TUa – The special one

By George Somerville

While the football world looks ahead to Tua Tagovailoa heading to the NFL, George looks back on the college career of this most special talent.

Tua Tagovailoa is the Special One. There – I said it. 

I have followed Tua since he arrived in Tuscaloosa and watched his career progress to that day he declared for the NFL Draft. And I truly believe he is different to any other quarterback coming out of college football.

I started writing this article the day that Tua Tagovailoa officially declared to enter the 2020 NFL Draft. That day the Twitter-verse exploded with news of his announcement which ended weeks of speculation. 

But before we get caught up in the NFL draft broo-ha-haa , I wanted to take a minute to remember Tua the college player and the person.

For this is a young man who has transformed quarterback play in Tuscaloosa and I dare I say it, College Football in general.

Where Legends Are Made

Photo Credit: CBSSports.com

The record books will show that Tua is ranked 3rd in all time career passing yards at Alabama behind AJ McCarron and John Parker Wilson. Neither of whom have gone on to stellar careers in the NFL.

So why all the noise about Tagovailoa?

Well, Tua was different. Tua, I believe should rightly be considered a generational talent. And why? Because Nick Saban changed his offense to take advantage of Tua Tagovailoa’s skill-set.

Going back to those passing stats I mentioned above. Well there is a flaw here. As has been well documented Tua had significant injuries in 2 of his 3 years in Tuscaloosa. His freshman year, Tua played only 8 games.  During his Sophomore and Junior years Tua played in few 4th quarters, such was the built up lead the Tide had over its opponents. In 2018, local website AL.com posed the question “When will Tua Tagovailoa finally have to play in the 4th quarter?”. Meaning his stats are unfavourably skewed.

Remember this is a period when the Tide’s Head Coach heavily criticised the home support for deserting the stadium in the third quarter. But who wants to watch the team with a 40 point lead trot out it’s second string QB?

Taking this into account how does Tua compare to McCarron and Wilson? Using yards per game, it is no surprise that Tua is by far the leader. Over his 3 seasons (including the 8 games as a freshman), Tua averages 241 yards per game. McCarron and Wilson averaged 170 and 198 yards respectively.

Record Breaker

Tagovailoa finished his career at Alabama with more touchdown passes than any other Quarterback in Crimson Tide history. His 87 passes being 10 more than McCarron who played in Tuscaloosa right through to his senior year between 2009 and 2013. During Tua’s three years in College he achieved a completion percentage of 69.3 % (McCarron 66.9 %) and despite injuries 43 touchdown passes in 2018 and 33 in 2019. These are the two most prolific seasons ever for a quarterback at the University of Alabama.

Over his college career, Tagovailoa also set the national single-season passing efficiency record as a sophomore in 2018 and has the highest career touchdown percentage after throwing a touchdown every 12.50 passes. 

Tua Tagavailoa finished his career at Alabama having thrown for 7, 742 yards and will be remembered as the best footballer to play at the University of Alabama. And given that the school is “Where legends are made” this is quite a statement.

Tua with previous QB Coach, Dan Enos. Photo credit: Mickey Welsh, Montgomery Advertiser

The art of the impossible

Perhaps his greatest asset is in his ball handling skills. Recognising Tua’s unique talent, Saban brought in Dan Enos to enhance the Crimson Tide’s play-action game.

Enos’ philosophy was to get Tagovailoa and the other QB’s to execute the perfect fake. Coach Enos focused on building on the same principles the best pitchers in baseball use to deceive batters. He wanted his QB’s to repeat the same delivery and habits time and time again to create deception.

“As I tell those guys every day, it’s only going to benefit you at the end of the day that our runs and our passes look the same from a ball-handling standpoint because you’re going to be able to move people,” Enos said in an interview in 2018. “And you’re going to be able to create space for your receivers and tight ends when you move people and get people to react the way you want them to react”.

As a result the Tide’s offense features the run-pass option and has become an essential part of Alabama football. Similarly the play-action has become a major part of Tagovailoa’s game.

But what about the person?

#13 outruns the LSU offense Photo Credit: Gregory Shamus, WXYZ.com

The Tagovailoa family comes from Samoan heritage and Tua was born and raised in Ewa Beach, Hawaii. Born Tuanigamanuolepola Tagovailoa, quickly shortened to Tua, the young Hawaiian very quickly developed as a football player.

While Tua throws the ball left handed, he is actually right handed. His father, a left hander wanted to be able to throw the ball to his son, so right from the start he placed the ball in Tua’s left hand. The rest, as they say, is history.

Tua played at the same high school in Hawaii as Marcus Mariota who took him under his wing. After the 2016 season, Tagovailoa was voted the number one recruit in the state of Hawaii.

A West coast University was favoured by the family with both Tua and his father wanting him to go to USC. Tua received 17 scholarship offers finally deciding on the University of Alabama. His parents Galu and Diane decided to uproot the entire family from Hawaii and move them to Tuscaloosa. Today younger brother Taulia remains in Tuscaloosa and will start his Sophomore year with the Tide this year.

The move from Ewa Beach to Tuscaloosa was a culture for the Tagovailoa family. However they quickly settled in and have made quite a difference to the community in Tuscaloosa.

Tua also continues to give back to his community back in Hawaii. As I write this Tua is in Hawaii attending the Polynesian Hall of Fame ceremony where he was voted Polynesian co-player of the year. During his time there he has spent most of his trip visiting his junior and high schools giving talks to the students who follow in his footsteps.

The Tagovailoa family and Tua especially, are a religious family and it is his faith which drives Tua on. His faith makes him believe he is here for a greater purpose and openly admits that it is this thought that removes the pressure from him when he is playing football.

Everyone loves Tua

Tua with a hawaiian lei around his neck after the Orange Bowl, Photo credit : NBC Sports

If you listened to his press conference and his Head Coach’s comments shortly beforehand, you will know that he has also left his mark on the South as a personality.

“Tua has had as much of an impact on our program as any player we’ve had. He has great character, he’s a great leader, he has done a great job in the classroom,” coach Nick Saban said. “… He’s had great accomplishments on the field … but you probably don’t understand the accomplishments he’s had away from the field with his teammates.”

The pictures and videos of Tua sitting in his hospital bed, smiling, laughing, singing and playing his ukulele summed up his personality. But long before this the people of Tuscaloosa had taken Tua and his family to their hearts.

And the praise he receives doesn’t just come from the Crimson Tide fan base. Speaking recently at the press conferences before the National Championship Game, both Head Coaches had flattering comments to make about the young protege.

LSU Head Coach Ed Orgeron remarked “I remember two years years ago when we played them, my first recollection of his first pass. It was the quickest release I had seen in 35 years of football. Now you can practice it, but until you see it, it’s something else.”

Clemson Head Coach Dabo Sweeney said “If I was in the NFL, I’d be taking Tua. He’s a winner. He’s a very savvy, smart, instinctive player. Tough. He’s got a great heart. He’s going to make everybody else around him better, and those are qualities that you want to have in a quarterback. So, he’s got a great future. He’ll heal up, get well and he’ll make a great player for somebody.”

Tua declares for the NFL Draft

Tua Tagovailoa changed the way quarterbacks play football at Alabama. You could say he broke the mould. He became a household name after coming off the bench to help Alabama the National Championship as a true freshman. In his sophomore year he put together one of the most statistically-efficient seasons for a signal caller ever. All was done with humility and a smile on his face. The next chapter for Tua Tagovailoa starts now, but college football will be a poorer place without him.

Feature Image Credit: CBSSports.com

george somerville

College football writer