Taulia Tagovailoa wasted no time getting to work after stepping foot on campus at the University of Maryland in June 2020. He came to be the Terps’ quarterback, and he wanted to get to know his new teammates as soon as possible. So he asked a handful of his receivers if they wanted to meet up at the practice field and catch some passes.
Brian Cobbs got the message on Instagram. He wasn’t even in College Park at the time, but made the 45-minute drive up from Northern Virginia to pick Tagovailoa up and take him to the field. At this point in the COVID-19 pandemic, the Terps weren’t able to work out in an official team capacity; players had to arrange their own meetings. Tagovailoa did just that, and by the end of a practice session that included a couple other receivers, Cobbs felt a strong personal connection with his new signal-caller.
“He greeted me with a big smile on his face and he immediately started joking right then and there in the car,” Cobbs said. “I feel like he kind of has this infectious personality on whoever he’s around, and he always brings the best out of every situation.”
That personality makes Tagovailoa a natural fit at quarterback, the most high-profile position in sports and a role that has defined his family. Tagovailoa’s older brother, Tua, is the Miami Dolphins’ starting quarterback after a historic career at Alabama. Taulia took up the position later in youth than his brother did, but he has blossomed as a potential star in his own right. After a record-breaking high school career and a brief stint at Alabama, the younger Tagovailoa has entrenched himself as a potential program-changing talent at Maryland.
“He was destined to be a quarterback,” said Terps head coach Michael Locksley, who was previously the offensive coordinator at Alabama during Tua’s career and Taulia’s recruitment. Locksley has known the close-knit Tagovailoa family since Taulia was a high school freshman.
The sample size for Taulia Tagovailoa in college is still limited. The 5-foot-11, 205-pound quarterback has just four college starts and 134 passes under his belt; he threw seven touchdowns and seven interceptions as a sophomore at Maryland in 2020, and the Terps went 2-2 in his appearances.
But the high school numbers — more than 14,000 yards across four seasons in two different states — are impossible to ignore. So is the fact that the football program at Thompson High School in Alabaster, Ala., was 10-10 in the two seasons before Tagovailoa’s enrollment and 23-3 with him under center.
Those in and around the Maryland program believe Tagovailoa can be the star quarterback fans have waited for after nearly two decades of injury and futility at the position. He has shown the potential on the field and won over the locker room. With the Terps recruiting at their most consistently high level in years, Tagovailoa will look to put them over the top.
“I Had To Step Out Of My Bubble”
Taulia Tagovailoa’s football journey actually started as a center while growing up west of Honolulu on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. The Ewa Beach, Hawaii, native was a chunky kid who came in above the weight limit to play football with others his own age, so he played with Tua and snapped to his older brother.
Taulia’s uncle, Derek Faavi, was a center at Hawaii from 2001-2005 under head coach June Jones, so he was a natural mentor at the position. He taught Taulia how to snap and read fronts and linebacker levels.
When Tua left for high school, though, the middle school team needed a quarterback, so Taulia asked his father, Galu, if he could step in at the position. Taulia had been Tua’s throwing partner and always listened when Galu — who trained Tua to throw left-handed because he was a southpaw himself — gave the older son pointers. Taulia got the chance, and everything took off from there.
While Tua became a national star at the private Saint Louis School in Honolulu, Taulia was the varsity starter at Kapolei High School as a freshman and sophomore. In two seasons, Taulia amassed 6,703 passing yards and 64 touchdowns. The Hurricanes went 4-4 in his first season and 10-3 with a state semifinals appearance in his second.
In March 2017, Galu Tagovailoa announced to a Hawaii TV station that the entire family would move to Alabama to be closer to Tua, who had signed with the Crimson Tide as a five-star prospect and was set to begin his career in Tuscaloosa.
The younger siblings — including Taulia and sisters Taylor and Taysia — finished the school year at Thompson. Galu chose Thompson specifically in part because Mark Freeman, hired as the Warriors’ coach in 2015, had coached several successful quarterbacks and ran a pass-heavy system, but there were still plenty of unknowns.
