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Rise of Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa phenom to Heisman hopeful

It feels like an eternity looking back on it now, having rewatched it on replay and in slow motion and from multiple camera angles, but the reality is it took almost no time at all for Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa to pick himself up off the turf during overtime of the national title game, gather his thoughts and orchestrate the play that has come to be known simply as “Second-and-26.”

That moment in January, which delivered Alabama its most dramatic championship yet and launched its then-freshman quarterback from obscurity onto the national stage and on a path toward the Heisman Trophy as a sophomore, clocked in at a crisp 35 seconds.

That’s a cold, forensic calculation, though. It lacks context. Because even while confetti fell inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium that night in Atlanta after Alabama’s 26-23 overtime win, there were those in and around the program who understood that Tagovailoa’s coming-out party took much longer than a single highlight and ran much deeper than most people understood.

It wasn’t minutes or hours or days that led coach Nick Saban to bench Jalen Hurts at halftime in favor of Tagovailoa, who had never started a game and had appeared in only mop-up duty. Rather, it was the culmination of weeks of discussions, with some coaches on staff secretly and not-so-secretly hoping Saban would realize that a change needed to be made in order to have a chance against the better defenses the Tide would face in the playoff.

Tagovailoa, they’d come to believe, was that good.

“That building knew,” a former coach told ESPN. “Saban gets all the credit for making the move at halftime, but they were trying to get him to do it for months.”

Months might seem like a stretch to some, but another source said it’s not. He estimated that some coaches on offense were ready to make a move as early as Week 6 or 7, even though Alabama was undefeated, the offense was averaging more than 40 points per game and Hurts hadn’t thrown a single interception. It wasn’t that Hurts was seen as ineffective; as the reigning SEC Offensive Player of the Year, nobody was arguing that. The former staffer put it this way: Hurts was a mortal lock to get the team to 13 wins, but Tagovailoa had shown enough to lead coaches to think he could take them the distance — to 14 or 15 wins and a national championship.

“The practices, he was just amazing, lighting it up,” a source said. “The whole building was like, ‘Coach, let’s make a change.’ But Coach does not make changes very quick. That’s not his personality.”

“In practice every day against the scout team, he was making some throws where we were like, ‘This dude is nice.'”

Former Alabama DB Minkah Fitzpatrick

Whether he was slow to the draw or not, Saban made the call with everything on the line, including his own reputation. And just when it looked as if it might all blow up in his face, when Tagovailoa took an almost disastrous 16-yard sack in overtime to bring up second-and-26, it all came together. That arm, that accuracy, that vision they’d all seen in practice translated perfectly to a national championship and one of the most exciting players to ever put on an Alabama uniform.

Terrell Owens, the Hall of Fame receiver, stood on the field after Alabama took down Georgia and thought one thing: finally. He remembered visiting the program that summer, when he and receivers Calvin Ridley, Cam Sims and Jerry Jeudy were in search of a quarterback to throw to them. Hurts was busy, so they called up Tagovailoa. Owens wasn’t one to wait on a QB, let alone a freshman he’d never heard of, but they were raving about Tagovailoa so much that Owens had to see for himself.

For 90 minutes, Tagovailoa threw routes to Owens and the rest of the group. Of the countless passes he threw, Owens said he missed his mark only once.

“When you talk about precision, when you talk about timing, he was on point,” he said. “You talk about the ‘it’ factor, this guy has ‘it’ and then some. … I’ve seen pro guys not hit routes like that.”

At the national championship game, Owens said he didn’t panic when the Tide fell behind at halftime. When Tagovailoa trotted on the field, Owens turned to former Clemson star Wayne Gallman and said, “Game over.”

“What?” Gallman asked.

“Trust me,” Owens said. “This guy is the real deal.”

In a sense, Alabama knew exactly what it was getting into when it recruited Tagovailoa.

It didn’t matter that there was a crowded quarterback room at the time. Nor did it matter that the staff was buzzing about an under-the-radar freshman from Texas signed a year earlier, named Jalen Hurts. Saban and his recruiting machine, as it is wont to do, kept on bringing in talent, regardless of position.

“There was something magical about Tua,” said former offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, who recruited the former four-star prospect. “And it was just no matter where it was. I flew out to Hawaii to watch him practice, and it’s just a magical aura and accuracy with the ball. He was in camp at Alabama, and he’d just come out, not having warmed up, and just chucked it wherever he wanted it.”

There was some fear, Kiffin admitted, that Tagovailoa would decommit as Hurts became more and more entrenched as the starter, winning awards and leading the team to within 10 seconds of a national championship. USC made a push. So did UCLA and others. But as Tagovailoa explained later, Hurts’ presence played “no factor” in his decision to sign.

“And that speaks to Tua’s confidence,” Kiffin said.

Kiffin, who left to become head coach at Florida Atlantic before Tagovailoa reported to campus, expected him to push Hurts to become a better quarterback. But no way, Kiffin said, did he imagine what would happen next.

As early as spring practice, there were whispers coming out of the football facility about the lefty wearing No. 13. Coaches and players alike marveled over Tagovailoa’s accuracy and his ability to process information quickly. And unlike a lot of high-profile recruits, they found him unassuming. In meeting rooms, he was like a sponge — quiet and focused, soaking everything in.

