Conjuring visions of Brees and Montana, Tua Tagovailoa’s athletic intuition drives Alabama

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – It’s difficult to get Tua Tagovailoa off his mark. Whether it’s the pocket or expanding on rote questions that continue to come his way during this magic season, Alabama’s quarterback always has his eyes downfield.

On the head-spinning, record-breaking offense he leads: “It’s not something we would have guessed we would have been doing from the beginning of the season.”

On backup Jalen Hurts whose future destination was speculated on daily during the offseason: “I never really paid attention to it.”

On where he goes for the best poke bowl in T-Town: “I don’t really go out of here that much.”

It’s true, the Mal Moore Athletic Complex is both a temple and a sanctuary for Alabama players. That a native Hawaiian wouldn’t know where to get the best native Hawaiian cuisine in town isn’t a surprise.

But Tua’s eyebrows raise and he leans forward when told a Kentucky Derby-worthy thoroughbred has been named after him. 

Tuaandtwentysix is a talented 2-year old who runs out of the Keeneland stables in Kentucky. Suddenly, the talented 20-year-old prodigy, who has helped run every opponent off the field this season, can’t get enough horse talk.

“Why do they put blinders on them?” Alabama’s quarterback asks.

“So how do they make turns?”

“They never get tired?”

Horse and quarterback have more in common than being splendid athletes. If things fall right, they both might be sprinting for the same finish line.

“I don’t know too much about horse racing but for anything to be named after you is an honor,” Tua concludes. “If that horse makes it [to the Kentucky Derby], I’m going there.”

That is more than a lot of media folks have gotten out of Tua. It’s not that the Heisman front-runner and best Alabama quarterback since (insert name here) is hiding anything.

His talents have reverberated from his native islands to the SEC. But he is so grounded and focused that his story is best told by others.

“It’s just his personality,” said Alabama tailback Damien Harris. “He’s a guy you want to play with. He’s a guy who can put a smile on your face no matter what. I had this conversation with him last night. I value sharing the backfield with him. It’s an honor to be able to play with him.”

An honor? That sounds corny.

“I told him that face to face,” Harris said. “No texts. No phone calls. He just kind of laughed and played it off. He doesn’t like compliments that much.”

Life is happening so fast for the Tagovailoa family as a whole that a diversion to watch “The Fastest Two Minutes in Sports” — as the Derby calls itself — would be a relief.

“I’m told we stick out,” Diane Tagovailoa said. “We get a lot of stares. … Now and then we’ll get stopped.”

What do they want from Diane and her husband Galu, parents of Tua, his brother Taulia and sisters Taylor and Taysia?

Mostly just to share their personal space for a moment.

These gregarious transplants of Samoan descent to the Deep South have brought their sons to sustain Alabama football for the next few years.

For that, they have been sainted.

“They’re so happy,” Diane said of the adoring fans. “They’re praying for us.”

Recalling the moment Tua threw that second-and-26 pass that shocked Georgia, delighted Alabama and inspired those owners to name their horse, Diane said her family’s “lives literally changed.”

They’d already moved from Hawaii to the Birmingham suburb of Alabaster, gladly giving up a $3,200-a-month mortgage back home.

“The biggest difference for us was the food,” Diane said.

But when the family returned home from Atlanta, they got a call from their property manager. There were reporters and fans staked out in front of what was then their apartment.

“I asked the property manager, ‘How did these people know we were here?’ He said, ‘People in the community talk.’ To this day, I don’t who or how [they found us],'” Diane said.

Today, the Tagovailos’ lives are whirlwind of practices and games and long drives — both in the car and on the field. Younger son Taulia is an Alabama commit for 2019, and there are whispers he might be better than Tua.

The riches of Alabama football don’t seem to stop. On Friday, Taulia rallied Thompson High School back from a 28-0 deficit to beat Hewitt-Trussville, 63-49. 

The opposing quarterback, Paul Tyson, will soon be a Crimson Tide teammate. He’s also committed to Alabama, the program his granddaddy once coached.

You might have heard of Bear Bryant.

“I don’t think anyone could have imagined this,” Diane said.

To the point that No. 1 Alabama could actually “afford” to lose Saturday’s showdown against No. 3 LSU (8 p.m. ET, CBS), no one around here is buying any of that “rat poison.” Tua’s arrival have made the following statements possible to utter:

This is Alabama’s best team under Nick Saban.

This is also one of Alabama’s best teams of all time.

The great coach has remade a program that was lacking this season defensively (by Alabama standards) into an offensive powerhouse. Bama leads the country in total offense, ranks fifth in passing and may be tops nationally in fun. The left-handed quarterback with a winning smile and rocket arm has made it possible.

“I don’t know if anyone really expected this,” said center Ross Preischbacher. “We knew what we had — all the weapons. We had the tools. Seeing Tua, we knew what he was capable of, but for it to be like this …”

Asked what Tua has meant to the offense, Saban drops his stern facade.

“The guy I thought was unbelievable that way was Drew Brees,” he said. “He played us at Michigan State. [It’s like] when you’re playing defense and the quarterback makes you feel like you’re always one play behind. Joe Montana was that way. Drew Brees was that way.”

Did Saban just compare his quarterback to Brees and Montana? Pretty close. He said they all possess what he calls “athletic intuition,” the “it” that defines the great ones.

“It’s just hard to measure that,” the coach said. “You can’t do it in a [NFL Draft] interview.”

Told about his “athletic intuition,” Tua responded, “For Coach Saban to say something like that means a lot. But if you were to ask me what my definition of that was, the best thing I can tell you is still — improvement.”

How do you improve on this?

