In the stat book, it was described as a pass completed from Tua Tagovailoa to DeVonta Smith for a 50-yard gain on Alabama’s first offensive play. But the beauty of this ten-second highlight at the beginning of Alabama’s 45-34 victory over Oklahoma in the College Football Playoff semifinal was in the details. There was the sharp-angled slant route Smith ran to perfection.
But even more impressive was the sneaky, feigned handoff to Damien Harris that sucked in Oklahoma linebackers Curtis Bolton and Kenneth Murray, creating space in the middle of the field and allowing Tagovailoa to make a split-second decision and throw the ball. The play-action maneuver was a masterful stroke and it has been refined over many months — becoming a major, but not well-publicized staple of Tagovailoa’s vast skill-set.
“He works on that a lot,” said tight end Irv Smith Jr.
Last week, Alabama quarterbacks coach Dan Enos likened ball-handling to an “art form” and claimed it has been lost in an age when the emphasis on concocting a great scheme often supersedes the attention devoted toward improving fundamental execution. But in the Tide’s offense this practice is an essential component of Alabama’s plays, which regularly feature a run-pass option that has become de rigueur in this era of college football.
Last January, Enos was recruited by Nick Saban to enhance the Crimson Tide’s play-action game — something the Alabama head coach has long favored and Enos, a former college quarterback himself, has become known for in his professional life.
During meetings and practices with the quarterbacks, Enos has preached the gospel about the importance of executing the perfect fake, which incorporates the same principles the best pitchers in baseball use to fool hitters. In essence, it’s all about repeating the delivery and simulating the same motion to open more avenues for deception.
“As I tell those guys every day, it’s only going to benefit you at the end of the day that our runs and our passes look the same from a ball-handling standpoint because you’re going to be able to move people,” Enos said. “And you’re going to be able to create space for your receivers and tight ends when you move people and get people to react the way you want them to react. It goes back to the mindset of them buying into everything that we teach them every day and explaining to them how it is going to benefit them and benefit our offense if we are able to do these things.”
Tagovailoa was clearly sold, as he quickly became an expert triggerman for the RPO. Need evidence? Just check out Alabama’s fifth offensive play of the season. It was a backside slant to Smith for a 28-yard gain made possible by Tagovailoa after he duped Louisville linebacker Dorian Etheridge with a bogus handoff to Harris.
“The quarterback is reading whoever is the inside backer, whoever is the Star [defensive back],” Tagovailoa said. “It just depends on who our movement key is. And if they end up reacting the way we want them to react, then we are going to pull and throw. If not, we’re just going to hand it off.”
But when Tagovailoa pulls the ball from the waiting arms of the running back, then watch out. As Arkansas can attest, the Hawaiian southpaw’s sleight of hand can lead to devastating consequences for the opponent. In a 34-point victory over the Razorbacks in October, Tagovailoa singed the Hogs on yet another RPO slant when he delivered a 60-yard touchdown strike to Jerry Jeudy that developed after he lured a gullible outside linebacker toward the line of scrimmage with a play-action fake.
Tagovailoa made it look so easy — so seamless even — but his teammates know it’s a lot harder than it looks.
“He has to have a good mesh with the running back and have the right timing and right release,” Alabama left tackle Jonah Williams.
There’s another component, too; Tagovailoa must also make the correct read once he sells the play-action move.
On the first play against Oklahoma, he did just that — setting the table for another brilliant performance on a night when both he and Alabama reigned supreme.
As Williams later said, “He’s a smart player. And he executes the offense really well.”
Never more so than when he’s running play-action, the art form that is football’s version of trompe l’oeil.
Rainer Sabin is an Alabama beat writer for the Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @RainerSabin