Making the jump from high school to college can be difficult. While some prospects are able to transition from the moment they step on campus, others need more time. Getting time to adjust and get their feet grounded can make a huge difference, and we have seen a few of those players make that leap this season.
Here is a look at a few players from the 2016 class who have shown a great deal of improvement from their first year on campus to this past season.
Fisher was a three-star out of Texas and took a redshirt his first year. He started to make noise with his play in practice that first season but didn't see any game action. He burst onto the scene this season for Northwestern, accumulating 113 total tackles, 30 of which came in two games against Michigan State and Nebraska. He came in at No. 34 for total tackles among all FBS defenders, and Fisher is the only freshman -- redshirt or true -- ranked in the top 50 in total tackles. His leap was tremendous, and it seems as though he is still on the way up.
Tate was a four-star, dual-threat prospect out of California with a good-sized offer list who chose Arizona as his landing spot. He is an interesting player because he was so explosive for Arizona but didn't open the season as the starter his second year. It took Brandon Dawkins' injury to give Tate the time to show what he can do, and he put on a show the rest of the way. He earned four straight Pac-12 Player of the Week awards, ran for 327 yards against Colorado, threw for 14 touchdowns and ran for 12 more. Tate ranked fourth in quarterback rushing yards behind Army's Ahmad Bradshaw, 2016 Heisman winner Lamar Jackson and Navy's Zach Abey. He did all of that while attempting only nine passes and running the ball 10 times through the first four games.
Williams was an ESPN 300 prospect, ranked No. 268 overall, but he was the No. 20 cornerback in the class. He redshirted his first season at LSU and thought he had a chance to make an impact his second season, but he wasn't entirely sure how much time he would see. He ended up playing in 13 games for the Tigers, accumulating six interceptions and 11 pass breakups on the year. Those six interceptions were good for fourth among all FBS defenders, and he did it in his first season on the field. With fellow corners Donte Jackson and Kevin Tolliver off to the NFL, it's safe to say Williams should see his role continue to increase into next season.
Milton was a two-star prospect out of Hawaii, who decommitted from Hawaii in favor of Scott Frost at UCF. Milton played in 10 games his true freshman season and threw for 1,983 yards with 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions. This past season, Milton broke the program record for passing yards in a season, throwing for 4,037 yards, 37 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He tied Daunte Culpepper and Ryan Schneider for the most 300-yard passing games in a season at UCF with seven, and he also ran for 497 yards and seven touchdowns. Milton was named the American Athletic Conference offensive player of the year and was a Walter Camp award semifinalist. His season was remarkable, as was his improvement from Year 1.
Fant was a three-star prospect out of Omaha, Nebraska, who spurned his home-state team and chose Iowa. He played his true freshman season and had nine catches for 70 yards with one touchdown. His impact was minimal that first season, but fast-forward to 2017, and Fant saw his role increase. He led all tight ends in touchdowns with 11, as well as yards per catch with 16.5 yards. Fant earned third-team All-Big Ten honors and showed that he is a threat in the offense for the Hawkeyes.
Bush was the No. 181-ranked prospect out of high school, but some questioned his size and if it would translate to the college game. At 5-foot-11, he wasn't considered big enough, especially in the Big Ten, to make an impact. In his first season, Bush saw action on special teams and played in seven games at linebacker. He tallied 12 total tackles as a freshman but showed flashes of his ability. This past season, Bush earned a starting role and accumulated 102 total tackles and 5.5 sacks. He was Michigan's leading tackler during the regular season, named a third-team AP All-American and a first-team All-Big Ten selection by the coaches. Bush has shown that his size is not a limitation and that he has grasped the aggressive nature of defensive coordinator Don Brown's defense.
Fitzpatrick was well-coached in high school, a four-star prospect out of Michigan, but he redshirted his first season. His second year, he played in 12 games and notched 45 receptions for 699 yards and nine touchdowns. Despite having more experience in front of him, Fitzpatrick led all Louisville receivers in touchdowns and was second in reception yards on the season. With quarterback Lamar Jackson off to the NFL, having a more experienced Fitzpatrick will help whomever takes over at quarterback for the Cardinals.
Harris might be one of the better players no one knows about. A three-star out of Louisiana, Harris played in nine games his first season at Arkansas. He had 37 total tackles to go with one sack and was named to the coaches' SEC All-freshman team. This past season, Harris took a giant step forward and had 115 total tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks on the season. He was tied for 20th in total tackles per game with 9.6 and earned second-team All-SEC by the AP. His team didn't fare well, going 4-8, which likely had to do with the lack of attention on Harris. If he continues to ascend, he could become a bigger name nationally.
