There once was a quarterback who was a major recruit coming out of high school. I’m sure you’d recognize his name because he played in the SEC. He arrived at college, where there was already an established championship quarterback on the roster. So, he mostly waited his turn.
He famously got on the field as a freshman as his team won the national championship. In fact, he played enough that fans were touting him for the Heisman Trophy even before he became a full-time starter.
Many other people questioned if the hype was too much, too soon.
The quarterback went on to justify all the hype by winning another national championship as a starter, becoming a two-time SEC Player of the Year, winning the Heisman Trophy as a junior and becoming an NFL first-round draft choice.
No, I’m not projecting that greatness onto Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa.
The quarterback I’m describing is Tim Tebow.
Tebow arrived in Gainesville, Florida, as perhaps the most famous high school football player ever. Even with the increased media today compared to when he left Ponte Vedra’s Nease High School in 2006, there still has not been a player who has garnered more attention before arriving at college.
Tebow is in the discussion as the best college quarterback of all time. But as a freshman, he played behind established starter Chris Leak as the Gators won the 2006 national championship.
He didn’t come into the national championship and save the day the way Tagovailoa did, but it’s easy to make the comparison between the two players at this stage of their careers.
Like Tebow, Tagovailoa was a five-star recruit and many analysts thought he was the best quarterback in the country coming out of high school. Also like Tebow, he wasn’t scared away by the prospect of joining a team with an established leader at quarterback, in this case reigning SEC Player of the Year Jalen Hurts.
Everybody knows how Tagovailoa’s story has unfolded so far. He played only in mop-up duty as Hurts led Alabama to an 11-0 start. He sat on the bench while Hurts and the Tide were throttled by Auburn in the Iron Bowl. He was expected to play against Clemson in the playoff semifinal, but Alabama’s defense was so dominant there was no need to put in the inexperienced freshman, even if he had completed 54 of 58 passes in practices against the Tide’s No. 1 defense leading up to that game.
In the championship game, Tagovailoa came off the bench to save the day, throwing a 41-yard touchdown pass on the final play of the college football season to lift the Tide to the national championship.
Is Tagovailoa the next Tim Tebow? Will he win another national championship, capture the Heisman Trophy and be a first-round NFL draft pick? There’s no way to know that. And, frankly, the comparison is probably unfair this early in his career.
But it is equally unfair to assume he will become the next Jeremy Johnson, which many fans are doing.
Johnson’s story begins in a remarkably similar way to that of Tebow and Tagovailoa. He was Mr. Football in the state of Alabama while playing for Carver High School in Montgomery. He earned one start as a freshman but played sparingly as Nick Marshall led the Tigers to the SEC championship and a spot in the national championship game.
The following year, Marshall was suspended for the first half of the season opener against Arkansas. Johnson delivered a stellar performance, completing 12 of 16 passes for 243 yards and two touchdowns.
While he spent much of the rest of the season on the bench, Johnson’s Arkansas performance was enough to begin the hype machine about his future. It was impossible to find anyone at the time who didn’t project Johnson as a star in the SEC. That included his coach, Gus Malzahn.
Of course, the rest of the story was not as pretty. Johnson struggled mightily once he became the center of attention on a team that was supposed to contend for titles. He never looked comfortable in the role, on or off the field. There were no national championships or Heisman Trophies or first-round draft picks in his future.
So, as we enter the 2018 season, Tagovailoa is in a position similar to what Tebow and Johnson found themselves in before him. If there is a difference it’s that Tagovailoa is getting even more hype. He is now the co-favorite to win the Heisman Trophy this year (both Bryce Love of Stanford and Tagovailoa are 7-1), despite the fact that he hasn’t started a game or even been named the Tide’s starter.
Tagovailoa has passed for 636 yards in his career on 49 of 77 passing. He threw 11 touchdown passes and only two interceptions last season.
Are those numbers enough to justify all the hype? Probably not.
But the the thought that Tagovailoa is going to be the next Tim Tebow is just as realistic as him being the next Jeremy Johnson.
The good news is, we’re less than two weeks away from beginning to find out which it will be.
Randy Kennedy writes a weekly column for Lagniappe and is co-host of “Sports Drive” every weekday from 3-6 p.m. on WNSP 105.5 FM, the country’s first all-sports FM station.