Alabama enters its 2020 campaign with an unenviable task: finding a replacement for Tua Tagovailoa, the all-world quarterback who lifted Alabama’s offense to never-before-seen heights over his three-year career in Tuscaloosa.
Tagovailoa is mere days away from hearing his name called in the 2020 NFL Draft, meaning Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban must decide who the best player to lead his offense and team is. There’s no outright favorite for who that successor might be — especially since the advent of COVID-19 canceled spring practices — but the average college football fan will tell you Saban’s decision boils down to two players.
On one hand, you have incumbent Mac Jones, who took over for Tagovailoa following his injury and who trumps all other contenders in experience and meaningful snaps at Alabama. Or you have Bryce Young, 247Sports’ No. 1 quarterback (and No. 2 overall player) in the 2020 class who smashed national high school passing records.
But could Alabama simply go from one Tagovailoa to another?
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True sophomore Taulia Tagovailoa has the pedigree to be a viable contender in Alabama’s quarterback race. More importantly, he has the skill set. The younger Tagovailoa isn’t just a Tua clone; the former four-star pro-style quarterback is a quarterback in his own right, one who has experienced tremendous success at the high school level and showed similar flashes at Alabama.
Mike Freeman — who has coached Alabama high school football since 1998 and who was Tagovailoa’s coach at Thompson High School for two seasons — told Sporting News that the younger Tagovailoa is more than capable of winning Alabama’s quarterback battle.
“The comparisons with Tua, I think are really unfair,” Freeman told Sporting News. “I think God completed only one Tua Tagovailoa, and that doesn’t mean that Taulia doesn’t have strength of his own, unique to him. So I think if they can go in there, and if they offer him the same reps, I think Taulia can compete with the best of them.”
Here’s everything you need to know about Taulia Tagovailoa as he challenges to lead the Crimson Tide offense in 2020 — and not just the fact he’s younger brother to Tua.
Taulia Tagovailoa dwarfed Tua’s high school stats
Tua Tagovailoa, per Hawaii Prep World, finished his high school career passing for 8,158 yards and 84 touchdowns at Saint Louis School (Honolulu), adding 1,727 rushing yards and 27 touchdowns for 111 career scores.
By comparison, Taulia Tagovailoa threw for 6,703 yards and 64 touchdowns — as a freshman and sophomore at Saint Louis. He added 7,504 passing yards and 71 touchdowns under Freeman over his junior and senior seasons, bringing his career high school totals to 14,207 passing yards and 135 touchdowns.
He also became the only player in Alabama high school history to throw for at least four 400-yard games and is only the 10th player in Alabama High School Athletic Association history to have a 500-yard passing game. He led the Warriors to the Class 7A state semifinals as a junior, and the 7A state championship as a senior.
Freeman, who characterized the younger Tagovailoa as a dropback passer, said it was clear from the outset he would be a special player at Thompson; he needed only to transition from Saint Louis’ run-and-shoot offense to Thompson’s Air Raid-styled attack.
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“His first year, second, third or fourth game — I don’t even remember who we were playing — he threw a ball to the corner of the end zone. It was a high-low-type read. … He throws the ball into about a 2-foot window into the back of the end zone for a touchdown. We knew then, we knew this guy’s good.
“There’s not many guys in this country who can make that throw, and put that ball in where it went. … I’m not sure it was the right read, but I know this: A lot of quarterbacks can’t get that in college, can’t get that corner, that 2-, 3-foot window.”
The next season, Tagovailoa demonstrated his skill set — and mental fortitude — on a nationally televised game against Hewitt-Trussville and fellow Alabama commit Paul Tyson. Tagovailoa quarterbacked the Warriors from down 28-0 to beat the Huskies 63-49, completing 14 of 23 passes for 264 yards and two touchdowns, adding 152 yards on 12 rushes for 152 yards and three more scores.