Recruiting rankings aren’t an exact science, so every year, as prospects make their way through the college ranks, we see a few surprise stars pop up. These players weren’t highly touted in high school but have now made names for themselves at their respective colleges.
Here is a look at a few of those surprise stars from the 2015 recruiting class.
RB Josh Adams
Adams was a three-star from Pennsylvania who didn’t have much fanfare to his recruitment. He had offers from Penn State, Notre Dame, Wisconsin and Boston College, among others, but wound up choosing the Irish. Adams had productive 2015 and 2016 seasons but came on strong in 2017, rushing for 1,430 yards and nine touchdowns. He ran himself into the Heisman conversation at one point in the season and eventually declared early for the NFL draft. Going from the No. 87-ranked running back to early entrant in the NFL draft is a big leap.
WR David Sills
Sills entered the recruiting scene early, when he was offered by USC’s Lane Kiffin as a 13-year-old quarterback. Sills committed to the Trojans at the time but eventually decommitted and wound up with West Virginia and Dana Holgorsen. He started his career as a quarterback for the Mountaineers but switched to wide receiver. He showed promise in the 2016 season and took off in 2017, recording 980 yards and 18 touchdowns and making it into the list of finalists for the Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation’s best wide receiver. His going from the No. 26-ranked pocket-passing quarterback to one of the best receivers in college football was certainly a surprise.
QB Lamar Jackson
Jackson had a good number of offers in high school but was only a three-star recruit and the No. 17 dual-threat quarterback in the 2015 class. He took visits to Nebraska, Louisville, Florida and Mississippi State, among others, and of course chose the Cardinals. Since then, all he has done is win a Heisman trophy and accumulate 9,043 career passing yards and 4,132 rushing yards to go with 119 total touchdowns. He declared for the NFL draft and left his stamp on the college football world as one of its most prolific quarterbacks.
RB Saquon Barkley
Barkley was an ESPN 300 prospect in the 2015 class, but he was ranked No. 291 overall and the No. 24-ranked running back. He was a sought-after recruit, but he has turned himself into a first-round draft pick with big-play ability. At Penn State, Barkley had 3,843 career rushing yards and 43 rushing touchdowns. He continued to show his versatility by racking up more and more receiving yards, tallying 1,195 yards and eight touchdowns. Barkley is likely to go early in this year’s NFL draft. Although he was a ranked prospect, there weren’t many who thought he was the best back in his class out of high school.
S Justin Reid
Reid was a 6-foot-2, 193-pound safety out of Louisiana in high school, ranked as the No. 73 safety in the country. As a three-star recruit, Reid had some bigger offers, including LSU, Oklahoma, Notre Dame and TCU to go with Stanford. He entertained LSU, Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Texas Tech but ultimately chose to play for the Cardinal. During his time at Stanford, Reid turned himself into a first-team All-Pac-12, a second-team All-American and a semifinalist for the Thorpe Award. He had five interceptions this season, as well as 94 total tackles and six pass breakups. Reid was one of the best safeties in the country and declared early for the NFL draft, following in his brother Eric’s footsteps.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Imagine if Tua Tagovailoa, star of the College Football Playoff championship for Alabama, returned next fall for a repeat championship run. As a freshman.
Or if it was fairly commonplace for veterans with redshirt seasons to burn to come back from offseason injuries to assume key roles on conference-championship weekend.
A proposal sponsored by the ACC calls for players who participate in four games or fewer to retain their redshirt status. The NCAA Division I Council is scheduled to vote on the measure in April. If approved, then ratified by the board of directors, freshmen nationally may test the waters in football as soon as this fall without exhausting a season of eligibility.
The redshirt rule would replace the standard currently in place to receive a medical hardship. It represents a dramatic change for college football. And it appears to possess significant support. This week at the NCAA convention, student-athletes and administrators voiced approval for the proposal, which previously received the widespread endorsement of coaches.
“I don’t think it’s right for a young man to lose a redshirt over what may be a need for a team, in a competitive situation, to have to find a player to play,” said Miami athletic director Blake James, chair of the DI Council.
“Whether it’s a bowl game or a game late in the season, personally, I struggle with why we would take away the redshirt.”
