It’s instructive of Nick Saban’s “my way or the highway” grip on Alabama football that Tuesday was the first time quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, perhaps the next Heisman Trophy winner, was allowed to speak to the media since August.
What made his appearance so unexpected was the media had been told all season Tua was too busy to speak; Sabanese, one might think, for keeping the kid sheltered from the klieg lights for as long as possible.
Look, some college coaches go to great extremes to keep players away from reporters. Just this week, Oklahoma State football coach Mike Gundy threatened to shut down availability for the remainder of the season if anyone asked his players about the transfer of receiver Jalen McCleskey. So you never know what to expect.
Like his buddy Bill Belichick, Saban goes out of his way to bubble wrap the nation’s No. 1 team, its defending national champion. He is in total control of the narrative, one step ahead of those who want to dig a little deeper than he prefers.
The difference is Saban can get away with it, like all college coaches can. They set the rules when it comes to who speaks to the media, when they speak to the media and how long it should take.
So it was no surprise that the media wished someday to again engage Tagovailoa, the savior of Bama’s butt in last year’s College Football National Championship game against Georgia. And then he suddenly showed up, wearing hooped ear rings and smiling, with Arkansas on the horizon this weekend.
Of course, the sophomore is off to an exceptional start, throwing for 1,161 yards, 14 touchdowns and no interceptions in the Tide’s five wins. His 238.3 passer rating leads the nation, dwarfing that of West Virginia’s Will Grier, who came into the season as a Heisman favorite.
“He has played extremely well in every game. He’s right on target most of the time, not only in where he delivers the ball but who he delivers it to and why he should do it that way,” Saban said Monday. “I think our coaches have done a really good job of helping him be able to understand exactly what the expectation is. … He’s been very, very efficient and played very, very well. I expect every player to play that way. But he’s probably exceeded that to some degree, in terms of his consistency. Hopefully we’ll be able to do the things we need to do to help him continue to play with that kind of consistency.”
The most poignant part of Tua’s give-and-take was when he expressed respect and affection for Jalen Hurts, the incumbent Saban snubbed in the title game. Remember, Hurts came into the 2017 season the reigning SEC offensive player of the year who had started 28 straight games.
Last week, Clemson coach Dabo Sweeney rocked his boat by replacing senior starter Kelly Bryant, who had won 16 of his 18 starts, with highly touted freshman Trevor Lawrence prior to the Tigers game last Saturday against undefeated Syracuse.
Bryant did not take the news well and after two days sitting out practice, he told Sweeney he’d be transferring. Of course, that immediately led to concern about what Clemson would do if Lawrence was injured. And sure enough, Lawrence took a blow to the head in the second quarter of his first start and was replaced by former third-stringer Chase Brice who helped orchestrate the Tigers’ comeback 27-23 win.
Imagine what would have happened if Hurts mirrored Bryant’s position?
“You guys seen what happened with Clemson’s quarterback,” Tagovailoa said. “Clemson’s quarterback ended up getting hurt and they didn’t have Kelly Bryant, as well. Could you imagine if something happened to me?
“Mac Jones [Bama’s redshirt freshman] would be good, but also having Jalen here, who is very well-experienced – it’s a testament to his character, it’s a testament to his morals, with how he was raised within his family. Just him being here within our team, everybody respects him so much. He’s a leader and he leads both ways. He leads vocally and he leads doing things.
“Could you tell me I would be the starter with Jalen here?. I couldn’t tell you that.”
Still, Alabama has continued to soar with Tagovailoa, leading the FBS with 271 points. He would join Mark Ingram, Jr. (2009) and Derrick Henry (2015) and the Tide’s only Heisman winners.
“Yeah, it’s (his life) changed in some ways, you become more recognizable in public and whatnot,” Tagovailoa said. “I can’t do things that I want to do any more without people trying to stop us, (Even) going out to eat with my family, people are just coming up and asking for pictures.”