“It was kind of just a leap of faith,” Taulia Tagovailoa said. “My parents prayed about it, and … they felt like there were better things for us in Alabama.”
The decision paid off. Thompson went 12-1 in 2017 and 11-2 in 2018, reaching the Class 7A state semifinals and finals, respectively. Tagovailoa threw for 3,684 yards as a junior and 3,820 as a senior, tossing a combined 71 touchdowns against just 13 interceptions. He is the only Alabama high school player ever with four 400-yard passing games.
While the Warriors have won back-to-back state titles since Tagovailoa moved on, Freeman still points to the quarterback’s arrival as the program’s turning point.
“The way he worked, his work ethic and dedication to being the best he could, it bled over to the other teammates on our team,” Freeman said. “You’d look up and he’d have 15, 20 kids staying late, coming in on days we were off, working together, just them. And it’s bled over, and it’s a blessing to our program now.”
The younger Tagovailoa was a consensus four-star prospect who drew offers from across the country, but everything always came back to joining Tua at Alabama. Taulia committed to the Crimson Tide in April 2018 and roomed with his older brother during the 2019 season. He credits Tua for letting him do his own thing and learn on his own but always being there when brotherly love was needed.
Alabama went 11-2 in 2019, but a loss to eventual national champion LSU spoiled the Tide’s chances at winning the SEC West. Tua’s storied college career ended with a dislocated hip in November, which forced Mac Jones into the starting lineup and moved Taulia into the backup role. The freshman made five appearances in 2019, completing 9 of 12 passes for 100 yards and one touchdown.
With Tua entering the NFL Draft after the season, Taulia had a choice to make. Would he remain at Alabama or chase an opportunity elsewhere? The family wanted him to stay, but given the Tide’s quarterback situation — Taulia didn’t feel like he was given much of a chance to compete with Jones in 2019, and Alabama had signed five-star Bryce Young in the 2020 class — he ultimately chose to break out of his brother’s shadow and forge his own path in College Park.
“I had a long talk with my family and they didn’t want me to leave, but it was just something I felt like, as a man getting older, I had to do,” Tagovailoa said. “I had to step out of my bubble, and Maryland was a spot [where] I felt that I could make a name for myself and build my brand.”
Setting The Example
Tagovailoa entered the NCAA transfer portal on May 8, 2020 and committed to Maryland May 15. This marked a reunion with Locksley, who was Alabama’s offensive coordinator when Taulia committed and presided over Tua’s dominant 2018 season before taking the head job in College Park.
“Once I saw that he went into the portal, I think because of the relationship I developed with the family and the trust they had in me, I hoped that we would have an opportunity to show him kind of my vision for where I thought Maryland could go, and his ability to come and help elevate it much like he did at Thompson as a quarterback,” Locksley said.
Locksley’s vision for the program certainly played a role in Tagovailoa’s decision, but perhaps more important was the familiarity that came with their long-standing relationship. This was especially pivotal given that Taulia was essentially moving away from his family for the first time, let alone amid a pandemic that prevented in-person visits. He and the family trusted Locksley, which allowed him to have faith in the decision.
“I think the biggest thing that sold me was that Locks is just a real person,” Tagovailoa said. “It’s kind of like family when it comes to Coach Locks, and the way he treats everyone is with tough love. And that’s the way I grew up, and so it kind of attracts me. He’s really [up-front] with you, he’s honest with you, and I think that’s the way it should always be.”
Maryland’s 2020 season was a bumpy ride. The Big Ten initially canceled its fall season in August, only to reverse course and start a nine-week slate in October. Tagovailoa struggled mightily — 94 yards, three interceptions — in the Terps’ season-opening, 43-3 loss to Northwestern.
