Tua Tagovailoa's Miami Dolphins start: He's prepared his entire life for this moment

by 24USATVOct. 31, 2020, 7 a.m. 27
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Tua Tagovailoa was 9 years old, and the young players were having a hard time holding onto his passes at the quarterback camp. So Tagovailoa joined a group with high school and college quarterbacks and receivers.

"It was 25- and 35-yard outs and he's putting the ball right on the money," said Vinny Passas, who ran the camp in Hawaii. "And then Tua was challenging the guys. Who would follow Tua's throws? They tried to chase him away. But he wanted to compete at the highest level. It was really impressive. He had a gift."

Years later, Passas would become Tagovailoa's quarterbacks coach at St. Louis School in Honolulu. On Sunday, Passas' greatest concern will be finding a television featuring Tagovailoa's first NFL start, as the Dolphins host the Rams at Hard Rock Stadium.

"I believe Tua has the ability to transcend the gravity of this moment," Passas said this week. "For Tua, I don't think there is any moment that has ever been too big for him. I think he is a special gift from God. There is something spiritual about him. He's got this aura about him, that he'll make the players around him and the Dolphins organization that much better."

This is the moment the Dolphins, and their long-suffering fans, have been waiting for. Tagovailoa was the fifth pick in the NFL draft, but simmered patiently for six games. Since Alabama's first game in 2019, against Duke 14 months ago, South Florida's focus has been centered on Tua, the Hawaiian-born lefty.

And now, it's finally here. It's time to unwrap the gift that was a result of a painful 2019 Dolphins season. It's time to witness all that Tua offers — charisma, accuracy, anticipation, touch and leadership.

Tua Time is here. And the Dolphins believe it will be spectacular.

On Sunday, it won't be easy. The Rams have the second-best defense in the NFL in points allowed. And Los Angeles features the most fearsome defensive player in the league, defensive tackle Aaron Donald.

But Miami drafted Tagovailoa because they believe he has both the physical characteristics, and the required intangibles, to put the franchise on his back and lift it to never-before-seen heights. Tua possesses a playmaker gene, gravitational personality and the ability to fit the football into windows most dare not try.

"He looks good," Dolphins cornerback Byron Jones said. "He’s zipping the ball. You can tell he’s confident back there."

"He’s looked great," Miami running back Myles Gaskin said. "He’s always looked great since Day 1."

Dolphins players have so much respect for benched veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. But they also appear to have been further energized by the prospects of opening a new book this week. It's a story they believe will include an incredible journey.

"Tua brings his own charisma," receiver Isaiah Ford said. "He is coming in and taking command and control of everything."

"Everything you want in a quarterback," receiver Preston Williams said.

There has been great fanfare about how well fellow first-rounders Joe Burrow (Bengals) and Justin Herbert (Chargers) have played, at times, in their rookie seasons. Lost a bit in the hysteria is the reality that they are 1-5-1, and 1-4, respectively, as starters.

Rookie quarterbacks generally struggle. Take for example, Jared Goff of the Rams, who the Dolphins face Sunday. As a rookie he was awful, with an 0-7 record, 63.6 passer rating, 54.6 completion percentage, five touchdowns and seven interceptions.

Two years later, Goff was a Pro Bowler leading his team to a Super Bowl.

Of the 11 first-round quarterbacks with a significant number of starts over the previous five seasons, all 11 had losing records as rookies. That group includes: Kyler Murray, Daniel Jones, Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen, Mitch Trubisky, Goff, Carson Wentz, Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota.

There are a few reasons Dolphins coach Brian Flores has tried to contain the Tua hype train, and this is one of them. It's not easy to find great success as a first-year starter. And if Tua is not immediately dominant, panic should not ensue.

"We’ll see," Flores said. "Tua’s shown himself pretty well in practice so far. He’s a young player, so he’s got a lot to learn. But he’s a sponge and he’s willing to learn and wants to get better. Those are really – normally when you have those (traits), that type of character, you can improve over the course of your career. Hopefully we’ll start that on Sunday."

Quarterbacks are more prepared than ever to succeed at an early age in the NFL. That's because they've thrown so many passes, including at quarterback camps, 7-on-7 competitions and in college practices and games.

Former NFL quarterback and analyst Trent Dilfer was Tagovailoa's personal quarterback coach leading into the draft. Dilfer said this week he believes Tagovailoa has the ability to lead the Dolphins from behind in the second half of games, and to bring fire to the huddle.

Dilfer believes Tagovailoa will play well, though he will make some rookie mistakes.

"He's one of the most special prospects we've ever seen," Dilfer said. "At the end of the day people will go, "Whoa. Whoa. He does some things that only a handful of guys can do.'"

There are so many reasons to watch Sunday's game, as Tagovailoa's insertion into the lineup has made the Dolphins nationally-relevant again. There will be a curiosity about how often Tagovailoa is hit, particularly because he hasn't been tackled since suffering a serious hip injury last November.

"It’s been a long time coming but that’s just the nature of the game," Tagovailoa said. "I don’t know what the hit is going to feel like. Every hit is different."

But once the first collision is out of the way (will it come from Aaron Donald?) the focus will largely shift to how much poise, composure and confidence Tagovailoa maintains throughout the game. The Dolphins have spoken about the importance of focusing more on a total team effort than hype.

But there's a reason Tua's debut has created so much excitement. Tua is a phenom. He is a prodigy. And there is every reason to believe he will be an NFL star. He also has a chance to deliver the type of exhilaration this town has not experienced since Dan Marino.

It's finally here. The moment Tua has prepared for his entire life. And those around him believe he's done everything he could to prepare himself for wild success.

"Those of us who know him from Hawaii, we know what we have in Tua as a person and a player," Passas, the high school coach, said. "Tua is living his dream. Through hard work for his entire life, he has reached this moment. And now, to share him with the world, is very special."

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