you all had leis.”

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The proud product of Ewa Beach, Hawaii, is so popular at the moment that if he asked for it, 100,000 people — and several fawning media members — would show up for the next Alabama home game wearing leis. Grass skirts, too.

Tua carries his island ease with him wherever he goes, having exported it from a laid-back Pacific paradise to the caldron of football intensity that is Tuscaloosa, Alabama. His jaunty joviality at times seems an odd fit within the deadly serious context of Nick Saban’s program, but the blend is working so well that several entries in the NCAA record book could be rewritten by season’s end.

Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is the clear Heisman Trophy frontrunner this season. (AP)
Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is the clear Heisman Trophy frontrunner this season. (AP)

Throughout this undefeated season, which may finally meet a challenge Saturday at LSU in the college football game of the year, Tua has made it all look so ridiculously easy. The first-year starter has a too-blessed-to-be-stressed vibe, a too-new-to-be-nervous nonchalance that defies simple understanding.

“He has an unwavering confidence, first and foremost,” said former Alabama QB and current ESPN analyst Greg McElroy. “He’s almost too young to fully understand the magnitude of what he’s doing right now. When I was a senior, I could feel the pressure of trying to do everything right. He just goes out and balls. He’s completely loose all the time.”

Tua’s innate looseness was a clear attribute when he made his first collegiate star turn, last year in the College Football Playoff championship game. Summoned off the bench to replace starter Jalen Hurts and tasked with leading an Alabama comeback from 13 points down to Georgia, Tua pulled it off. In the first truly significant snaps of his college career, he led the Crimson Tide to 20 second-half points and then threw a game-winning touchdown pass that will live forever in Alabama — a 41-yard bomb on second-and-26.

That was about the time you knew the kid was made of something special.

Alabama has had itself some quarterbacks through the years. Hall of Famers and Super Bowl winners like Bart Starr, Joe Namath and Ken Stabler. Other longtime NFL QBs like Richard Todd, Jeff Rutledge and AJ McCarron. Standout collegians who won national titles like Jay Barker, McElroy and Jake Coker.

But Alabama has never had a quarterback produce a season like Tua Tagovailoa.

His pass-efficiency rating of 238.9 is 30 points higher than Baker Mayfield’s NCAA record set last year. His yards per attempt (13.6) also is well ahead of Mayfield’s 2017 record of 11.5. His one TD pass every six attempts may well be a record also. He’s 152 pass attempts into the season and has yet to throw an interception.

Pinpointing the reasons for Tua’s success is not easy. At 6-foot-1, he does not look like a prototype pocket passer — he certainly doesn’t have the physical stature of, say, Oregon’s 6-foot-6 Justin Herbert, who many think will be the first QB taken in the 2019 draft. He is fairly mobile but far from an elite athlete like 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson. His arm talent is good, but not dazzling like Missouri’s Drew Lock. His mechanics are fine, but not necessarily the stuff of quarterback training videos.

In describing what makes Tua tick and the Alabama offense click, both Saban and McElroy use the same word.

“The quarterback is a naturally instinctive guy,” Saban said.

“What makes him so special is how instinctive he is,” McElroy said. “The feel he has is amazing. I saw him in the spring when he first got on campus (2017) — he doesn’t even know the receivers he’s throwing to by name, but he’s anticipating their breaks and anticipating coverages. He sees things a half second faster than everyone else does.

“Wayne Gretzky saw things faster on the ice — it was some unexplainable gift. You hesitate to compare a college sophomore to someone whose nickname was ‘The Great One,’ but Tua has some of that.”

Here’s what he saw on one play in the first quarter against Tennessee: with three wide receivers left, the call was a “shot play” — go deep. Jaylen Waddle took off on a post route over the middle from the far inside, with Jerry Jeudy streaking straight up the field near the hashmark.

In point of fact, Jeudy was more open — in Mike Locksley’s offense, everyone seems to be open all the time — but Tua saw the safety over-commit to Waddle and let it fly. The result was another perfectly placed deep ball that hit Waddle in stride for a 77-yard touchdown.

“Their safety poached, but he kind of poached too far over and left Waddle open,” Tua said. “That play was more for Jerry Jeudy, but Waddle was open.”

The Natural has had some help from that receiving corps. Alabama has the best wideout unit in the nation — a quartet of burners complemented by a stud tight end and a couple of running backs who can catch as well.

Sophomore Jerry Jeudy is America’s most dangerous wideout, leading the nation at 25.1 yards per catch and tied for third nationally in touchdown catches with 10. But he has three compatriots who all average at least 18.5 yards per catch — freshman Jaylen Waddle and sophomores Henry Ruggs III and DeVonta Smith. During the Saban years, the Crimson Tide has had Julio Jones, Amari Cooper and Calvin Ridley, but it’s never had four stars at one time.

“It makes it more fun when you don’t have only one guy to go to,” Tua said.

And they’re virtually interchangeable — all between 5-foot-10 and 6-foot-1, all between 173 and 192 pounds, all can play outside or in the slot, all can fly, all can make tough catches. Defensive matchups are harder to lock in, given the positional versatility of the ‘Bama receivers. And even fast defensive backs have a hard time staying with these guys.

“Once we get in front of a defender,” said Ruggs, “we feel like we can’t be caught.”

The Saturday matchup with an LSU secondary that is the best in the nation will be a juicy one. The Tigers have faced some veteran Southeastern Conference quarterbacks this season, from Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham to Mississippi’s Jordan Ta’amu to Florida’s Feleipe Franks to Georgia’s Jake Fromm to Mississippi State’s Nick Fitzgerald. They all have more experience than Tua — but none of them are Tua.

His arrival from Hawaii has helped accelerate Saban’s embrace of a more freewheeling offense than he’s ever coached before. The philosophy of pounding, plodding, pro-style attacks that run first and second and throw third is on the shelf at Alabama. The Tide is now the most entertaining — and high-scoring — offense in the country.

McElroy says Alabama fans have an unlikely person to thank for that — former Mississippi coach Hugh Freeze. When his Rebels upset Alabama in both 2014 and ’15, it sparked a change in Saban’s thinking.

“When Saban lost consecutive games to Ole Miss, especially the second, it was like, ‘All right, we’ve got to adjust,'” McElroy said. “They started to implement the RPOs [run-pass options]. Now it’s evolved to where the RPO game is the identity of the offense.”

The hub of the offense is a 20-year-old who has started all of eight college games. If he plays another great game in Death Valley on Saturday and the Crimson Tide keeps rolling, you can order 100,000 leis for Nov. 10 in Bryant-Denny Stadium when Alabama hosts Mississippi State. Then order more for the Heisman ceremony in New York in December, and another shipment for the College Football Playoff.

Tua Tagovailoa, the jaunty kid from Ewa Beach, may complete a Hawaiian takeover of the sport come January.

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