While his arm strength wasn’t quite on par with Hurts’, he had everything else and then some. He had presence and vision and a Houdini-like ability to get out of trouble. Just as importantly, he had no fear. He’d send passes through windows in the defense that didn’t appear to exist — a rare ability, as one scout put it, to throw a covered receiver open.

Alabama’s No. 1-ranked scoring defense, which featured five future NFL draft picks, had its work cut out for it against what was ostensibly the backup QB. Minkah Fitzpatrick, one of a trio of first-rounders and perhaps the best defensive back to ever come through Tuscaloosa, couldn’t help but marvel at Tagovailoa’s ability.

“In practice every day against the scout team, he was making some throws where we were like, ‘This dude is nice,'” he recalled. “He was a freshman, so we’re doing what we were supposed to do against him, but he made some throws where we’re like, ‘Wow, that was nice right there.'”

Said then-senior linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton: “He always lit us up.”

Hamilton, now with the Washington Redskins, remembers thinking that Tagovailoa didn’t look like any freshman he’d seen. There was no nervousness about him at all. Even though Saban’s defense is complex, Hamilton said, “it never really fazed him.”

Fitzpatrick kept coming back to the same thing: poise.

“His eyes,” he said. “When you see rookie QBs in the leagues, you look at their helmet and their stripe, it’s all over the place. It’s sporadic, and the footwork is sporadic. He’s just calm. … He has a rare poise and maturity back there.”

The more people saw Tagovailoa, the more they wondered what the offense would look like with him as the starter. Coaches had confidence in his readiness, but they couldn’t help but wonder how he’d perform in crunch time if push came to shove. And with Hurts showing no signs of giving up the starting job, there was no rush to find out the answer.

Hurts, however, told Tagovailoa and fellow backup QB Mac Jones prior to the season opener against Florida State to keep their heads in the game.

“Anything can happen,” Hurts said, “so just be ready to play. When your phone rings, if it rings at all, you’ve got to answer it.”

During the regular season, the only calls Tagovailoa got were ones to come off the bench and close out games that were already well in hand. In those seven appearances, there were definitely flashes of brilliance — his almost no-look touchdown pass against Vanderbilt stands out — but nothing so obvious as to demand a public outcry that Tagovailoa supplant Hurts.

According to sources, though, there was a push behind the scenes that intensified over the second half of the season to give Tagovailoa more playing time, if not the outright starting job. Hurts wasn’t making the progress as a passer that coaches had hoped for, and they thought Tagovailoa would give the offense the best chance to succeed in a tight game or if Alabama had to come from behind by throwing the football.

The characteristics they noticed right away in the freshman quarterback — his quick release, his vision — were only increasing with time and reps.

“As he got further ingrained in the offense, it continued to progress, like, ‘This guy needs to be the quarterback,'” a former staffer said. “But on the other hand, when you’re making those statements, you’re undefeated.”

Hence Saban’s reluctance. It wasn’t a question of loyalty to Hurts as much as it was an understanding that he was a proven winner who could be trusted to manage the game. Tagovailoa, on the other hand, was a complete unknown.

“He had never thrown a meaningful pass,” the former staffer said. “He’d never thrown a balls-on-the-line pass.”

Push almost came to shove on the final day of the regular season in a 26-14 loss to Auburn that nearly knocked Alabama out of the playoff race, but Tagovailoa never entered the game. A month later, he nearly played in a 24-6 win over Clemson after practicing in the place of Hurts, who missed several days with flu-like symptoms. But again, Saban never called him off the bench, not even after a defensive coach asked whether Tagovailoa should get playing time during the game.

When the national championship and Georgia rolled around, all bets were off. When the first half of the game in Atlanta went as poorly as it did, with the Tide trailing 13-0 at the break, the decision became quite easy.

“He was built for that type of moment,” Fitzpatrick said.

“I’ve talked about this 1,000 times,” Saban said Monday, five days before Alabama and Georgia meet again in Atlanta, this time to decide the SEC championship. “It was what we felt we needed to do to help our team have a chance to be successful in the game, and it’s really as simple as that. It worked out, so everybody thinks it was a good decision. If it didn’t work out, everybody would have been talking about what a bad decision it was.”

There’s no arguing anymore whether Saban made the right call. Maybe he could have gone to Tagovailoa sooner and saved some of the theatrics, but it made for one of the most compelling finishes ever in a national championship game.

Since then, Tagovailoa has only gotten better. When he and Hurts battled over the starting job this spring and summer, Tagovailoa won it fair and square and never handed it back. On Saturday, he scored an Iron Bowl-record six touchdowns to beat Auburn, bringing his total to 41 touchdowns and just two interceptions this season.

What’s amazing is that no one wearing team-issued Alabama gear is all that surprised. Tight end Irv Smith Jr. showed no signs of exaggeration when he said he saw this coming. Neither did safety Xavier McKinney when asked what his reaction would’ve been if someone had told him a year ago that the second-string quarterback would become a Heisman front-runner.

They were behind the curtain and understood what they had in Tagovailoa, even if no one else knew it at the time.

“I wouldn’t have said anything,” McKinney said. “I probably would have believed you.”

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