TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — More than two months later, it still doesn’t sit right.
Tua Tagovailoa didn’t necessarily say so when the University of Alabama quarterback met with reporters for a few minutes on Monday, but his body language certainly did.
The way the 2018 season ended still bothers him, and anyone who doesn’t think it won’t provide extra motivation is being naïve.
“I can’t think too much about the good because a lot of the bad still stands there,” he said, with maybe his most telling comment.
“The biggest take away for me from last year would be the things I didn’t correct throughout the little games, throughout the games where we played teams that weren’t up to our competition, you know? We kind of made a lot of mistakes and we could get away with it. It ended up catching up to us.”
It's been a long couple of months for the Crimson Tide, not only in soul-searching and learning from 2018, but getting back to work. The players and coaches may be just returning to the field for spring practices, however there’s been no rest for the weary.
Nick Saban’s made a lot of changes and has been talking about the Alabama attitude. It appears that the quarterback has been doing something similar in his own way.
We’ve seen this before from Saban, but this is obviously everyone’s first time with Tagovailoa. He dropped a strong hint when, without going into specifics, made references to how the game plan and play-calling will be different this season and better suited for what the offense aims to do. This before Alabama has even put on the pads this spring.
It's not just bothering him, it’s driving him.
Even though Tagovailoa passed for 295 yards in the national championship, he picked a lousy time to maybe have the worst game of his career.
The word choice there was deliberate because Clemson made two interceptions, and returned one for a touchdown en route to a 44-16 shellacking of the Crimson Tide.
The pick-six clearly threw the young quarterback, if not the whole team.
Instead, Trevor Lawrence passed for 347 yards and three touchdowns and became the toast of college football. That was supposed to be Tagovailoa, who had been the previous year after leading the come-from-behind overtime victory against Georgia.
He got more than a taste of how it felt to be on the other side.
“They have a really good defense, a real good front seven. They had really good DBs,” he said about Clemson. “Their defensive coordinator — he called a great game. I think the biggest things is the way they disguise their coverages, just the way they went about doing things. They made it look like one thing pre-snap and then post-snap was a totally different thing. I think they did a really good job throughout that.”
This time a year ago Tagovailoa was still riding high from second-and-26 touchdown throw to DeVonta Smith. Some thought he should immediately become the starting quarterback, and many believed he was destined for a big season.
But no one knew it. Having just turned 20, Tagovailoa hadn’t won the starting job yet, and ended up injuring his hand on the first day of spring practice. He didn’t play on A-Day.
Moreover, Jalen Hurts was still on the roster, providing competition, pushing Tagovailoa on a daily basis and also being a safety net. One would be hard pressed to come up with a scenario in which either could have handled the situation any better, plus Hurts came off the bench to be the deciding factor in the SEC Championship Game.
Now he’s in Oklahoma, looking to lead the Sooners back to the College Football Playoff and maybe get a shot against his old team. Consequently, Monday may have been the first time in Tuscaloosa that Tagovailoa wasn’t asked about Hurts.
The junior said he’s treating this spring as if his job is on the line, that he’s competing with all of the other quarterbacks on the roster including his brother Taulia. Only for the first time since AJ McCarron left after the 2013 season there’s no doubt about who the quarterback is, and who’s running the offense.
“He’s stepped up,” wide receiver Jerry Jeudy said. “Tua is a great competitor, great player, great person. So I feel like he challenges himself to be the best player he can be.
“At first, he was just a lead by example type of player. Now he’s been more vocal. He’s just being more vocal and communicating more.”
Moreover, Tagovailoa is clearly more comfortable all the way around. He may be working with his third offensive coordinator in as many seasons, but is finally with the coach he initially wanted to play for, Steve Sarkisian.
“He offered me while he was at USC and USC was my dream school, too,” Tagovailoa said. “So, I will be forever grateful for that. But just the person he is. He is good guy. He is a relationship person in the quarterback room with not only with me but everyone in there. It’s a really easy learning environment.”
Tagovailoa’s happy with his coach.
He’s pleased that the quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator are one in the same so there’s no risk of mixed messages.
Plus, he has a chip on his shoulder.
It’s a pretty potent combination, especially for someone who just set the NCAA single-season record for passing efficiency, re-wrote the Crimson Tide record book and finished second in Heisman Trophy voting as a sophomore.
It’s his time and his team to lead from day one.