TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — For the first time since the 2013 season, Alabama went into the spring without having a quarterback competition as Tua Tagovailoa was the clear starter.
The Heisman Trophy runner-up was the Walter Camp Player of the Year and won the Maxwell Award, in addition be being named a consensus first-team All-American at his position in 2018.
But the last quarterback who didn’t have to beat someone out for the starting job was AJ McCarron as a senior. Ironically, it ended a streak of incumbents, as from 2007-13 the only players to start for the Crimson Tide were John Parker Wilson, Greg McElroy and McCarron.
However, it doesn’t mean that Tagovailoa’s approach changes heading into his junior season.
“I still have to compete,” he said. “We have competitors in the room
“It’s not time to take off or a time to relax. It’s still time when we all have to compete.”
During his first season as a starter, Tagovailoa was 245-for-355 (69.0 percent) for 3,966 yards, 43 touchdowns, six interceptions and a passer rating of 197.34, that’s the NCAA single-season record.
However, injuries took a toll and his numbers dropped against the best defenses, all faced between November through the National Championship Game, a 44-16 loss to Clemson. That’s normal to an extent, but still motivation for Tagovailoa.
“I can’t think too much about the good because a lot of the bad still stands there but the biggest take away for me from last year would be the things I didn’t correct throughout the little games, throughout the games where we played teams that weren’t up to our competition, you know, we kind of made a lot of mistakes and we could get away with it,” he said. “It ended up catching up to us and I think that’s something big that we can all take from it as a team.”
While the real competition during fall camp will be behind Tagovailoa, there is something new and different, his third different offensive coordinator in as many years.
Steve Sarkisian, who recruited Tagovailoa at USC, will be calling the plays. He replaced Mike Locksley, the now-Maryland head coach who made the run-pass-option an effective weapon for the Crimson Tide, whereas the year before Brian Daboll had to try and create an offense that was geared toward Jalen Hurts.
They’re all gone now.
“Sark is a great quarterback coach,” Nick Saban said.
Fans are a little skeptical as the only game Sarkisian previously served as Alabama’s offensive coordinator was the national championship game at the end of the 2016 season, when he stepped in for Lane Kiffin in the middle of the College Football Playoff.
Sarkisian only had a few days to prepare. This time he has months to get to know the players he’s directing, especially Tagovailoa. They already had a relationship from back in recruiting.
“He offered me while he was at USC and USC was my dream school, too,” Tagovailoa said. “So, I will be forever grateful for that. But just the person he is. He is good guy. He is a relationship person in the quarterback room with not only with me but everyone in there. It’s a really easy learning environment.”
While there’s been a lot of speculation that Alabama aims to go back to more of its power-football ways, there was nothing to back that up during the spring other than the bigger offensive line and a bigger priority on improving in short-yardage situations and in the red zone.
Saban still wants to have a balanced attack, but with Alabama maybe having the best quarterback in the game and an incredible group of wide receivers it’ll still play to its strengths.
Consequently, Alabama’s offense will remain an attacking one, throwing downfield a little more and trying not to be predictable.
“With Coach Sark, it’s really full-field progression reads,” Tagovailoa said. “Last year, we worked more on RPO, and we had that opportunity to perfect it. Now we’re trying to perfect full-progression reads, so reading the entire field this year. I think implementing pure progression reads and RPOs is really going to be big for us this season.”
So the real question is who will be his backup?
Heading into his redshirt sophomore year, Mac Jones showed during Alabama’s A-Day game, the final scrimmage of the spring, that he’s ready to step into a larger role.
He played in 14 games last season, missing the Texas A&M victory, and served as the holder on special teams. As a passer he was 5-for-13 for 123 yards and one touchdown.
“He’s grown a lot,” Tagovailoa said. “I think the biggest word I could describe Mac Jones in up to this point is confidence. He’s very confident in what he does now, he understands the playbook almost inside-out, he understands where people need to line up. So when you know that, you can go out there and you can just play fast. And Mac’s been playing really fast and he’s been playing really good as well.”
His immediate competition is Tagovailoa’s younger brother, Taulia. He and Paul Tyson, the great grandson of Paul W. “Bear” Bryant, enrolled early.
The younger Tagovailoa threw for 3,728 yards and 35 touchdowns as a senior at Thompson High School, and became the only quarterback in state history to have at least four 400-yard passing performances in his career. He led the Warriors to the Class 7A state championship.
Tyson, listed as 6-5, 217 pounds threw for more than 6,500 yards and 69 touchdowns with only 13 interceptions in his 24 games as a starter for Hewitt-Trussville High School.
Both might end up redshirting, although Taulia Tagovailoa is especially trying to avoid that. He made a comment before arriving that he wanted to challenge Tua for the starting job, and the two have been putting in extra work including an extra film session hours after the second spring scrimmage.
“I had the opportunity to bring my brother up here late at night, probably about 12:30 to 1, and just sat down with him in our offensive staff meeting room and just watched film with him,” Tua Tagovailoa said. “He just wanted to know the things that I’m seeing out there and I got to help him with that.”
This is the first story in a summer series previewing the 2019 Crimson Tide