ALABAMA’S NICK SABAN huddled his staff inside the visiting coaches locker room at Mercedes-Benz Stadium during halftime of the 2018 College Football Playoff championship game and dropped a loaded question in tight quarters.
“What do we need to get going on offense?”
Quarterback Jalen Hurts, the reigning SEC Offensive Player of the Year, had been a force since arriving on campus, guiding the Tide to a 26-2 record and back-to-back title game appearances as the starter.
But Alabama had been shut out in the first half against Georgia and trailed 13-0. Waiting in the wings was freshman phenom Tua Tagovailoa, whose precision passing stirred excitement throughout the season. After conferring with his staff, Saban sought out the quarterbacks to announce his decision.
“The consensus was, ‘Hey, let’s give the other kid a shot,'” said Mike Locksley, former Alabama offensive coordinator and current head coach at Maryland.
Word that Tagovailoa would start the second half didn’t reach some of their teammates until the offense took the field, and the switch surprised many of the players and coaches.
The decision sparked a chain reaction that reverberated well beyond that championship game. It ultimately set Tagovailoa and Hurts on divergent paths to stardom, in college and the NFL. Those paths will cross for the first time Sunday night when Hurts and the 5-1 Philadelphia Eagles host Tagovailoa and the 5-1 Miami Dolphins (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC).
“We’ll probably see each other before the game to wish each other luck, but at the end of the day, we’re both trying to help our teams win,” Tagovailoa said Wednesday. “I’ve got a lot of respect for Jalen. He’s been a great competitor since I got to Alabama.”
Tagovailoa awakened the Alabama attack when he entered the 2018 CFP title game, tossing three touchdowns in the 26-23 comeback overtime win. The winning score came on a 41-yard strike to DeVonta Smith, who is a teammate of Hurts in Philadelphia.
“After Tua threw the touchdown, Jalen was one of the first guys to run up to him,” Smith said.
“Seeing them hug afterwards, then hug us, you really only see that in movies,” former Alabama receiver Swade Hutchinson said. “You saw nothing but tears of happiness and joy from Jalen to Tua and the rest of us.
“That was probably the greatest moment. There’s nothing that will trump that.”
ALABAMA HAD JUST finished its spring football session in 2016, and Hurts had a talk with Locksley that reflected a surprising level of confidence for a 17-year-old freshman. Hurts was acting like the starting quarterback well before that call was made, and it rubbed some other quarterbacks on the team the wrong way, according to former Alabama QB Josh Palet.
“I can just remember Jalen after spring ball, a private conversation we had where he basically said, ‘I’m going to make [the other quarterbacks] all transfer,'” Locksley said. “And I’m looking at him like, ‘That’s a bold statement for a true freshman.’
“And by the end of that 2016 season, they all did, and he was standing atop as the first freshman SEC player of the year since Herschel Walker [in 1980].”
The transferring of Blake Barnett, David Cornwell and Cooper Bateman, and the graduation of Palet, created a void at the quarterback position. And it led to a pair of newcomers joining the Tide — Tagovailoa and Mac Jones.
Tagovailoa arrived in 2017 as the top-ranked dual-threat quarterback in the country and part of the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class, and while Hurts was the unquestioned starter, Tagovailoa saw plenty of action. He finished with 636 passing yards and 11 touchdowns in eight appearances.
“When I got there, it was like, ‘OK, I don’t want to mess up what we have here, so I’m going to try to find where I fit,'” Tagovailoa said. “But then it’s also one of those things where if you aren’t strong mentally, you either had to be … or figure it out. Or you wouldn’t have made it there.”
Hurts led an offense that put up 37.1 points per game, the 15th-most in the nation, but it was largely on the strength of a run game that featured future NFL backs Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough, Najee Harris, Josh Jacobs and Brian Robinson Jr.
Tagovailoa, meanwhile, gave the Crimson Tide visions of the future.
“Guys recognized [Hurts is] a gamer and a great quarterback, but I think guys had a feeling that Tua could throw the ball better,” former walk-on wide receiver Mac Hereford said. “They wanted the guy who was going to throw more.
“Jalen had a tendency when the pocket broke, most of the time, to go for a run, whereas the idea was most of the time when the pocket broke for Tua, he was going to try and extend a play and make a play happen.”
Hurts and Tagovailoa split first-team practice reps throughout the season, with Hurts taking roughly 80%, Hutchinson said. But Hurts came down with the flu in the days leading up to the Sugar Bowl against Clemson, and Tagovailoa took the starter’s reps.
“Anybody that remembers those two or three practices, man, we looked like a different team,” Locksley said. “I could just remember the two or three days of practices where the ball didn’t ever touch the ground.”
Tagovailoa’s performance was strong enough to warrant playing time against Clemson — or so he thought.
Hurts played every snap of a grueling 24-6 win, during which Alabama compiled 261 yards of offense and 120 passing yards.
“Tua was so mad after that game, there was a chance that he was literally going to transfer,” Locksley said, “because he expected to play in that game.
“And at the end of it, he was not happy that he didn’t play, but he obviously stayed on, and thank goodness he did.”
WHEN ALABAMA FACED Georgia in the College Football Playoff championship game the following week, Hurts finished the half with 21 passing yards and the Tide trailed 13-0.
“That’s when Coach asked the question,” Locksley said. “And the conversation was, ‘Hey, give Tua a shot. If he doesn’t ignite us, we always have the ability to go back to Jalen.’
“This gives Jalen a chance to kind of settle down. Maybe it gives him a different kind of perspective seeing it from the sideline.”
