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Inside the mind of Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa

There have been bad throws.

Throws he regrets.

Throws no one else would even consider.

Alabama sophomore quarterback Tua Tagovailoa doesn’t keep a running total of his misses, but he counts everything. Want to understand the mind of the best quarterback in Alabama history? Want to know what makes him so good? Don’t ask him about his touchdowns or highlights or ninja-like quarterback instincts. Ask him about his mistakes.

To hear him say it, he’s having a tough year.

How many bad throws, Tua?

“I’ve thrown a lot,” Tagovailoa said. “I’ve probably thrown more incompletions than completions if you want to include practices, summer practices, spring practices.”

Wait. Practice? In the iconic words of Allen Iverson, are we talking about practice? Summer practice? Spring ball?

Tua might throw dimes, but he’s the opposite of Iverson apparently.

The best shooters in basketball have the shortest memories. That’s what they say. That’s apparently not the same for the best quarterbacks. A handful of days before the SEC championship game, and Tua was talking about errant throws in summer practice.

Alabama coach Nick Saban called Tagovailoa “kind of a perfectionist” last week. Tua is kind of a perfectionist like a shark is kind of a good swimmer.

Efficient. Killing. Machine.

Tagovailoa enters the SEC championship game on Saturday against Georgia as the most efficient quarterback in the history of college football, according to his efficiency rating (212.51). It means he has thrown for more yards (3,189), completions (189) and touchdowns (36) against interceptions (two) per passing attempt (269) than anyone ever.

More in fewer chances with less mistakes, in other words.

But some of the plays fans or even coaches would consider successes, Tagovailoa sees differently.

He considers some of his completions “almost” like incompletions.

What’s an “almost” incompletion?

“Anything that’s kind of uncatchable that the receivers catch, I would consider it almost an incompletion,” Tagovailoa said, who added, “I’ve thrown some balls that weren’t catchable, but the receivers made me look good.”

This is how the mind of a perfectionist works, and a very humble perfectionist at that. Some people like to pass off other people’s work as their own. Tua apparently isn’t taking credit for completions unless his throws hit the moving bull’s eye. He is the frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy entering the final week of voting after setting a single-game school record for touchdowns against Auburn. He accounted for six scores (one rushing) compared to seven incompletions.

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Sharks like Tua don’t make it to the top of the food chain by accident. It takes a lot of practice to build those instincts that look almost natural. That’s a credit to Tua’s father, Galu, who began developing his son at a young age, and also a credit to all the great coaches he’s had along the way. Tagovailoa says his latest personal instructor, Alabama quarterbacks coach Dan Enos, is excellent from a “technical standpoint with our drills.”

The all-time record for quarterback efficiency rating was set last year by Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield (198.9). Oklahoma’s latest quarterback, the excellent Kyler Murray, has a sparkling efficiency rating of 206.77. It’s not fair, though, to compare Tua’s efficiency numbers to those of Mayfield and Murray. Oklahoma, after all, competes in the Big 12, which should be renamed the 7-on-7 Conference.

The best defense in the Big 12, statistically, would be ranked fifth in the SEC. It’s TCU at 344.4 yards per game. Best is a relative term, of course. TCU is 5-6 overall and 3-5 in the conference. TCU’s opponent passer efficiency rating of 121.74 (tops in the 7-on-7 Conference) would be eighth in the SEC.

Heisman poll sees movement after rivalry week

Tua’s rating of 212.51 came against SEC defenses. Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm, who will take his best shot at Alabama’s defense in the SEC championship game, is a distant second in the SEC in quarterback efficiency rating (179.41). Cam Newton’s rating was 182.0 in 2010.

Accuracy will be a premium against Georgia’s defense, which is designed to prevent big plays like the ones Alabama has enjoyed all season. Georgia’s defense leads the country in plays of 20 or more yards. They’ve only given up 25 all year.

Tua has thrown 57 completions of 20 or more yards whether he wants to count them all or not.

Joseph Goodman is a columnist for the Alabama Media Group. He’s on Twitter @JoeGoodmanJr.

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