TUSCALOOSA — Year 1 of the Tua Tagovailoa era as the starting quarterback produced the single-greatest passing season of any Alabama quarterback ever.
Tagovailoa’s 3,966 passing yards, 4,156 total yards and 48 total touchdowns last season are each program records, while his 199.44 passer rating ranks No. 1 all-time in Division I history. He also orchestrated the single-most productive Crimson Tide offense of all-time, one that averaged 45.6 points and 522 total yards per game in 2018, easily surpassing previous program marks set during the memorable 2014 and 2016 seasons.
So what’s left to prove in Year 2 in the starting role?
Well, according to both Alabama head coach Nick Saban and Tagovailoa himself, plenty.
“I think I still have to prove my role as being a leader on the team,” Tagovailoa said earlier this month at SEC Media Days in Hoover. “Being able to play (well) earns you respect, but it’s who you are and how you build a relationship with these guys that’s going to carry you throughout the way.”
Earlier this offseason, Saban publicly challenged his Heisman Trophy runner-up quarterback to “take the perception that he has a lot to prove” after last season’s disastrous collapse against Clemson. And by all accounts, Tagovailoa heard his coach loud and clear.
Taking the initiative this summer, the rising junior and second-year starter has made it a point to establish himself as the Crimson Tide’s unquestioned commander in chief, developing personal connections with as many of his teammates as possible, and not just those on offense.
“It’s just the little things like showing up to breakfast or lunch, and whoever’s in there you go and sit with them and build a relationship with them,” Tagovailoa said. “And then when it comes time to go into the training room, even if I don’t have treatment, just go in there and build more relationships with other guys. I think just doing little things like that, one teammate at a time, you never know how it can affect them and you make the difference in them that they can do the same to other guys as well.”
And so far, the development has been obvious to those around him.
“I feel like he’s grown a lot since that time period and became more of a leader,” Tide safety Dylan Moses said of Tagovailoa. “I mean, he was already a leader before, but he had to grow. And as he’s gotten older, he’s become more and more used to that role.”
Within that growth has come Tagovailoa’s ability to handle criticism — both internally and from outside the program — that has arisen in light of last season’s national championship defeat when several of his uncharacteristic mistakes, including an early pick-six interception return, proved especially costly in the 44-16 loss to Clemson.
“Just being OK with criticism, because me and him are kind of alike in that sense: we’re our biggest critic, and if we feel like we didn’t play as well no matter what anybody else tells us, it won’t matter,” Moses said of Tagovailoa. “I feel like he’s gotten better in that aspect. He’s gotten better with just his reads, not forcing anything, and overall as a player he’s grown a lot.”
Much of that criticism has come from his head coach.
“I think he had an outstanding year last year, (but) are there things that he can improve on? I don't think there's any question about that,” Saban said last week.
Saban has been vocal in his desire for his star quarterback to play more conservatively at times.
“Tua is a great competitor so he's going to try to make a great play every play. Sometimes those things have worked out extremely well, and other times they've led to some disasters,” Saban said. “So having a little better judgment about when to say when can be an asset from an health standpoint as well as eliminate-negative-play standpoint – even though sometimes (when) he's done that, it's worked out great.”
But while Tagovailoa is cognizant of Saban’s sentiment, and even agrees with the desire to cut down on self-forced errors, the Hawaiian gunslinger doesn’t anticipate completely altering his on-field approach all that much this season to accommodate.
“If the shot is there, I’m going to take it. Don’t expect me to throw a check down. I’m going to take (the shot downfield),” Tagovailoa said at SEC Media Days, before backtracking just a bit and clarifying: “But it’s whatever the defense gives me that I need to take. That was the biggest thing in the second half of the year, especially against Clemson. Looking at the scoreboard (after we fell behind early), I felt like we needed to score already and I just didn’t take what they gave me.”
Taking advantage of what’s there is also Tagovailoa’s plan to address his extensive injury history, much of which contributed to his late-season slide last year.
“I think the next step for me is getting into the training room, being able to take care of myself in every aspect,” Tagovailoa said. “Whether I’m hurt or not, being able to take care of it. Everybody uses the analogy of a car, if you don’t get a tune-up for your car, your car’s not going to work the same way when you first drove it off the lot.”
After dealing with a menagerie of nagging ailments throughout his career already, including the high ankle sprain last December that required minor postseason surgery, maintaining his physical well-being throughout a full season has been at the forefront of Tagovailoa’s offseason.
Tagovailoa announced at SEC Media Days that he was feeling “a lot healthier” after dropping 15-plus pounds this summer and getting his weight back under 215, part of which he credited to an offseason training regime under the instruction of his father, Galu.
“You know, I really didn’t have a summer. I just had to get back into the grind and I guess the only way I could better myself is if I could get in better shape and be healthy,” Tagovailoa said.
Working alongside his younger brother, Taulia, a true freshman at Alabama who is vying to earn backup reps this season, Tagovailoa spent the last couple of months “just working out, weight training,” and daily exercise with a throwing routine nearly every night.
“It’s kind of hard, because my dad makes us diet when we’re home too,” Tagovailoa said, adding neither he nor his brother were allowed to drive to a nearby gas station to get snacks. They couldn’t even sneak into the kitchen for a late-night bite because it’s next to where their parents sleep.
“You need to get a girlfriend so your girlfriend can go get it,” he joked.
All jokes aside, Tagovailoa’s offseason has been focused on improving and taking his game to the next level, much of which has centered around establishing himself as Alabama’s indubitable chieftain. And as such, he believes that continued growth will be the difference that helps the Crimson Tide do what it couldn’t last season and claim its next national championship in 2019.
“Our mantra now for our guys (within our) leadership group is ‘never be satisfied,’” Tagovailoa said. “Earlier (last) season we were beating teams by a lot and of course you’re going to get satisfied because we feel invincible as a team, but never being satisfied is the way to go for us. We’ve got to keep going to get what we want.”