Eight games into the season, Tua is the only starter in the country qualified in NCAA stats not to throw an interception (to go along with his 25 touchdown passes).

His passer rating of 238.85 would destroy Baker Mayfield’s single-season record set last year (198.9) if it can be maintained.

Alabama is at least tied for the national lead in pass completions of at least 20, 40, 50, 60, 70 and 80 yards.

The real Fastest Two Minutes in Sports might be guided by Tua. He has led 61 offensive drives in eight games. Forty-one of those — 67 percent — have ended in touchdowns. Twenty-two of those 41 have taken 2 minutes or less.

All of this comes while Tua has played only 58 percent of his team’s offensive snaps. You may have heard Tua hasn’t taken a snap in the fourth quarter this season.

Extrapolate that out to 15 games into the College Football Playoffs. With him taking every snap, the Full Tagovailoa would look like this: 6,690 yards passing with 81 touchdown tosses.

How’s that for a thoroughbred?

“Your job really isn’t that hard if you think about it because you have so many good guys that can get open that you can just hand the ball off to and you can get 20 yards, 30 yards. Then you got guys to protect you,” Tua said. “It’s almost every quarterback’s dream.”

That dream started after former USC coach Steve Sarkisian had flown to Oahu, Hawaii to watch Tua throw. After Sark’s firing three years ago, the Tagovailoas bonded with current USC coach Clay Helton.

“Tua really wanted to go to USC. That was his school,” Galu said.

That sort of attention alerted a nation of recruiters, especially after Marcus Mariota came from the islands to win the Heisman Trophy at Oregon.

Current Alabama defensive coordinator Tosh Lupoi got involved, flying over to visit Tua before passing along key information to his boss.

“I picked Galu up from work, and Nick Saban calls,” Diane recalled. “We’re on the road. We have him on speaker. We actually pull off to the side of the road and have this conversation. ‘Oh my gosh, it’s Coach Saban.’ It’s emotional. We’re crying. We couldn’t believe [it] because who finds a quarterback in Hawaii?”

Alabama has found two. Tua and Taulia will play at least one season together in 2019. Taulia is already being asked for his autograph when he visits for Alabama home games.

“I asked a lady, ‘Why would you want his autograph? He’s not even here yet?’ Galu said. “She said, ‘Yeah but he’s coming here.'”

Once it becomes Taulia’s time, Alabama players should be used to the Tagovailoas. When Tua arrived in January 2017, Preischbacher invited him to a spot with veterans at the training table.

“Just got to know him through that and obviously playing with him and him touching my butt every single day under center,” Preischbacher said.

OK, maybe that’s too much information. Preischbacher further noticed that when Tua guided the offense it wasn’t getting killed by Alabama’s legendary defense.

“You really don’t get a good [offensive] picture with our defense,” Preischbacher said. “In the past, our defense has been so good, our offense kind of did the “little brother” thing where we kind of got killed.”

When Tua arrived, that started to change. The offense operated more efficiently. Tua diligently played backup as a freshman throwing 77 passes in mop-up duty until Hurts’ ineffectiveness became obvious in that championship game.

A controversy was born when Tua went 14-for-24 passing with three touchdowns in the second half and overtime to prove he was the best option. After taking an inexcusable sack on first down in overtime (tuaandtwentysix!), Tua launched the ball and himself into history.

What can get better?

“It gets better in a way that everyone around me gets better,” Tua said.

It gets better if Alabama wins its sixth championship under Saban. But it’s already gotten better with one of the coach’s best moves ever. With Tua obviously the best option, Saban somehow was able to convince Jalen Hurts to stay.

“In the culture today, yourself comes first. The team kind of takes a back seat,” Preischbacher said. “Jalen staying really showed the team and this university what type of man he is and what kind of character he has.”

There was a huge ovation when Hurts took the field for the fifth game of the season against Louisiana-Lafayette. Fans knew then he couldn’t transfer due to new NCAA rules, at least not without losing a year of eligibility.

During homecoming, Hurts got the loudest ovation when a leadership group of players appeared at Denny Chimes.

“People have grown in loving Jalen even more,” Preischbacher said. 

Not to mention Alabama perhaps having the best quarterback depth in the country. This sort of thing now qualifies as quarterback consternation: Alabama has scored on every opening drive this season. It took until the second quarter of Game 8 against Tennessee for Tua to go consecutive series without scoring.

Going into LSU, part of Saban’s biggest concern is keeping his defense engaged. The offense has sustained the program this season. At one point, Alabama’s cumulative margin of victory alone was more than 65 Alabama teams had scored in an entire season.

Ninety-five of the 127 points surrendered by Bama this season has come when it had a lead of at least 21 points.

“The analogy I use with our players is, if you’re in a boxing match and you put your hands down, you’re damn sure going to get slapped,” Saban said. “If you box against somebody who’s really good, they’re probably going to knock your ass out.”

On Tua, he concluded that folks sometimes underestimate that aforementioned “athletic intuition.”

“You can teach a guy how to swing a baseball bat,” Saban said. “You can teach him what a strike zone is. But you can’t teach him whether it’s a ball or strike from the time it leaves the pitcher’s hand.

“There’s an instinctive intuition that happens in that split second from when the ball gets to home plate. Some guys have it and some guys struggle with it.”

Does that explain Tua’s zero interceptions?

“He was lucky last week,” Saban grumbled. “He made a decision, and the [Tennessee] guy should have intercepted it.”

And that withering critique came during a bye week when Tua Fever and Alabama as a whole was supposed to rest.

“I don’t know if football ever ends here,” Diane said. “In Hawaii, it does.”

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