Taulia Tagovailoa was never expected to be the starting quarterback of a Power Five program. He wasn’t supposed to throw for over 250 passing yards per game on a 61.5% clip across four showings to be named an All-Big Ten honorable mention for Maryland. All of his family pictured the Ewa Beach, Hawaii, native as the one who would be snapping the ball, not the one calling plays.
“I never really thought that Lia would be where he’s at today,” his father, Galu, told Yahoo Sports. “From a center to a quarterback.”
Tagovailoa started playing football at age 7 as a center for his brother, Tua, now the starting quarterback for the Miami Dolphins. The siblings’ uncle, Derek Faavi, played center for the University of Hawaii alongside Colt Brennan under head coach June Jones, and Taulia, who was overweight as a child, wanted to follow in his shoes.
So, the brothers teamed up on the field together for the family’s program, the Ewa Beach Sabers, with one leading the offense and the other manning the trenches against boys at least two years his senior. Taulia tagged along when Galu went to do extra training with Tua, soaking everything in as he practiced snapping the ball and filled in as a throwing partner when need be. And both started taking notes in the film room at a young age.
When Tua eventually left for high school, the middle school team found itself in need of a quarterback. Another uncle, pastor Tuli Amosa, who coached the group, envisioned the younger Tagovailoa taking over as the play caller, thus beginning Taulia’s journey from center to quarterback — an extremely rare position switch, to say the least.
“I was very happy. Every center wants to be a quarterback or be the receiver or something like that,” Taulia told Yahoo Sports.
The transition to do so certainly wasn’t an easy task though, both from a physical and mental standpoint.
“‘Dad, I thought quarterback was easy, but I didn’t know it was this tough,’” Galu recalled his son telling him as they started training. He said there were times when Taulia, not even a teenager yet, considered going back to playing lineman, to just be a normal player.
That’s when Galu explained the importance of the position and the responsibility it holds. The responsibility to set an example for teammates. The responsibility to take a team on one’s back. The responsibility to lead. “If this is not what you want, you got to let me know,” he told his son.
“Alright Dad, I want to play [quarterback],” Taulia said after thinking it over. “I want to do it.”
Determined to step up to the challenge, Taulia committed himself to a full body transformation.
Maryland running back Challen Faamatau, a close family friend, remembers seeing Taulia take the extra time to go running to lose weight whenever he’d be hanging out at the Tagovailoa’s house with Tua — Taulia ran every single day. He’d lift and do other workouts to shed pounds during the offseason as well.
Big family cookouts, a huge part of Polynesian culture, were where the real sacrifice came into play though.
“I just had to look away and just enjoy my salad while everyone’s eating barbecue and stuff like that,” he said with a laugh. “But it all paid off.”
Taulia aspired to mirror his brother’s success under center, often turning to Tua for help. The better he got, the more competitive the extra practice sessions became. Whether it was footwork drills, throwing reps, running exercises, or anything in between, Taulia tried to outdo Tua.
“There’s only one Tua,” Galu often reminded his son. “There’s only got to be one Taulia.”
The quarterback still seeks out his older brother’s advice to this day, with Tua often FaceTiming during film sessions with Maryland head coach Mike Locksley. That close bond and their support for each other hasn’t changed, but Taulia has now established himself in his own right.
The Tagovailoa family moved to Alabama to be close to Tua when he started his collegiate career under Nick Saban in 2017. For Taulia, this meant starting his junior season at Thompson High School, which plays in what is considered one of the toughest conferences in the country.
“I didn’t know the meaning of football until I got to Alabama,” Taulia said. “It's a different type of a grind and football is life over there. So I think I'm very blessed to experience that, and the hard work that I went through I'll carry with me wherever I go.”
The Warriors hadn’t won more than five games or finished better than fifth in their region in over a decade, but in his first season the junior led Thompson to the Class 7A Region 3 championship and the state semifinals. The next year, they made the state championship.
Taulia earned first-team All-State honors in both seasons, during which he became the only player in state history to throw for at least four 400-yard games. He ended his high school career as a four-year starter with 14,207 yards and 135 touchdowns, along with 11 on the ground.
“When he wants to do something, he’s gonna do whatever it takes,” Faamatau told Yahoo Sports. “He don’t care how he feels, he’s gonna just do what he’s gonna do.”
The impressive high school showing earned Taulia a coveted scholarship to play for the Crimson Tide alongside his brother in 2019; but when Tua left for the draft, it was time for Taulia to continue trying to find his own identity. So, he transferred to Maryland to play under Locksley, who was an offensive coordinator at Alabama from 2017-18.
Upon his transfer, Taulia was once again met with an unusual transition as he tried to establish chemistry with his teammates in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and an unprecedented season filled with pauses.
Nearly every day over the summer, Taulia texted his wide receivers in hopes of working out. They found empty fields to practice different routes and get reps in together — so much so that Locksley had to remind them that some facilities were still off limits. The group still does the same after every practice.
But regardless of whether the Terps have practice or not, teammates said Taulia gets to the team facility around 6:30 a.m. to study film and meet with coaches, and he often doesn’t leave until nearly midnight. The shift from center to quarterback helped him establish a certain kind of toughness and work ethic that hasn’t ceased.
“[He’s] one of those guys that treats playing quarterback as a profession,” Locksley said “He's right along with some of the other great ones that I've had a chance to be around in how he approaches the game.”
Taulia struggled at times in the shortened season, throwing three interceptions in his debut against Northwestern, and another trio against Indiana with most of the offensive starters out due to COVID-19 protocols. He attributed most of those mistakes to trying too hard to make big plays instead of taking what the defense was giving him.
However, in the team’s two wins (they only played five games, one of which he was inactive) against Minnesota and Penn State, Taulia showed signs of just how special of a player he could become.
In the two wins, he completed 72.1% of his passes for 676 yards and six touchdowns, along with 72 yards and two touchdowns on the run — one of which secured an overtime win over the Golden Gophers.
Following those victories, Taulia bought all of his offensive linemen Dunkin’ Donuts as a show of gratitude. “I gotta treat them,” he said. After all, he knows the grind that comes with playing in the trenches from firsthand experience.
“I never thought [Taulia] would be what [Taulia] is now,” Galu said. “His work that he put in showed that he wanted to get somewhere farther.”
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