TUSCALOOSA — As soon as the final post-spring accolades were divvied out, and talented freshman receiver John Metchie was handed the Dixie Howell Memorial MVP award, clusters of Alabama players gathered at midfield for some playful trash talk.
Quietly and without any pomp or circumstance, Tua Tagovailoa approached his younger brother and handed Taulia Tagovailoa the Sylvester Croom Commitment to Excellence Award he’d just received.
Whether it was a proverbial passing of the torch, a simple gesture of encouragement or some big brother-little brother rite of passage, the moment spoke far louder than any public declaration of support between either of the two competitive siblings from Hawaii.
In fact, the elder Tagovailoa — Alabama’s unquestioned starting quarterback and the Heisman Trophy runner-up from last season — has done his best to remove any perception of favoritism within the Crimson Tide quarterback room, where Taulia is one of two freshman early enrollees four months into their tenures in Tuscaloosa.
And following Saturday’s annual A-Day inter-squad spring game inside Bryant-Denny Stadium – a 31-17 win for the White team, which was quarterbacked by sophomore backup Mac Jones and the younger Tagovailoa – the gunslinging big brother again provided a little positive reinforcement and a critique when asked about Taulia’s lone touchdown pass in the game.
“I thought that was a nice ball, that was a good ball, on the run, it looked pretty natural, looked nice,” Tua said of Taulia’s 29-yard third-quarter scoring strike in which the right-handed Taulia was flushed to his left and threw across his body to sophomore receiver Jaylen Waddle, who caught the ball near his ankles in the far left corner of the end zone. “I thought that (Taulia) could’ve gotten it up and made the catch a lot easier, but I thought that it was a tremendous catch by Jaylen Waddle.”
While the first-team offense struggled with consistency Saturday, including the elder Tagovailoa completing 19-of-37 passes for 265 yards and a single touchdown – a 54-yard pass to Jerry Jeudy with 2:10 left in the scrimmage, the White team offense of Jones and Taulia proved efficient enough, combining to throw for 364 yards and three touchdowns on 25-of-32 passing with two interceptions.
Jones, the current favorite to backup Tua Tagovailoa next season just based on seniority, was particularly impressive after bouncing back from a first-quarter interception to complete 10 straight passes and 17 of his next 20 passes for 248 of his 271 yards and two second-quarter touchdowns of 29- and 22-yards to Kedrick James and Xavier Williams.
“I thought Mac did fine,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said. “The good news is that’s one of the biggest things that Mac has to learn to overcome is when he has a bad play he kind of hangs onto it for awhile and he doesn’t always go to the next play. And I think he did that well today.”
For his part, Taulia Tagovailoa was also efficient, completing 6-of-9 passes for 93 yards while working behind Jones, including his third-quarter touchdown to Waddle and a second-quarter interception to second-year safety Eddie Smith on his second pass of the game.
“Obviously there was some anxiety out there, … but I thought he did some things well,” Saban said of Taulia. “I think he’s sort of naturally instinctive, made some quick decisions. … But these guys have to learn, grow and develop, and we’ll just continue to work with them. We’re excited to have them all here and think that they can improve and become pretty good players for us.”
Meanwhile, the elder Tagovailoa was far more critical of his own performance Saturday, acknowledging it wasn’t anywhere close to the standard he’d set since overtaking now-former Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts as the starter prior to last season.
“Um, definitely not. There was a lot of miscommunication with me and the receivers, and got to get everybody set up as far as the O-line as well,” Tagovailoa said. “So sometimes we’re going to have miscommunications, but I’m glad we’re having it now than in the season.”
While admittedly handcuffed thanks to a watered-down playbook, Tua Tagovailoa was uncharacteristically off-the-mark on several of his throws Saturday and didn’t get much help with a handful of dropped passes plaguing the first-team offense throughout the scrimmage.
But while big brother Tagovailoa is safe in his place as the Crimson Tide’s starting quarterback, the performances by Jones and Taulia have opened up the debate regarding his backup next season, even if Saban did his best to downplay any potential overreactions to Saturday’s second-team performances.
“Look, these spring games, don’t read too much into them. The good guys played against the good guys,” Saban said. “So the coverage was tighter, the tackling was better — everything was better when the 1s were playing against the 1s. When the 2s were playing against the 2s, not quite so much. … Mac (Jones and Taulia Tagovailoa) played well, (they) took advantage of those situations, but I don’t think you can read too much into how guys did in the game.”