Tagovailoa, the QB who led the Crimson Tide from behind to beat Georgia last week, played in eight games as a true freshman. Alabama won four of those contests by 38 points or more, and in four of his mop-up appearances, Tagovailoa threw for 64 yards or fewer.
Surely, Alabama could have devised a plan in which he was available only against LSU and Auburn, perhaps, and for two of three possible postseason games.
The creation of such a secret weapon, so to speak, is not the intent of the redshirt proposal.
“That’s such an exceptional circumstance,” said Northwestern offensive guard Tommy Doles, a member of the NCAA’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. “I’m primarily looking at this from the perspective of who it’s going to affect. Maybe it’s worth it for one or two of those situations because of all the benefit it brings.”
So whom would it affect? Coaches and legislators believe the passage of this proposal would enhance player safety. An established player may feel less pressure to perform while injured if a healthy backup -- otherwise in the midst of a redshirt season -- was available.
Evidence exists, said Todd Berry, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association, that players who compete in games are more engaged academically and socially.
“This is a vote for the student-athletes,” Berry said. “This is fair for them. The old rule is archaic. The old rule was put in place when we had 105 scholarships and 10 games.”
Scholarships are capped today at 85. Georgia played 15 games in the recently finished season. Two years ago, injuries forced West Virginia to strip the redshirt of freshman running back Martell Pettaway in Week 13. He rushed for 181 yards to help the Mountaineers beat Iowa State and played a week later in the regular-season finale.
But in the WVU bowl game, with older players back from injury, Pettaway received just three carries.
“It’s just a shame to waste a year of eligibility for that,” said Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, who sits on the DI Council and chairs the Football Oversight Committee.
No doubt, fans would love the added element of strategy and increased freshman participation. So what’s the downside? Well, as Coastal Carolina safety Nick Clark explained in Indianapolis, redshirt seasons are important for many players.
“That’s really a time for some players to focus solely on their training,” Clark said.
Coaches may struggle to resist the temptation to play redshirts -- and few competitors would turn down the chance to play in order to stay on a workout plan designed to provide long-term benefits.
It would complicate the roles of strength and nutrition staffs and may lead some players to rush back from lengthy rehab periods.
“I think it’s got a lot of merit,” Bowlsby said, “but there are some hooks in it. I don’t know how comfortable people are with, suddenly in the last three games and a bowl game, you go from being a guy who’s on the scout team to [a prominent role].”
Berry reiterated the logic that most redshirts would see action against a team’s four weakest opponents, not its four strongest.
When the next Tagovailoa arrives and preserves his eligibility by playing in just four games, even if he leads his team to the national title, Berry said, he’s got no problem.
Anyway, try to find a freshman with the ability to make a giant impact in four games or fewer who’s likely to stay in college more than four seasons. And even in such a scenario, who loses?
“It’s about giving coaches help with managing their rosters,” Penn State AD Sandy Barbour said. “We’re trying to incentivize students to stay the course. And giving them the ability to have some playing time, unrelated to an injury, I think it probably is a healthy thing.”
It may be coming this year to a stadium near you.
And as for transfers ...
Less likely to pass this year is a one-time transfer exception for undergraduate football and basketball players. The transfer working group will meet in February to continue plans for a proposal to bring uniformity and reform to transfer rules. The group’s priorities include the implementation of increased penalties for tampering and the elimination of tying scholarships to transfer eligibility.
A conversation about removing the requirement for players to sit out one year after transferring has received more publicity, but it has yet to gain traction even from student-athletes.
“Hearing feedback from coaches, they feel as if they would have to constantly recruit kids, even on their rosters,” said Noah Knight, who sits on the transfer working group and plays basketball for Missouri-Kansas City.
Coaches fear the one-time transfer exception, even if tied to academic standards, would create a mercenary environment in football and basketball.
“Our job now is to get people to lessen the anxiety and take a deep breath,” said South Dakota State AD Justin Sell, chair of the transfer group.
Nevertheless, a proposal, with or without the transfer exception, may be in the works soon. The council heard a report Tuesday from Sell and asked the NCAA Division I Board of Directors for flexibility to fast-track potential legislation.
“The goal right now is to find a uniform approach that is best for all students involved,” Miami’s James said, “and for the institutions and the integrity of the programs.”
