The most defining time in Tua Tagovailoa's college career is now

Christopher Walsh

HOOVER, Ala. — The scoreboard is the enemy.

That’s the lesson Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa learned last season, and everyone knows it came the hard way. Instead of his first year as the Crimson Tide starter ending with the Heisman Trophy, it crash-landed with a thud at the National Championship Game.

It’s led to what one would expect, an offseason of soul-searching and wondering what went wrong. But there’s also been a lot of work.

“I didn’t really have a summer,” he said.

Between working out with teammates and then again with his brother and father, Tagovailoa’s largely been out of the spotlight since the Crimson Tide’s 44-16 loss to Clemson. Part of that had to do with dealing with some injuries, but the rest was by design.

Meanwhile, the second-guessing by critics from afar grew like playoff beards on a hockey team. They especially harped on Tagovailoa’s ability to stay healthy even though he didn’t miss a start last season.

They jumped all over the reports that Tagovailoa gained, and then lost, weight, and skipped the Manning Passing Academy due to a sore hamstring.

Tagovailoa said he got up to 230 pounds due to staying off his feet while rehabbing his ankle injuries, and is now down to 215. The coaches and trainers want him at 218, which shouldn’t be a problem. The hamstring was due to some tightness, and there was no reason to do anything unnecessary that could result in a tweak or pull.

Meanwhile, he’s become a regular in the trainer’s room, even when nothing’s wrong. Preventable treatment can only increase his chances of having a major issue.

“I feel a lot healthier than I did, probably, since I got to the University of Alabama,” Tagovailoa said.

Consequently, the keys to his upcoming season may have little to do with any possible physical limitations like his ankles, hamstring and weight.

It’s what’s going on between the ears of the young quarterback that should have everyone’s attention.

Tagovailoa is coming off what was arguably the best season by a quarterback in Alabama history. He shattered school records, posted the passer rating in the NCAA history and won a slew of awards.

Yet the way it ended continues to bother him.

“I think it comes down to how we prepared during the second half of the season,” he said. “We played looking at the scoreboard. If the scoreboard was good to us we kind of ease off and let the second-team guys go in. We weren’t playing the way we were supposed to be playing.

“We’d only play two or three quarters and let off the gas. It was different that game (Clemson). We weren’t put in a situation like that in which we had to come back and try and win the game.”

Georgia was similar, and LSU to a lesser extent. When things weren’t going right, like with the pick-six against Clemson, Tagovailoa started pressing.

It often led to more problems.

“The thing about Tua is that things went so well, so often for him, he often didn’t have to bounce back from a bad throw, or a bad decision,” former Alabama quarterback-turned ESPN analyst Greg McElroy said.

“When those things did happen, he tried to get it all back on one play.”

Seeing a quarterback go through growing pains isn’t usual, they all do on some level. However, it is with someone who had his kind of success.

Instead of it happening after first arriving in Tuscaloosa, Tagovailoa’s growing pains as a quarterback are happening now. He called it “weird” to say that the loss to Clemson might have been a good thing because he’s learned more from it.

Consequently, this might be the most defining time of his career.

“Tua is the kind of guy who’s never really satisfied,” Nick Saban said. “And I think he had an outstanding year last year. Are there things that he can improve on? I don't think there's any question about that.”

That Tagovailoa recognizes that he can still get better is a good sign for Alabama fans, and led to the summer and working on things like footwork, making sure to do things the right way —a Saban staple at any position — and not cheating the process.

He’s figured out how much the little things matter, and how wins at this level can’t be taken for granted, regardless of what any scoreboard says.

“I think I still have to prove my role as being a leader on the team,” Tagovailoa said.

He’s already doing it, though.