It’s funny how things work out.
When Tua Tagovailoa was beginning to be recruited as a promising prospect in Hawaii, he wasn’t necessarily thinking about the University of Alabama. Geographically, the nearest thing to a national power was Southern California, and when Steve Sarkisian was its head coach they developed a good relationship.
But then Sark left and the Crimson Tide needed a quarterback. Tagovailoa ended up being a key part of Alabama’s monster recruiting class of 2017, including Najee Harris, Alex Leatherwood, Dylan Moses and LaBryan Ray, plus the three-headed receiving tandem of Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III and DeVonta Smith.
Plus, it looked like Tagovailoa would get a chance to play for Sarkisian after all as the coach had signed on as an analyst and had been promoted to offensive coordinator just before the National Championship Game.
Only it didn’t happen as the Atlanta Falcons came calling. Only now Sarkisian is back at Alabama as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach with Tagovailoa his starting quarterback.
“He is good guy,” Tagovailoa said. “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.”
The idea of Tagovailoa possibly getting better is something every opponent should be deeply considered about. Having just turned 21, he’s coming off a season in which he set the NCAA record for single-season passing efficiency, was the consensus pick for first-team All-American and finished second in Heisman Trophy voting.
Plus, now he has a chip on his shoulder for the way last season finished, with Alabama losing in the title game.
“I can’t think too much about the good because a lot of the bad still stands there but 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,” he said. “It ended up catching up to us and I think that’s something big that we can all take from it as a team.”
Even so, the Alabama passing game was like nothing Alabama fans had ever seen before from the Crimson Tide. It may have only tied the program record for receptions with 301, set in 2015, but it demolished the marks for receiving yards and touchdowns.
Alabama tallied 4,854 passing yards and 52 receiving touchdowns.
That’s nearly 1,000 yards more than the previous mark (3,890), and 20 more passing touchdowns (32). Both records were set in 2014.
Alabama came within a whisker of having four wide receivers finish with at least 42 catches and 700 receiving yards. That doesn’t include tight end Irv Smith Jr., who had 44 receptions for 710 yards and seven touchdowns, while running backs Josh Jacobs and Damien Harris were both active in the passing game with 20-plus catches.
Maybe even more impressive was that the wide receivers as a whole averaged 17.7 yards per catch. Jeudy’s 19.34 set an Alabama record among players with at least 50 receptions, topping Keith Brown’s 17.0 set in 2006.
Nevertheless, the only wide receiver with a catch last season who isn’t back with the teams is Derek Kief, who had just four receptions for 39 yards and one touchdown. So the position group is returning 98 percept of its catches, 99 percent of its receiving yards, and 97 percent of its passing touchdowns.
“You always want to build on last season,” Ruggs said. “We did good things and we just want to build on it.”
Just how Alabama might do so is the big question. Even with the loss of some key offensive players there’s still plenty of firepower to go around.
Might the Crimson Tide be a little more West Coast offense under Sarkisian?
Could there be a return to the power running game as many fans hope and expect?
Will the offense still be largely based on the run-pass-option?
Even the players are curious about some of those details.
“That’s something I’m really excited and looking forward to — how he’s going to operate as OC,” junior tight end Miller Forristall said. “This is a new team. I know Saban says every year, ‘This is a new team,’ but this really is.
“New dynamic, guys are a year older, I’m a lot different than I was last year. Tua’s a lot different than he was last year. Ruggs and Smitty and all those guys are a lot different. [Jedrick Wills Jr.] and Wood — I mean there are going to be new guys on the O-line. We’ll see new people on the field so it’s going to be a new offense. But you can only run so many plays.”
Consequently, the Crimson Tide has been downplaying how different the offense could be in 2019. There will be new wrinkles, some brought by Sarkisian and others added to try and take advantage/maximize the skillset of the players.
That’s the bottom line. Even with some new formations and whatnot, there’s still those four receivers that will test defensive secondaries every way imaginable. Throw in the running backs led by Harris and an offensive line that might be even bigger than last year’s and it’s still a pick-your-poison offense.
"We kind of do what we do,” Saban said. “I think the new coordinator brings new energy, new enthusiasm, new ideas. Sometimes we make tweaks and adaptations to what we do. But we're pretty successful on offense, especially last year. So why would we change it a lot? I think some of the additions that we make are very positive and will be very helpful in helping us feature some of the players that we have.”
Plus, there’s still that guy making the throws, Tagovailoa. A year ago he was sidelined after suffering a fractured hand from reaching for a fumble on the first day of spring practice.
Now he’s a year older and there’s no doubt the offensive is his to run.
“At first, he was just a lead by example type of player,” Jeudy said. “Now he’s been more vocal. He’s just being more vocal and communicating more.”