Unraveling the Alabama legacy of quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is a complicated process.
Tagovailoa’s impact as an Alabama player can almost certainly be written now, less than three years after he first arrived on campus. That’s a major part of what complicates the matter. Tagovailoa burst onto the college football scene in January 2018. Now, 22 months later, his run is over.
Here’s what’s not in question. Tagovailoa has been a tremendous representative of his family, the University of Alabama and the entire state. Seldom has a player handled fame and praise as well as Tagovailoa. His incredibly charitable efforts off the field and his consistently positive attitude on the field even brought a smile to the face of Nick Saban.
When healthy, Tagovailoa was the most electrifying quarterback in Alabama history and the most awe-inspiring Tide performer since David Palmer was on the field 25 years ago.
But Tagovailoa was too often not healthy. And his most dominant performances did not come during the biggest games of his Alabama career. In fact, the worst game of his career came in the biggest start of his career, the national championship loss to Clemson last season.
Now that a hip injury has ended his junior season and almost certainly his Alabama career, what word best describes his college career?
Again, it’s complicated.
When you hear the name A.J. McCarron, you think clutch performer and a winner. Julio Jones was determined and the catalyst for changing the culture and fortunes of a program. Derrick Henry was relentless and explosive.
Tagovailoa? Incredibly talented. Great character. Injured.
It’s not an attack on a person’s character to say they are injury-prone. Just as some people are born with great speed or exceptional peripheral vision, others are born with low bone density or weak ligaments.
I’m far from qualified to make a medical assessment of Tagovailoa, but I do know the facts of his career. Over two years, he started 21 games and suffered four major injuries (to a knee, both ankles and now a hip). That’s roughly one significant injury for every five starts, not counting the various ailments he toughed his way through.
That qualifies as injury-prone.
Tagovailoa appeared in only 29 games for Alabama, with the most memorable being his relief appearance against Georgia in the national championship game on Jan. 8, 2018. The phrase “second and 26” will always live in Crimson Tide lore, as Tagovailoa’s 41-yard pass to DeVonta Smith to win the national championship was probably the most significant play in program history.
He further endeared himself by telling Saban that he had to take a sack on the previous play so he would have more room to throw the touchdown pass.
On that day, it seemed inconceivable that there wouldn’t be another national championship for Tagovailoa and the nucleus of the 2017 signing class. But that is going to be the case.
The Tide lost in last year’s national championship game, but the success of that season seemed like a bonus. As far back as 2017, I was confident the 2019 team would be the best in Alabama history.
If not for injuries, I still believe that. But check out Alabama’s projected starting lineup for this season versus the players who will line up against Western Carolina this weekend.
The defensive front seven was supposed to include:
All-SEC defensive end LaBryan Ray. He hasn’t played a snap all season because of injury.
Noseguard D.J. Dale is out with an injury.
All-SEC defensive end Raekwon Davis is out with an injury.
All-American linebacker Dylan Moses has not played a down this season because of injury.
Senior linebacker Joshua McMillon has not played a down this season because of injury.
All-SEC outside linebacker Terrell Lewis has barely practiced all season while nursing an injury.
And All-SEC outside linebacker Anfernee Jennings has been limited in practice but is having an all-star season.
I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a team suffer that many significant injuries on one side of the ball. That doesn’t include starting tight end Miller Forristall being lost for the season with a voice box injury, starting center Chris Owens missing multiple starts and the top-rated freshman running back (Trey Sanders) missing the entire season. Oh, and now the best player in college football and probably the best quarterback in Alabama history is done for the season.
Tagovailoa should be remembered for the win over Georgia to clinch the national championship, his spinning touchdown throw to Jerry Jeudy against Louisville in the first start of his career and his incredible attitude and character.
Unfortunately, all those great memories will be mixed with thoughts of what could have been if not for repeated serious injuries.
Randy Kennedy, who has been a leading voice on the Gulf Coast sports scene for 17 years, writes a weekly column for Lagniappe. Follow him on Twitter: @kennedy_randy.
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