Said Freeman of Tagovailoa’s performance:
“The game involved him making a lot of great decisions: ‘Do I hand the ball to the running back, do I pull it and throw it here? Do I pull it and run it here?’ It’s just all part of our scheme, and I think he had about as perfect a game on his reads that night, from the second and third quarter on, that I’ve ever had a kid (do),” Freeman said. “This was a very good football team we were playing, and down 28-0 to them. You know, Taulia just about played a perfect game from about the mid-first quarter.”
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Taulia Tagovailoa scouting report
Tagovailoa has several notable attributes that made him a heavily recruited player out of Thompson, including by such SEC schools as Florida, Tennessee and LSU. Freeman said Tagovailoa demonstrated a natural competitiveness and innate understanding of Thompson’s offense.
Physically, Freeman said, Tagovailoa has the ability to extend plays with his legs and a “surprisingly strong” arm, though he could stand to get physically stronger.
Tagovailoa showcased his strengths during Alabama’s 2019 A-Day Game — most notably on a play in which he escaped left and, on the run, connected with receiver Jaylen Waddle for a 24-yard touchdown.
Freeman also praised Tagovailoa’s coachability, saying he transitioned easily from running Saint Louis’ offense. That, Freeman said, will help him in his bid to win the starting position.
“He adapted to that real quick, real easy, and I think he’s been around (Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian) long enough,” Freeman said. “It’s like I tell him, he’s got to get comfortable in what they do. And I think he’s doing that.”
Tagovailoa completed 10 of 12 passes for 100 yards and a score in five games in 2019. He added one rush for minus-2 yards as well.
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Taulia Tagovailoa: ‘Not just Tua’s little brother’
Apart from his physical prowess and mental aptitude, Tagovailoa also displayed several leadership qualities that helped him thrive at Thompson — part of which came from the way his father, Galu, raised him.
Freeman recalled an early phone conversation he had with Tua and Taulia Tagovailoa’s father that shed light on what kind of player Taulia would become at Thompson:
“Galu never asked me one time, ‘Hey will my son be quarterback?’ He just said, ‘I want to bring him somewhere where he can learn a little bit, work hard and have a chance to compete,’” Freeman said. “The only time that they were talking about bringing him over, it was never asked of me, ‘Hey will he be quarterback?’ Or, ‘I think he can be your quarterback.’ It was just, ‘I just want him to be able to compete and be in a good program.’”
Once Tagovailoa transferred to Thompson, it was determined that he wouldn’t take interviews — not until he had practiced and become a part of the team. More aptly, he didn’t want to be “just Tua’s little brother.”
Shortly after Tagovailoa enrolled at Thompson, however, Freeman received a call from the SEC Network asking to interview Tagovailoa. It was a big opportunity — one too big to pass up. But when SEC Network arrived to conduct the interview, Tagovailoa exhibited tremendous leadership in a simple gesture — one Freeman believes had ramifications at Thompson beyond his high school career.
“(Tagovailoa) turns around and he takes (backup quarterback Sawyer Pate) with him. He tells Sawyer to come with him to the SEC interview, because he wants Sawyer to be part of it. And most young people in that situation, that’s the last thing on their mind: ‘I want my teammate to go. I want my brother to come with me.’ So you kind of knew then what kind of dudes you had, and it just held true over his career with us.”
Two seasons later, Pate — then a high school senior — led the Warriors to win the Class 7A state championship.
“I think that (Tagovailoa) laid a lot of the foundation into Sawyer on how to take me as a coach, how to be a teammate and, at the end of the day, how to perform when the lights came on,” Freeman said. “We’re just thankful to have had Taulia and we’re thankful to the Tagovailoas for being a part of our community.”
While the younger Tagovailoa has strived to ensure he makes his own way, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t take advantage of the close proximity to his older brother.
“I can’t tell you the nights, on Saturday nights … Tua would have a game, get back in town, they would be in our indoor (practice facility) training,” Freeman said. “Someone would call me, say, ‘Hey they indoor lights are on. Do you want us to check it out?’ I’d say, yeah check it out.
“It’d be Tua and Taulia by themselves, working out after Tua had played a game that Saturday afternoon.”