We're still more than seven months away from games being played, but at least we now have the official ACC football schedule for 2018 to dissect between now and then. The schedule, which was released Wednesday, doesn't exactly offer many surprises. We knew the matchups already, just not the dates. But now that there's a complete picture of the 2018 competition around the league, there are some intriguing takeaways.
1. ACC vs. SEC rivalries get started early
Louisville vs. Alabama and Miami vs. LSU highlight Week 1, while Clemson vs. Texas A&M is the marquee matchup of Week 2. Last year, the ACC played four games against the SEC in Weeks 1 and 2 ... and it didn't go well. Clemson's win over Auburn was the lone highlight for the league. NC State and Georgia Tech both coughed up winnable games, and Florida State was manhandled by the Crimson Tide. Will it be any better in 2018? For the non-SEC fans out there, let's hope so. The long offseason of SEC mania will already be taxing enough.
2. No short weeks for FSU, Clemson
Florida State went to Boston College on a Friday last season and was walloped. Clemson went to Syracuse on a Friday and endured one of the year's most stunning upsets. This season? Neither team has to play a non-Saturday affair (aside from FSU's Monday night opener), which is more in line with how the SEC schedules for its powers. Georgia Tech, on the other hand? Not so lucky. The Yellow Jackets will go on the road for a Friday game at Louisville and a Thursday game at Virginia Tech. Virginia Tech, Louisville, Virginia, Wake, Miami and BC all play multiple weeknight games, too -- though at least one will be at home for each.
3. The Seminoles won't have it easy ... again
Sure, Florida State didn't live up to the hype last season. It didn't help that the schedule was brutal. And if you're hoping things get easier in 2018, you're out of luck. Notre Dame rotates back onto the schedule, and the Seminoles are stuck with the top two teams from the Coastal in their cross-divisional games -- the opener vs. Virginia Tech and an Oct. 6 date at Miami. And in a particularly brutal stretch, FSU will endure road games vs. Louisville, Miami, NC State and Notre Dame all within a six-week span, with a showdown against Clemson and the always tough Wake Forest sandwiched in between. Yikes.
4. Three weeks will determine Clemson's place in the Atlantic
Sure, the battle with Jimbo Fisher and A&M will garner early headlines, but the meat of Clemson's schedule -- and the path to a fourth straight playoff berth -- will likely come from Oct. 20 to Nov. 3, when the Tigers host NC State, travel to Florida State and host Louisville, back to back to back.
5. The Tar Heels have to travel
The first two weeks might tell us a lot about North Carolina, as the Heels will go on the road vs. California and East Carolina. Both are winnable games (neither opponent played in a bowl last year), but neither will be a cakewalk. Indeed, those first two contests might tell us a lot about how much UNC has evolved from an injury-riddled 2017. The back half of the schedule (road games at Syracuse, Virginia and Duke, home vs. Georgia Tech, Western Carolina and NC State) is manageable, so if the Heels don't get thumped early, it's entirely possible they get back to the eight- or nine-win realm in 2018.
6. Is this NC State's year?
I know, we say that every year. But the Wolfpack get five of their first six games at home, including a crucial showdown with West Virginia. They'll also get Florida State and Wake Forest in Raleigh. Sure, the road date at Clemson will still be a defining matchup, but two years ago, Dave Doeren's crew was a chip-shot field goal away from winning in Death Valley.
7. Virginia can take another step
The nonconference scheduling is hardly a grueling task, with home dates vs. Richmond, Ohio and Liberty and a road game at Indiana. The Cavaliers also get the defending division champs, Miami, along with Louisville at home. Are we picking Virginia to win the Coastal? Let's not get ahead of ourselves. But this is a manageable schedule for Bronco Mendenhall's group to get to seven or eight wins.
C O M M I T T E D = https://t.co/2XRBDVbxYA— Bo Nix (@bo_nix10) January 10, 2018
Watch out, Kirk Herbstreit. You've got competition.
It goes without saying the love for Alabama football runs deep in its home state. That emotion trickles down to the kids who grow up rooting for the Crimson Tide and 10-year-old Jackson Way is no different.
WHNT-TV in Huntsville, Alabama, discovered Jackson on Tuesday morning while covering the Crimson Tide's return to Tuscaloosa. Asked about the game, the 10-year-old offered some in-depth analysis of Alabama's 26-23 overtime win against Georgia in the College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T.
Jackson offered his thoughts on the team's effort, why coach Nick Saban made the switch from Jalen Hurts to Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback and the potential for a rotation between the two passers next season.
