Jarrett Stidham could tell.
Maybe it was a look in the eye. Or maybe it was just seeing, firsthand, the kind of throws he could make.
Either way, Stidham, back in June out in the summer sun in California, knew then that Tua Tagovailoa was the real deal.
Both star quarterbacks crossed paths and threw passes at an Elite 11 camp outside Los Angeles there on the other side of the country this past summer — and that’s where Stidham, he says, saw something special in Tagovailoa.
And that’s where he got an early look at the kind of competition that was coming his way this fall.
“You can kind of tell, just from working out with somebody, if they’ve got it in them. And he sure enough has had it in him for a long time,” Stidham said this week, thinking back.
“He’s definitely displayed that this year.”
Tagovailoa has had ‘it,’ and Tagovailoa has been ‘it’ for No. 1 Alabama this season — a dream player for Crimson Tide fans who’s seemed to take the team to even greater heights with his play during a phenomenal sophomore season that’s made him the front-runner to win the Heisman Trophy.
Saturday, Tagovailoa will look to complete his regular season with an undefeated record with a win against Auburn in the Iron Bowl at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Of course, to try to do it, he’ll be lining up opposite none other than Stidham, who’ll help lead the Tigers into their upset bid — and a head-to-head duel between two quarterbacks touted among the nation’s elite.
Stidham, ever the competitor, said he’s looking forward to the challenge.
“Absolutely,” Stidham said, speaking during a press conference in Auburn this week ahead of the big rivalry game. Kickoff for Saturday’s Iron Bowl is set for 2:30 p.m.
“Any time you get to go against a guy, especially that you know — I love going against guys that I have a personal relationship with, and who are obviously really good football players,” Stidham said.
“Just kind of having that shootout mentality, so to speak. I’m really looking forward to it.”
Stidham already holds an Iron Bowl victory to his name. He fired for 3,000-plus passing yards last season. His team has hit a rocky road this year, but he’s still touted as an NFL Draft prospect, and thought of as a game-changer capable of giving his offense a chance to score from anywhere on the field.
But even he’s expecting quite the challenge from Tagovailoa, who’s made a meteoric rise to superstardom after coming in at the half of the National Championship Game with Georgia back in January and leading the Tide to the title, before he took over as the team’s starting quarterback this season to string together a prolific passing season.
Just how Tagovailoa has lived up to the hype, after bursting onto the national scene with a breakthrough performance in the national title game, has been lost on many baffled spectators — but to Stidham, Tagovailoa’s continued success comes as no surprise after what he saw last summer.
“He’s obviously done great,” Stidham said of Tagovailoa. “He’ll be up for the Heisman this year. He’s done a great job.
“I got an opportunity to meet him this summer at the Elite 11 camp out in California. I got to be around him a little bit. I got to know him. Great dude. Obviously, a great football player. He’s being doing really well.
“It doesn’t surprise me.”
Tagovailoa’s passing numbers have been stellar this season. He’s hit 69.2-percent of his passes for 2,865 yards so far, with 31 touchdowns as compared to just two interceptions on the year. He’s hit 164 completions on 237 attempts — giving up rare interceptions on less than one-percent of his passing attempts.
Tagovailoa boasts a nation-leading passer rating, at 212.2.
And he’s on the march to deliver to Alabama its first perfect season since Nick Saban’s first national championship season at Alabama in 2009.
But to have the chance to do it, Tagovailoa’s Tide will have to get through Stidham’s Tigers on Saturday.
Stidham hit 21 of 28 passes for 237 yards in Auburn’s 26-14 win over Alabama at home last season, while rushing for 51 more yards and a touchdown.
Tagovailoa did not play in that game, as the Tide started Jalen Hurts.
Saturday, Tagovailoa will make his Iron Bowl debut.