❚ QB’s infectious energy drives Tide,
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Even the often-dour Nick Saban can’t help but smile around him.
Whether it’s the spectacular passing plays that, as senior tight end Hale Hentges said, makes “you just drop your jaw and say, ‘Wow!’ ” or just his infectious smile and childlike radiance around his teammates, Alabama sophomore quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has infused a level of joyfulness into the Crimson Tide’s usual businesslike approach.
So much so that it’s even affecting the team’s no-nonsense head coach.
After Tagovailoa left the field less than a minute into the fourth quarter after tossing his fifth touchdown pass, and school-record sixth total score, in a 52-21 win over rival Auburn in late November, Saban approached his young starter on the sideline for a subtle fist bump.
But a fist bump was not enough for the Hawaiian 2018 Heisman Trophy finalist, who immediately wrapped both of his arms around Saban’s neck and gave his 67-year-old coach a confident hug.
That wasn’t the first time the two have hugged this season. In the closing seconds of a 24-0 win at LSU, an elated Tagovailoa playfully put out both arms as if begging for a hug, to which Saban complied, a brief smile emerging amid the embrace.
Of course, Tagovailoa wanted more, later interrupting Saban’s postgame interview with Crimson Tide Sports Network.
“I need one more hug,” Tagovailoa said, ignoring his coach’s extended hand. “I need a hug. Thank you, coach.”
“Yeah, that was good, huh?” Saban answered, lightly patting his quarterback on the back as a wide smile spread across his face.
Tagovailoa has helped guide No. 1 Alabama (13-0, 8-0 SEC) to a fifth consecutive College Football Playoff appearance amid one of the most dominating seasons in college football history.
Averaging a +33 point differential this season, the Crimson Tide became the second college football team to outscore every opponent in its first 12 games by more than 21 points, joining the 1888 Yale squad that outscored teams 694-0 during its 13-0 national championship season.
“Being on a team is a lot like being in a family — sometimes things go well in your family and everybody is happy, and sometimes things happen that aren’t so good and you all have to persevere together,” Saban said. “(And) when some of the best players on your team are really good guys, that always makes for good team chemistry.”
For Tagovailoa, that happygo-lucky approach is simply a byproduct of working alongside such talented teammates.
“I’m like a kid in a candy shop. It’s awesome,” Tagovailoa said. “I can go to the right, I can get a Snickers bar if I wanted to. I can go to the left, I get some Skittles. It’s really fun for me as a quarterback to be behind some first-round draft picks.”
In his first season as the starter, Tagovailoa ranks second in program history with 3,353 passing yards — 134 shy of recordholder Blake Sims’ 3,487 yards in 2014 — to go with a school-record 37 touchdown passes to just four interceptions. Tagovailoa’s 67.7 percent (199 of 294) completion percentage this season also ranks second all time in Tide history behind Greg McElroy’s 70.9 mark in 2010.
Tagovailoa, who also holds the single-season school record with 42 combined touchdowns (passing and rushing), has spearheaded Alabama’s most prolific offense on record, helping establish new single-season program records for points scored (623), total offense (6,859 yards), offensive touchdowns (77) and passing yards (4,231).
The quarterback finished second to Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray in the Heisman race. But when it comes to catalysts for motivation, finishing as the runner-up ranks low on his list.
“If I had won it, (Murray’s) guys probably would’ve been mad,” Tagovailoa said. “But that’s just how the ball rolled. For me, I don’t try to let any of that affect me. I don’t feel redemption, or trying to be motivated to beat someone now because they beat me (for the award), would work.”
The more pressing topic remains Tagovailoa’s left ankle, which was surgically repaired after he suffered a high sprain during the Southeastern Conference championship game Dec. 1. He expects to be fully recovered by kickoff in the Orange Bowl.
After rallying Alabama to last year’s title, Tua Tagovailoa brought more fun to coach Nick Saban’s team.