It appears this kid might have a bright future either as a coach or an analyst.
As bowl seasons go, it wasn't exactly a great one for the ACC, which finished just 4-6 with losses in both New Year's Six games. But there were plenty of big individual performances, from Wake Forest's offense to NC State's defense and beyond. Here's our ACC All-Bowl team for 2017.
QB: John Wolford, Wake Forest
It was a record-setting performance for Wolford, who wrapped his Wake career with an impressive 468 total yards and four touchdowns in the Belk Bowl win over Texas A&M.
The Eagles frittered away a chance to topple Iowa in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, but that wasn't on Dillon, who was superb once again, finishing with 157 yards and a touchdown.
RB: Matt Colburn, Wake Forest
There was plenty of offense to go around for the Deacons, but Colburn definitely got his share, racking up 150 yards on the ground, including a touchdown.
With two of FSU's top receivers missing the game, the pressure was on Tate to step up. He didn't disappoint. Tate finished the Walk-on's Independence Bowl with five catches for 84 yards and three touchdowns.
WR: Scotty Washington, Wake Forest
The Deacons hit the trifecta (and, as we'll note, nearly grabbed the tight end spot, too) with a terrific performance by Washington, who caught nine balls for 138 yards and a touchdown.
TE: Tommy Sweeney, Boston College
Yes, Cam Serigne was worthy of consideration here, too, but we couldn't pass up on Sweeney, who set career highs in catches (7) and yards (137) and hauled in a touchdown for BC.
OL: Will Richardson, NC State
QB Ryan Finley was exceptional for the Wolfpack in a win over Arizona State, and the success of the offensive line was a big reason why. Richardson didn't allow a pressure in the game, and NC State racked up 482 yards of total offense.
OL: Ryan Anderson, Wake Forest
We can't have a bunch of Wake skill position players on the list and not include a lineman. Anderson had three knockdown blocks against Texas A&M and didn't allow a sack as Wake racked up 646 yards of offense.
OL: Josh Ball, Florida State
The Seminoles averaged better than six yards a play in a breakout performance for the offense, and Ball graded out with an 81.5 while clearing the way for FSU runners at more than seven yards a clip when running his direction.
The Hokies couldn't muster enough offense to upend Oklahoma State in the Camping World Bowl, but the line did its job well, blocking for a Virginia Tech offense that ran the ball 48 times for 272 yards.
Davis proved to be the Blue Devils' top lineman, as Duke totaled 465 yards of offense in the Quick Lane Bowl, allowing just two sacks to an Northern Illinois defense that came into the game ranked among the nation's best pass-rushing units.
While the Tigers' offense couldn't muster much of anything against Alabama, Wilkins and the defense looked stout. He recorded eight tackles from his defensive tackle position, holding the Tide to just 3.36 yards per rush.
Mark Richt wasn't thrilled with the lack of holding calls, but even if Wisconsin got a little too handsy in the Capital One Orange Bowl, Thomas still looked sharp, racking up four tackles, two for a loss, one sack and a pass breakup.
DL: Trevon Hill, Virginia Tech
Don't be surprised if Hill blossoms into a star in 2018, with his Camping World Bowl performance as a jumping-off point. He recorded two tackles for loss, one sack and a QB hurry for the Hokies' D against an explosive Oklahoma State offense.
LB: Airius Moore, NC State
In a dominant win over Arizona State, Moore led the Wolfpack with 10 tackles and picked off a pass. The 10 tackles represented a season high and were just one shy of his career-best mark.
LB: Kendall Joseph, Clemson
It certainly wasn't Joseph's fault the Tigers fell short in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. The senior linebacker finished off a stellar career with a terrific 10-tackle performance, including one tackle for loss and a forced fumble.
The Cardinals' season ended on a down note, but Young finished strong. The Louisville linebacker racked up 9.5 tackles in a loss to Mississippi State, including three tackles for loss and a sack.
LB: Joe Giles-Harris, Duke
After racking up a whopping 117 tackles in the regular season, Giles-Harris finished off a stellar season with eight tackles against Northern Illinois, including one for a loss, while also adding two QB hurries.
S: Jarius Morehead, NC State
Like Wake's offensive outburst, there were big games all over the NC State defense, with Morehead turning in a spectacular performance, racking up five tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery.
S: Nate Andrews, Florida State
Andrews wrapped up his extensive FSU career with bowl MVP honors and eight tackles in a win over Southern Miss, in which the Eagles managed just 129 yards through the air.
