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Two things accompanied Tua Tagovailoa on each of his trips to the sideline during Alabama’s A-Day game Saturday — his signature smile and a confident nod.
Serving as the starting quarterback for the White team, there were times when the early enrollee looked mature beyond his years. Those moments came during conversations with wide receivers coach Mike Locksley, who was serving as the White team’s offensive coordinator. After every critique, Tagovailoa not only presented his side but asked for more clarification.
The 6-foot-1, 219-pound quarterback ingested every appraisal, both positive and negative, with the same ear-to-ear smile.
Then there were times when it was obvious Tagovailoa was still a true freshman enjoying his debut in front of an announced 74,326 Alabama fans inside Bryant-Denny Stadium.
The early enrollee danced in place to the music played by the Million Dollar Band and sung the words to Bruno Mars’ “24K Magic” when it played over the speakers. The Honolulu native flashed the shaka sign to a camera man and laughed alongside fellow early enrollee Najee Harris on the White teams’ bench.
In the huddle, he eagerly called plays with his hands behind his back, the way a 6-year-old does when revealing a secret. There was a time when Harris misheard him on a play causing it to go awry. After a few laughs, Tagovailoa accepted blame for the mistake.
The young quarterback’s accountability was put on display later in the game as well. With the White team struggling to move the ball late in the second half, offensive line coach Brent Key tore into his lineman for not providing enough push and protection. Following the assistant’s tirade, Tagovailoa walked over and shook each one of the lineman’s hands, telling them “good job” and “this is on me.”
That kind of leadership has not been lost on his teammates.
“That’s tough coming in early,” Alabama tight end Miller Forristall said of Tagovailoa’s leadership. “It’s intimidating. Of course, we have both young guys stepping into that role, stepping up, playing quarterback, taking control of the huddle and the players they’re with.”
Tagovailoa’s veteran poise wasn’t limited to the sideline, either. He completed 17 of 29 passed for 313 yards and three touchdowns with one interception on the afternoon. Seven of his passes resulted in gains of 20 or more yards. Much of that came during a fast start that saw the true freshman lead the White team to touchdowns on its first two drives.
Tagovailoa’s first touchdown pass came on a beautifully placed ball to receiver T.J. Simmons. His second score came with a bit more luck, as his high throw to Xavian Marks bounced off the hand of the outstretched receiver and into the hands of a wide open Jerry Jeudy, who ran untouched into the end zone.
“I’ve said we have a good quarterback room,” Alabama starting quarterback Jalen Hurts said, “A really good one. It ain’t like I’m surprised.”
Despite Tagovailoa’s stellar performance, Hurts is in no danger of losing his role as the starter. The reigning SEC Offensive Player of the Year was impressive in his own right, completing 16 of 25 passes for 301 yards and two touchdowns with an interception on the afternoon. No matter how much buzz results from Tagovailoa’s big day, the team still belongs to Hurts.
Still, it has to be reassuring for Alabama to know that it has a capable backup if Hurts goes down at any point next season.
“There was a lot of production,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said. “I think all of our quarterbacks are better passers than they were a year ago, first, second and third-team guys. I think that was encouraging.”
Saban went on to say he will be able to better assess the passing performance when he goes back over the tape of the game. From there the head coach will dissect where Tagovailoa excelled and the areas in which he needs to improve.
Those assessments will be brought to the young quarterback’s attention where they will undoubtedly be met with both a smile and a nod.