But Tagovailoa bounced back in a big way against Minnesota. He threw for 394 yards and three touchdowns and ran for two scores in a 45-44 overtime win. He was dominant again the following week, racking up 282 yards and three more touchdown passes in a 35-19 win at Penn State.
Then came a COVID-19 outbreak within the program that forced the cancellation of two games, and Maryland wasn’t at full strength when it returned at Indiana. Tagovailoa threw three interceptions against one score in a 27-11 loss. Two weeks later, Tagovailoa was held out for medical reasons in what turned out to be Maryland’s final game of the season, a 27-24 overtime loss to Rutgers. The Terps finished the season 2-3, playing just five of the nine games on their schedule.
Locksley recalled the week between the Northwestern and Minnesota games, when Tagovailoa left no stone unturned in his preparation. He was in the position room well past 11 p.m. or sometimes midnight, watching film from the loss and from that day’s practice. This became the norm all season, no matter how Tagovailoa performed.
“When he didn’t play well, he didn’t take it casually and then he put it upon himself to do the little things, the extra things, better than what he did the week before,” Locksley said. “And that’s what you would want from every player. So I think he set that example by the way he worked.”
Maryland changed offensive coordinators this offseason, replacing Scottie Montgomery with Dan Enos — who, like Locksley, was on Alabama’s staff during Tagovailoa’s recruitment. That familiarity helped with the already-smooth transition into an offensive scheme that’s now even closer to what Locksley ran for Tua at Alabama.
“Taulia is the type of quarterback that, in my mind, it’s very imperative to put him in a system that fits his strengths,” Freeman said. “He’s going to extend plays, he’s going to do some things that might not be the ordinary quarterback responses to things … and I think if your offense has that built in, and you know that he’s going to make some great plays, he’s going to be highly, highly successful.”
The junior quarterback will have plenty of weapons around him in 2021. Maryland brings back each of its top five wide receivers — Dontay Demus Jr., Rakim Jarrett, Brian Cobbs, Jeshaun Jones and Darryl Jones — as well as tight end Chigoziem Okonkwo, who was held out of the 2020 season. Senior Tayon Fleet-Davis anchors the backfield alongside sophomores Isaiah Jacobs and Peny Boone. And while the offensive line has some unknown quantities, Maryland returns plenty of talent on the defensive side as well.
Tagovailoa says his goal for the 2021 season is to guide the Terps to a Big Ten championship. It sounds ludicrous, sure — Maryland hasn’t finished with a winning conference record since switching leagues in 2014, and Ohio State shows no signs of slowing down after capturing the crown four straight seasons. But if Tagovailoa doesn’t believe such a breakout is possible, nobody will.
Catalyst Of A Turnaround?
There’s certainly no paucity of football history in College Park. Maryland has nine ACC titles under its belt — third most in league history behind Clemson and Florida State — and one national title, in 1953. But only one of those conference championships has come since 1985, and Maryland has just five winning seasons in the last 17 years and none in the last six.
The last extended run of success in College Park came from 2001-2003, the first three years of head coach Ralph Friedgen’s tenure. Maryland captured the ACC crown in 2001 and finished 10-2 after an Orange Bowl loss. The Terps went 11-3 in 2002 and won the Peach Bowl. They went 10-3 in 2003 and won the Gator Bowl. They had future pros across the roster — many of whom were recruited by Locksley, then the running backs coach — and steady quarterback play from Shaun Hill and then Scott McBrien.
“Growing up here in the area … we would go to Maryland games not really expecting them to win — we were just going to have a good time and run around the field and throw the football in the parking lot and tailgate,” said McBrien, who threw 34 touchdowns and 16 interceptions in two seasons as Maryland’s starter (2002-2003). “But [the early-2000s teams] really put Maryland back on the map. That was a statement. That was something that we’re proud of and that we’ll always be proud of for the rest of our lives.”
From 2004 on, Maryland has trotted out 23 different quarterbacks in 17 predominantly underwhelming seasons. The lowlights include 2012, when all four scholarship quarterbacks suffered ACL injuries and a freshman linebacker started the final four games, and 2015, when the group threw 29 interceptions, the most by any FBS team this century.
