TUSCALOOSA — Through all his accolades and accomplishments, Tua Tagovailoa has never been one for much bravado or pomposity.
Which is why the Heisman Trophy-contending quarterback’s response to a rather innocuous question about Alabama’s propensity for big plays off slant routes caught more than a few off guard Saturday.
“We don’t practice slants every time, it’s just, that’s what the defense gives us,” Tagovailoa said after last Saturday’s 47-28 win at Texas A&M. “And if people say they’ve got to stop running this, it’s weak that they’re running this, I mean, stop it. You know? You’ve got to stop it.”
And his head coach didn’t see anything wrong with Tagovailoa’s bluster.
“I'm glad that he has confidence in what we're doing and that he believes in what we're doing,” Nick Saban said Wednesday on the SEC teleconference. “Tua's a very humble guy, so I don't see anything that problematic.”
While it’s unclear where some of this perceived criticism with the Crimson Tide’s play utilization may be coming from, there’s no question quick slants out of run-pass option plays have been highly effective this season.
Even this week’s opposition has taken notice.
“They do an excellent job, probably better than anybody in the country, in the RPO game. … (And on) all of their RPOs, their receivers are heading to the goal line on them,” Tennessee head coach and former Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt said Wednesday. “There are very few hitches (or) outs, it’s a lot of slants, glances, and they even run some deeper patterns there whether it’s chops — they’re being aggressive in the RPO game.”
A year after finishing second in the Heisman Trophy balloting, Tagovailoa is once again one of the nation’s top passers, ranking third nationally with 2,011 yards on 134-of-182 passing (73.6 percent) and an FBS-leading 27 touchdowns to just one interception this season.
And, according to Pro Football Focus, more than half of Tagovailoa’s aerial success this season has come via quick, short passes that allow him to get the ball out quickly and in the hands of his playmakers in space and let them do the rest. Alabama’s Hawaiian gunslinger is 101-of-114 on passes that travel less than 10 yards this season for 1,139 yards and 13 touchdowns, per PFF, accounting for nearly 57 percent of his yardage production just under half of his scoring (48 percent).
“Tua has a very good feel for where they’re at, you can tell these guys have thrown and caught a lot of balls with each other,” Pruitt said. “And Tua has a quick release. He gets the ball out of his hand fast, so it’s tough to get pressure on him. … They do a really good job in that area.”
Working on the edges, junior receivers Henry Ruggs III and DeVonta Smith have been the biggest beneficiaries of the slant routes, combining for 56 receptions for 1,030 yards and 14 touchdowns this season, with five of Alabama’s six longest passes this season coming on slant routes. As a group, the Crimson Tide receivers have also combined for nearly 1,500 yards after the catch this season.
“I don’t know that you can stop them,” Pruitt said of Alabama’s slant passes Wednesday. “I’ve not seen a team yet that can go out there and guard them. … That’s the answer, right? But I’ve yet to see (a team) yet that can do that.
“I think you have to be able to mix it up, if you can get a tipped ball here or there or get them off schedule on a route by maybe mixing up the coverages or bumping them at the line. … But there’s not anybody that’s just shut them down over the last couple of years.”
Tagovailoa remains unapologetic about it too.
“That’s what’s given to us. If that’s the play that’s given to us, we’ve got to execute it the best way we can execute it,” Tagovailoa said Monday. “It’s not all the time you can take a shot. RPOs now in college, and I think it’s starting to work its way into the NFL, it’s the thing to do. … It’s just what’s given to us.
“If you have to throw a slant because a guy steps in the box, you have to throw it. The rest is really up to the (receivers). They are the guys who are making plays for us.”
Not all of Tagovailoa’s short passes come on slants, including the 31-yard touchdown to Jaylen Waddle against Texas A&M, when the sophomore caught a screen pass and weaved his way around blocks and between Aggies defenders to reach the end zone.
“I think (Tua) spoke on that well enough,” Waddle said. “I'm behind him 100 percent.”
Just don’t call the slants or screens “cheap.”
“Cheap routes? I wouldn't say that,” Waddle said. “It's a route, it's in the route tree. It's just as good as a dig (or) go in the route tree.”
Which is why it’s safe to expect Alabama isn’t going to stop doing what it does well, no matter what sort of criticism — perceived or not — might be out there.
“Look man, I want to score — I’ve tried to explain that to you guys — so if we score fast, … I’m OK with that. It still counts,” Saban said Saturday. “We’re not trying to change the way that we play.”