TUSCALOOSA — The deep ache of January’s disappointment still resonates inside Tua Tagovailoa.
The anguish from that 44-16 loss to Clemson — of having the opportunity at college football perfection practically stolen from his grasp — now serves as a weekly inspiration for Alabama’s junior quarterback.
It’s behind every extra rep on the bench press, every extra squat, every extra box jump or lunge, every extra mile on the treadmill, and every extra workout he can squeeze into a week.
“I think it’s just wanting what we couldn’t get last year, that's all it is,” Tagovailoa said. “We were so close to getting a national championship. You throw everything else away, it's right there and you can't get it. We want it and we want it bad, so we’re going to do everything we can to try to get it.”
Still, with three months left in the regular season, the Crimson Tide coaches occasionally have to rein their Heisman Trophy-favorite quarterback in a bit.
“I’m sure he’s not satisfied with where he is and works hard every day, sometimes too hard,” head coach Nick Saban said of Tagovailoa last Thursday. “You know, the guy works out like crazy and we're trying to (tell him), ‘sometimes less is more, you can do too much.’ (But) that's Tua's sort of mentality.”
Tagovailoa’s personal quest of improvement hasn’t slowed even as the season has taken off. In fact, he might have taken a step forward.
Within hours of Alabama’s season-opening win over Duke, Tagovailoa was in the gym working out on his own. The next day he participated in the team’s weekly Sunday workout, and then went through Monday’s weight-lifting session like usual. The next day, during that Tuesday’s throwing session at practice, he felt some soreness in his throwing arm.
That prompted a meeting with his head coach.
“We're throwing on Tuesday and I kind of felt my arm, it was a little fatigued,” Tagovailoa recalled Monday. “Coach Saban ended up talking to me after Wednesday's practice, and he kind of (asked) me, ‘When did my arm start hurting?’ That was the only game we’ve played. So I explained to him what I did after the game and Coach Saban told me that's not the way to go about things, this is how we should go about things. It’ll only lead to, you know, something not good.”
While taking his head coach’s advice into consideration, Tagovailoa still found time to fit in a post-game workout following last Saturday’s 62-10 win over New Mexico State.
“But I didn't do too much, probably more cardio,” Tagovailoa said.
Some of Tagovailoa’s offseason improvement efforts have tended to focus on his health and staying in better shape physically, but he also worked on his mental approach to the game, especially when it comes to in-play decision-making.
It’s in that aspect where he’s made the most progress and still has a way to go.
“Tua has gotten more knowledge and experience of the offense right now. I think he’s more confident in understanding not only what to do but why it’s important to do it,” Saban said Monday. “And I think he has a lot more knowledge of what the defense is actually trying to do and how they’ll respond and react to certain things. And that should help him in his decision-making and judgements.”
Still, as evidenced by what Saban characterized as a “sloppy” passing performance against New Mexico State — when Tagovailoa threw for 227 yards and three touchdowns on a commendable 16 of 24 passing — there’s plenty of improvement to be made.
“We just have a lot of things to clean up in the passing game,” Saban said, specifically citing issues in pass protection and route-running.
Tagovailoa was even more critical of his individual performance.
“There were things that were open that I didn't take, and then it just goes right back to sideline adjustments, things that we've talked about on the sideline that I didn't take advantage of,” he said.
The one example that stands out the most actually turned out quite well — Tagovailoa’s 25-yard touchdown scramble in the second quarter.
“Even when I ran and I scored, I believe Henry Ruggs was open on the seam route,” Tagovailoa admitted. “So usually, … we've been working chop routes in practice, (but I) never had the opportunity to get a seam route in practice so it wasn't on my mind at the time.”
Which is ultimately why he continues to put in extra work — be it at practice or on his own — to continue improving all aspects of his game.
Because the next time Tagovailoa has the opportunity at college football glory, he’s not letting it slip through his fingers again.