Considering the circumstances, there wasn’t much time to process the decision.
“People thought there was a potential that Tua would step into place for Jalen Hurts throughout the season,” Hereford said. “But when you get to the point where it’s the national championship game, I don’t think anybody really thought Coach Saban would 100 percent do it.”
Saban alerted the two quarterbacks, but there was no teamwide announcement.
“It was just strange to see,” Hutchinson said. “Nobody knew he was going in at the time on my side of the locker room, so when we showed up in the game it was just, ‘Wait a minute. What is going on?'”
Hereford added: “It was very quick. You couldn’t even really soak it in. The call was made, Tua comes out and it’s just like, ‘Well, that’s how we’re going to play it.'”
Tagovailoa displayed the off-script playmaking ability his teammates had seen in practice all season, and he threw a touchdown pass to Henry Ruggs III on Alabama’s second drive of the third quarter.
Facing a one-score deficit on fourth-and-4 late in the fourth quarter, Tagovailoa found Calvin Ridley for a 7-yard touchdown pass to tie the game.
In overtime, Tagovailoa took a sack on Alabama’s first play, then delivered one of the most iconic passes in college football history to win the national championship.
Tagovailoa finished with 166 passing yards, three touchdowns and an interception in what wound up being his final game as a backup.
“Tua gets inserted, and the rest is history,” Locksley said.
HURTS HAS SAID he carries his scars with him wherever he goes, and there was a sizable one left when he was benched in that title game.
“We talked about it very briefly. … [He] expressed his disappointment in himself and was deeply hurt,” Byron Henderson, Hurts’ former coach at Texas’ Channelview High School, said in a January interview. “But he immediately gathered himself and went back to work. … He blamed no one for the way things went at Alabama but himself; therefore, he knew that the only one to fix it or make it better was himself.”
Hurts was dealt another blow when Tagovailoa won the starting job in 2018.
“That was the first time I ever saw any [vulnerability] from the standpoint of he was lost,” Locksley said. “I could just remember him asking, ‘What do I do now?'”
For the time being, the answer was to stick at Alabama, earn his degree in public relations and information sciences, and play the supporting role.
“Jalen’s a great person, [and] Tua might be one of the nicest people you will ever meet,” Ridley said. “Any weird stuff going around with them, you would never have that. … They only would work to help each other succeed, because they’re just two great people and they know their skill sets, and they know what Alabama’s about and what we were trying to do in that moment.”
There was a reversal of fortune, for one night, on Dec. 1, 2018, when Tagovailoa exited the SEC championship in the fourth quarter with an ankle injury against Georgia. It was Hurts’ turn to attempt a come-from-behind win against the Bulldogs. He tied the game with a touchdown pass to Jerry Jeudy and then scored the go-ahead TD on a 15-yard run to lift Alabama to a 35-28 victory.
“A lot of us, after the thrill of the win, as we started to come down, we started almost laughing to ourselves going, ‘Are we involved in some kind of Disney movie we’re unaware of?’ It was too weird,” said Alex Mortensen, former Alabama analyst. “But it was awesome.
“A lot of people were excited for him because of the way he conducted himself. You really wanted him to have personal success.”
The following year, Hurts moved on to Oklahoma, where he finished second to Joe Burrow in the Heisman Trophy voting after throwing 32 touchdown passes and rushing for 20 more.
“He was a special player throughout his entire college career,” Tagovailoa said.
Hurts has carried that momentum to the NFL. The 2020 second-round pick is 19-2 as a starter over the last two regular seasons. He played arguably the best game of his career in a 38-35 Super Bowl LVII defeat to Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs. Hurts was rewarded with the richest contract in NFL history at the time, inking a five-year, $255 million extension in March.
“It’s a compound effect of not just those times at Alabama, but my whole career thus far of a number of different experiences,” Hurts said, when asked how his Alabama experience shaped his mental makeup. “There’s always an opportunity to learn from that, and I think I’ve just grown in wisdom and grown as a person throughout my whole entire career.”
A monster payday for Tagovailoa, who was selected No. 5 in the 2020 draft, looks to be right around the corner. He is the MVP favorite at Caesars Sportsbook and is off to a blistering start after an injury-filled 2022 season. The Dolphins offense leads the league in total yards (498.7), passing yards (316.8) and points per game (37.2) through six weeks.
“When two guys are competing, they’re making each other better, making the team better,” said Eagles backup QB Marcus Mariota, who is a mentor of Tagovailoa and fellow alum of the same high school in Hawaii. “I thought Tua and Jalen embraced that. I thought they both made each other better, and I think that’s why they’re both having success at this level.”
Hurts and Tagovailoa haven’t stayed in contact much since their Alabama days. There’s more of a mutual admiration than a close friendship.
“It’s been great to see the things he’s been able to do over his career,” Hurts said. “I’m hoping for continued success.”
Hereford recalled a scene from the championship parade just days after the win over Georgia, when the QBs walked the route side-by-side.
“There’s a picture of them together with their arms around each other: It was Mac Jones, Tua and Jalen. They weren’t acting,” Hereford said. “They were around each other and they were happy. It didn’t matter who did this or who did that. You got that vibe that they were boys, and not just football teammates.”
Now they’re adversaries — no longer competing for the same position, just for the same goal.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for him, for who he is as a person, who he is as a player,” Tagovailoa said, “and I wish him the best of luck as we play him.”
Additional reporting by Michael DiRocco, Paul Gutierrez, Ben Baby, Brooke Pryor, David Newton, Alaina Getzenberg, John Keim
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