TUSCALOOSA — Even the often-dour Nick Saban can’t help but smile around him.
Whether it’s the spectacular passing plays that, as senior tight end Hale Hentges said, makes “you just drop your jaw and say, ‘Wow!’ ” or just his infectious smile and childlike radiance around his teammates, Alabama sophomore quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has infused a level of joyfulness into the Crimson Tide’s usual businesslike approach.
So much so that it’s even affecting the team’s no-nonsense head coach.
After Tagovailoa left the field less than a minute into the fourth quarter after tossing his fifth touchdown — and school-record sixth total score — in a 52-21 win over rival Auburn two weeks ago, Saban approached his young starter on the sideline for a subtle fist bump.
But a fist bump wasn’t enough for the Hawaiian Heisman Trophy finalist, who immediately wrapped both arms around Saban neck and gave his 67-year-old coach a confident hug.
And that wasn’t the first time the two have hugged this season. In the closing seconds of a 29-0 win at LSU, an elated Tagovailoa playfully put out both arms as if begging for a hug, to which Saban complied, a brief smile emerging amid the embrace.
Of course, Tagovailoa wanted more, later interrupting Saban’s postgame interview with Crimson Tide Sports Network sideline reporter Chris Stewart for another.
“I need one more hug,” Tagovailoa said, ignoring his coach’s extended hand in order to properly embrace Saban. “I need a hug. Thank you, coach.”
“Yeah, that was good, huh?” Saban answered, lightly patting his quarterback on the back as a wide smile spread across his face.
There’s been plenty of smiles to go around this season as Tagovailoa has helped guide No. 1 Alabama (13-0) to a fifth-straight College Football Playoff appearance amid one of the most dominating seasons in college football history.
Averaging a plus-33 point differential this season, the Crimson Tide became just the second college football team ever to outscore every opponent in its first 12 games by more than 20 points, joining the 1888 Yale squad that outscored teams 694-0 during its 13-0 national championship season.
“Being on a team is a lot like being in a family — sometimes things go well in your family and everybody is happy, and sometimes things happen that aren't so good and you all have to persevere together,” Saban said. “When some of the best players on your team are really good guys, that always makes for good team chemistry."
Added Tagovailoa: “We’re all having fun. I think it’s when you’re executing at such a high level you’re going to have fun.”
For Tagovailoa, that happy-go-lucky approach is simply a byproduct of working alongside such talented teammates.
“I’m like a kid in a candy shop. It’s awesome,” Tagovailoa said. “I can go to the right, I can get a Snickers bar if I wanted to. I can go to the left, I get some Skittles. It’s really fun for me as a quarterback to be behind some first-round draft picks.”
In his first season as the starter, Tagovailoa ranks second in program history with 3,353 passing yards — just 134 shy of record holder Blake Sims’ 3,487 yards in 2014 — to go along with a school-record 37 touchdowns to just four interceptions. Tagovailoa’s 67.7 percent (199-of-294) completion percentage this season also ranks second all-time behind Greg McElroy’s 70.9 mark in 2010.
“I mean it’s fun, especially when you’re accomplishing the things we’re accomplishing,” receiver Henry Ruggs III said. “Just working as hard as we work and knowing the outcome that we want on the season. You kind of can’t get sidetracked, so you just keep focusing and maintain the things that we’ve been doing.”
Tagovailoa, who also holds the single-season school record with 42 combined touchdowns (passing and rushing), has spearheaded Alabama’s most prolific offense on record, helping establish new single-season program records for points scored (623), total offense (6,859 yards), offensive touchdowns (77) and passing yards (4,231).
“I just think he’s been so consistent the whole year. His stats kind of speak for themselves,” senior center Ross Pierschbacher said when asked about Tagovailoa’s Heisman chances after the Auburn game. “I’d say he’s the best all-around player. He’s a fun teammate to be around and he deserves the Heisman. I don’t know if there’s just one moment that makes him the favorite, that’s for (the voters) to decide.”
Tagovailoa is one of three finalists — along with Ohio State sophomore quarterback Dwayne Haskins and Oklahoma junior quarterback Kyler Murray — invited to New York City for this weekend’s annual Heisman Trophy festivities, highlighted by Saturday evening’s announcement at the PlayStation Theatre in Times Square.
The odds-on favorite to win the award for much of the regular season, Tagovailoa saw his Heisman stock drop considerably after a less-than-stellar 164-yard passing effort in Saturday’s SEC Championship Game, during which he played through a high ankle sprain that required corrective surgery Monday.
But while many nationally have jumped onto Murray’s rapidly ascending Heisman bandwagon, those most affected by Tagovailoa’s fun-loving personality continue to prop up their favorite candidate.
"I think the Heisman Trophy really indicates someone who means the most to his team, and what Tua’s done for us this year, (so it) seems to me that he’d deserve it,” Hentges said.