The program has been seeking a savior, someone to reverse all these woes, for years now. Dwayne Haskins committed in May 2015 with Locksley on staff, but flipped to Ohio State when Locksley wasn’t retained. Four-star signees Kasim Hill and Lance LeGendre weren’t the answer. Neither was Virginia Tech transfer Josh Jackson.
But Tagovailoa has already given Maryland fans tangible reasons to believe he could be the one. He’s the only Terps quarterback to win even a share of Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week since Maryland joined the league — and he did it two weeks in a row. He has a chance to provide a stability the program hasn’t had at the position in nearly two decades, with potential NFL-caliber upside to boot.
“I really do believe that if you’ve got somebody under center that can kind of handle the mental aspect of it and one who’s got the talent, your football team can go a long way,” McBrien said. “And I think we’ve got that here with ‘Lia on this Maryland team.”
Freeman pointed out that Class 7A in Alabama is an incredibly competitive league with plenty of established teams as well, and Tagovailoa still led a drastic, immediate turnaround at Thompson. Those who know him see no reason he can’t do something similar in college. Even in the Big Ten. Even at Maryland.
“He definitely can be the piece — and I feel he definitely will be the piece — that really turns this thing around,” Cobbs said.
Faith, Family And Football
The Tagovailoa family comes from a Samoan culture that places immense value on faith, family and respect. The Tagovailoas are incredibly close — “when you saw one Tagovailoa, you saw them all,” Locksley recalled about getting to know them. At the center of everything is a deep Christian faith, which has been a guiding light in so many family decisions.
“[Faith] is everything for me and my family,” Tagovailoa said. “I mean, just looking at the move to Alabama from Hawaii, we had to step out in faith. My parents had to step out in faith and just trust God. I feel like you can only do things like that if you’re really strong in your walk with God. My faith and football, that’s the only way I feel comfortable, confident with anything.”
It took faith to leave home. It took faith to move to Alabama, which was nowhere near any of the Tagovailoas’ family or friends. It took faith to choose Thompson, which hadn’t been competitive on the gridiron in years.
“I think they did have faith that it was a good place for ‘Lia, it was a good place for the family, [which was] a name identity in Alabama with what Tua was going to do,” Freeman said. “Our community is a close community, and I think the people in Alabaster kind of gave the Tagovailoas a chance to live and be a part of the community without just bombarding them with all these different things. I think the Lord put them in a good place and it worked out great for everybody.”
Faith, of course, goes beyond its religious and spiritual definitions. Locksley defines faith as “belief without evidence.” It’s a confidence that doing the right things in the right ways will pay off, even if the results aren’t always within one’s control. Cobbs, a man of deep faith himself, has that confidence in Maryland’s process.
“I know as a team, we’ve been putting in the work. We’ve been showing some glimpses of light at times, and then sometimes we’re back in the darkness,” Cobbs said. “So it’s like, we know that the darkness is for a reason and we know that we’ve been putting in the work, so better days are sure to come, and there’s no doubt about that. So there’s no worry in my mind that we will turn Maryland football around.”
That confidence and that comfort are central to Tagovailoa’s presence in Maryland’s team facility. He’s a natural leader, as he’s shown since that first meeting with his new receivers. The upbeat way in which he carries himself rubs off on his teammates and creates a positive atmosphere. And his talent at the quarterback position makes life easier for those who share the field with him.
There’s no telling what happens to Tagovailoa, Locksley and Maryland in 2021 and beyond. But there’s plenty of reason to believe.
“Since he’s been here on campus and stepped foot here in College Park, he’s had a tremendous impact on the players and coaches and people around the program,” Locksley said. “To me, that’s the definition of what leadership is, and that’s what we feel like we have in Taulia.”
Top Photo Credit: Courtesy of Maryland Athletics
Terps Starting Quarterbacks Since 2000
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