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Tua Tagovailoa ready to lead Bama past its winter of discontent

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So maybe Tua Tagovailoa was giving the company line when he said he’s still fighting for his starting job at Alabama. Jalen Hurts has moved on to Oklahoma, of course, and with all due respect to his presumptive replacement as the No. 2 quarterback, Mac Jones, the level of competition just isn’t the same. Paul Tyson and Tagovailoa’s younger brother, Taulia, are solid prospects, but as true freshmen aren’t exactly nipping at his heels.

But don’t confuse Tagovailoa’s suddenly secure footing with a sense of comfort. Unlike a year ago, he didn’t return home to Hawaii during the offseason to relax. He didn’t bother to decompress at all, in fact. Instead, he said, he went right back to work. During spring break, he stayed on campus and kept grinding.

There are almost five months between this weekend’s spring game (Saturday, 2 p.m., ESPN2) and the start of the season, and already there’s urgency in the star quarterback’s voice.

“It’s not a time to have fun right now,” he said.

It doesn’t seem to matter that he threw for 3,966 yards and 43 touchdowns last season, or that he led his team to a 14-1 record, or that he finished as the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy behind Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray. The way it ended still seems to be eating at him.

In title games — the College Football Playoff National Championship and the SEC championship, in particular — Tagovailoa struggled. There’s no other way to put it; after averaging a 96.1 QB rating during the regular season, he failed to break the 60-point mark in either game.

There was the matter of his health, of course. Against Georgia in the SEC championship, he injured his ankle and completed just 10 of 25 passes for 164 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. If it weren’t for Hurts coming off the bench and leading the come-from-behind victory, Alabama might have been shut out of the playoff.

But Tagovailoa’s underwhelming performance against Clemson is harder to make sense of. He had a month to recuperate and in the semifinal game against Oklahoma he appeared to be fine. But a week later, on the game’s biggest stage against Alabama’s playoff rival Clemson, he started out with a pick-six and never fully recovered. He wound up throwing for 295 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions in the 44-16 loss, which was the largest defeat of coach Nick Saban’s career at Alabama.

When asked whether he had a chance to reflect on his wild ride last season, Tagovailoa said he couldn’t because “a lot of the bad still stands there.”

“The biggest takeaway for me from last year would be the things I didn’t correct throughout the little games, throughout the games where we played teams that weren’t up to our competition, you know,” he said. “We kind of made a lot of mistakes and we could get away with it. It ended up catching up to us and I think that’s something big that we can all take from it as a team.”

Put another way: “We have to do things a lot different than we did last year.”

In Saban parlance, that means reestablishing what the 67-year-old coach calls the “Alabama factor.” If you haven’t heard that phrase repeated or seen it tagged on social media, give it time because it’s picking up steam. What it means is hard to pin down — responsibility, accountability and avoiding distractions are a few things Saban singled out — but clearly it’s a nod to the intangibles that he felt were missing last season.

And it’s not just players who are being held accountable. This offseason, Saban cleaned house on his coaching staff, adding seven new assistants, including both coordinators. He brought back Steve Sarkisian as offensive coordinator two years after he was on staff at Alabama during the 2016 season, first as an analyst and then as OC for one game after Lane Kiffin left for FAU.

Saban, who rarely has his hiring practices second-guessed, received criticism after bringing back Sarkisian. Many fans still haven’t forgiven the way Sarkisian called plays in the loss to Clemson in the 2016 national title game, nor were they impressed with his two seasons in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons. Saban defended the decision, saying the program was “really fortunate to get a guy that was offered the Arizona Cardinals offensive coordinator job to come to Alabama.”

Regardless of how you grade the hire, one person stands to benefit most from the addition of Sarkisian: Tagovailoa.

There was nothing Saban could do about losing former OC Mike Locksley to Maryland, but bringing in Sarkisian at least made the transition easy for his quarterback, who already had a relationship with the coach going back several years. USC was Tagovailoa’s dream school growing up and it was Sarkisian, as head coach at USC, who recruited him early on and offered him a scholarship. Tagovailoa called him a “people person” who “makes it a very easy learning environment.”

What’s more, Sarkisian is going to challenge Tagovailoa to expand his game. Whereas last season’s offense leaned heavily on the run-pass option, Sarkisian will ask Tagovailoa to do more full-field progression reads. Rather than reading and reacting, Tagovailoa will need to scan the entire field to find the open man.

And if Tagovailoa is being critical of his play last season — and it’s clear he has no problem doing that — it’s that his eyes moved too fast at times. He’d get through his progressions so quickly that he’d miss things. Keeping his eyes in tune with his feet, he said, is one of the biggest things he’d like to improve upon this offseason.

(The good news: When he scans the field, he’ll see that Henry Ruggs III, DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle and Biletnikoff Award winner Jerry Jeudy are all back at receiver.)

But the area in which Alabama might need Tagovailoa to develop most is leadership. He acknowledged it himself: Hurts is gone. So are veterans Damien Harris and Ross Pierschbacher. This is a new team. This is his team and he can’t simply lead by example anymore.

If the message he has delivered this spring is any indication, he’s on board. The way he spoke about fighting for his job sounded eerily similar to Saban through the years. The same goes for how he has focused on what he needs to do better, rather than what he did so well.

The so-called “Alabama factor” is Saban and his belief that no job is safe and nothing is perfect. And if that idea had fallen by the wayside, then the loss to Clemson was the ultimate wake-up call.

For Tagovailoa & Co., there is no victory lap, no time to reflect. There’s only the work ahead and the climb back to the mountaintop.

EltasZone Sportswriters, Sports Analysts, Opinion columnists, editorials and op-eds. Analysis from The Zone Team