TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Even though a lot of the fan base still can’t pronounce his last name, and many of the writers have yet to get the spelling down, one can’t go a day around the University of Alabama football program without hearing about Tua Tagovailoa.
Thankfully, no one has a problem with the “Tua” part, although offensive coordinator Brian Daboll simply calls his young project “Tu,” as he has a short nickname for nearly all of his players.
“I think that’s probably like a New England thing,” junior tight end Hale Hentges said. “He’ll like shorten people’s names, for instance he’ll call me ‘Hentch.’”
Tagovailoa (pronounced like Tongue-a-viola), is hardly alone when it comes to football prodigies on the 2017 Crimson Tide. While so many of the players who stepped up into key roles this season were juniors and seniors, Alabama has also played 17 freshmen from the recruiting Class of 2017, which is among the most in the nation.
And those players have fans extremely excited about the immediate future of the program, as the class has already proven to have been as good as hoped.
“Those guys have provided a tremendous amount of depth, and on some occasions filled in very admirably for guys when they’re called on, whether it’s special teams or whatever the role has been as contributors to the team,” Nick Saban said.
“In most cases, we’ve been able to play them enough to enhance their development, which is always sort of the priority when you play a young player is, are we going to play the guy enough so it enhances his development in practice every week and also in the game experience that he gains?”
While there’s a lot of optimism about players such as Dylan Moses, who has already played in 11 games and made two starts at injury-depleted linebacker, and offensive linemen Alex Leatherwood and Jedrick Wills, the offensive playmakers have drawn the most attention.
We might still be a ways from seeing Tagovailoa handing off to running backs Najee Harris and Brian Robinson, and throwing to the triple-receiving threat of Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III and Devonta Smith on a regular basis (plus don’t forget about redshirting Tyrell Shavers and Chadarius Townsend along with quarterback Mac Jones).
Their collective potential is obviously enormous.
“A lot of speed. They are really fast,” sophomore left tackle Jonah Williams said about the wide receivers. “They are really talented guys.”
Collectively, the trio already has 26 receptions for 534 yards and 9 touchdowns.
Jeudy has the infectious South Florida swagger. Smith has a rare ability to turn nothing into something. Ruggs had been a big-play player not only for the freshmen but the entire offense as his five receiving touchdowns top the team.
But their real progress, and how they’ve been able to contribute already, comes from doing the things that most people don’t notice.
“All three of them bring an excellent dynamic to our offense, having the ability to play numerous wide receivers, especially guys that are so young,” Hentges said. “And not only the receiving, but most importantly the blocking, that’s really helped take our running game to a new level.”
With Alabama having two seniors and a junior who could leave school early at the three starting receiving spots, the freshmen will be challenging for bigger roles in the spring, and they won’t be alone.
Last year the Crimson Tide set NFL draft records with seven players among the first 55 picks and nine of the first 79. Alabama also set the program’s modern record with 10 selections, and tied its all-time mark set in 1945 when at the end of World War II teams were desperate to fill their roster and the draft went 32 rounds (none of Alabama’s players went in the first seven rounds).
Alabama might top those marks this year, depending on how many players leave early.
The departing seniors include Da’Shawn Hand, Shaun Dion Hamilton, Rashaan Evans, Levi Wallace, Anthony Averett, Hootie Jones, Tony Brown, Bradley Bozeman, Cam Sims, Robert Foster, JK Scott and Joshua Frazier.
The juniors who could follow them include Minkah Fitzpatrick, Ronnie Harrison, Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough and Da’Ron Payne. Also weighing the decision could be Ross Pierschbacher, Isaiah Buggs and Lester Cotton.
That’s a lot of potential spots on the depth chart to be filled beginning this spring, but first Alabama has the College Football Playoff and Clemson to worry about.
When Alabama begins bowl practices later this week it’ll be with a back-to-basics approach. Like with the spring and fall, Saban has everyone start from scratch with the same fundamental drills and workouts.
Sometimes it’s when everything seems to come together for a young player, as the familiarity starts to bring everything together. That’s what happened with former running back Derrick Henry as Alabama started to prepare to face Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl at the end of the 2013 season. He responded with 100 rushing yards on 8 carries and a 61-yard touchdown on his first career reception off the bench.
So while preparing for Clemson, Alabama will also be helping the returning players for what comes after the playoff, especially in spots like the secondary where everyone might need to be replaced — the nickel- and dime-package players included.
Vying for regular roles in that secondary will be Trevon Diggs, Shyheim Carter, Deionte Thompson and Xavier McKinney, and Alabama heavily recruited the position group to add the likes of former LSU player Saivion Smith. Saban usually doesn’t sign junior college players unless there’s an obvious need and they could challenge for immediate playing time. Smith certainly qualifies.
Of course, fans are always eager to see what former prize prospects with a lot of potential can do as a regular contributor, and in that way Tagovailoa is like Henry in that they can’t get enough of him. They also have a tendency to ignore the whole experience-and-development part of the equation which is obviously crucial.
— Bama Knight (@BamaKnight) December 1, 2017
Saban recently explained his approach when fielding a question about the play-calling, and how it’s not like you just add elements throughout the season. He compared it to having a restaurant menu, and you pick and choose depending on the opponent, their personnel and their types of coverages.
“You don’t just draw up new stuff every week,” he said. “We can expand that or contract it or use the things that we think are best based on what the other team plays. I think that’s what we’ve tried to do all year long and that’s what gives the players the best chance to execute.”
The difference was noticeable during Tagovailoa’s last two appearances, against Tennessee and Mercer.
Upon entering the game against the Volunteers early in the third quarter he promptly led the team down the field only to have a pass over the middle picked off and returned 97 yards for a touchdown. He finished 9 of 12 for 134 yards, but the points were the only ones Tennessee scored in the 45-7 game.
Against Mercer, starter Jalen Hurts was 7 for 7 for 180 yards and 3 touchdowns, while Tagovailoa was 7 of 11 for 85 yards and 3 touchdowns of his own.
There’s no doubting that both his and Alabama’s future look exceedingly bright.
“He’s put in a lot of hard work,” Hentges said. “It’s hard any time you’re the backup quarterback, but he’s done a phenomenal job staying positive and making plays and being just a great teammate in general. As you’ve seen, when he comes in he makes plays and he helps our offense. We have a lot of confidence in him that when he goes in he’ll be able to get the job done.”