CB: Stanford Samuels, Florida State
The highly recruited defensive back came into his own in Florida State's bowl win, racking up five tackles -- including a season-high four solo stops -- with one tackle for loss and a forced fumble.
CB: Essang Bassey, Wake Forest
OK, so there were a few big plays in the Belk Bowl, and Texas A&M's offense was explosive. But Bassey made his share of plays, too, with nine tackles and three pass breakups in the win.
K: Alex Spence, Clemson
Much maligned after he took over the job midseason, Spence was the only ACC kicker to connect on multiple field goals of 40 yards or more. He also accounted for all of Clemson's points in the loss to Alabama.
P: Zach Feagles, Miami
After struggling down the stretch, Feagles looked sharp in Miami's loss to Wisconsin. He punted four times, including a 54-yarder, and Miami netted 41.5 yards per punt to lead all ACC teams in their bowl games.
Aside from Reed's opening kick return, the bowl game went horribly for Virginia. But let's focus on the positives. Reed took the opening kick 98 yards for a score. He added two other decent returns, but the Cavaliers mustered virtually nothing else after his touchdown.
ATLANTA -- Jalen Hurts checked the notifications on his phone amid the raucous celebration going on inside Alabama’s locker room after beating Georgia to the win the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T early Tuesday morning. The quarterback’s battery was low, so he found a charger in Tua Tagovailoa’s stall that was beside his and plugged it in.
As it turns out, even Hurts needed a spark from his backup.
This wasn’t the game he or anyone had imagined. The sophomore from Houston, Texas, technically got the win as the starter, improving his record to 26-2, but he wasn’t the reason Nick Saban won his fifth title at Alabama and his sixth overall. Not in the least. The former SEC Offensive Player of the Year completed just 3 of 8 passes for 21 yards before Saban made the bold move of pulling him at halftime with the Crimson Tide trailing, 13-0.
Still, Hurts understood. He didn’t sulk. He stayed engaged in the game even after being benched and was the first to greet Tagovailoa when he came off the field following each series.
In fact, Hurts might have been the happiest player in the locker room inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It was a rare show of emotion for such a guarded personality. He grinned wildly and his eyes welled up on the verge of tears. He was so happy for his understudy, so happy for his teammates, so happy to get the championship that eluded him a year earlier when he scored the go-ahead touchdown against Clemson with roughly two minutes remaining only for Deshaun Watson to outdo him and lead the Tigers to an epic come-from-behind victory.
“It’s a great feeling, man,” Hurts said. “The greatest feeling I ever felt.”
There was no animosity when Saban announced at halftime that two quarterbacks would play. It wasn’t even a conversation, Hurts explained.
“We came out slow and [he] made the change,” he said. “It’s probably what was best for the team. We won. We’re national champs. You can’t wish for anything more than that.”
He looked at Tagovailoa with pride: “He was ready for this. He’s built for stuff like this.”
Soon, the question will be asked whether Hurts’ understudy was built to supplant him.
The left-handed true freshman from Hawaii may not have Hurts’ ability to run between the tackles with power, but he has escapability, as evidenced by his Houdini-like 10-yard run on third-and-7 in the third quarter. And with all due respect to Hurts' strong throwing arm, Tagovailoa’s might be on another level. His accuracy and strength is rare, and maybe more importantly than that, his confidence to make every throw in the book defies a long history of conservative quarterbacks under Saban, Hurts included.
Tagovailoa's 41-yard walk-off touchdown pass to DeVonta Smith in overtime took gusto, looking off Georgia's safety just enough to take the shot into the end zone.
Jerry Jeudy, a wide receiver and fellow freshman, described Tagovailoa as a gunslinger. He’s more of a pocket-passer than Hurts, he explained.
“He’s got a great arm,” he said.
In the afterglow of the national championship, with those three spectacular touchdown throws playing on repeat, it’s hard to imagine Tagovailoa letting go of the reins. Hurts might have just gotten Wally Pipp’d on the game’s biggest stage.
Remember, this isn’t a new phenomenon. All one needed to do was look at the opposing sideline in Atlanta to see Jacob Eason, the sophomore starter once believed to be Georgia’s next great QB, serving as the backup to stud freshman Jake Fromm.
Just don’t go lumping Hurts in that category so fast, says Saban.
Later Tuesday morning, after just a few hours of sleep, the 66-year-old coach wasn’t ready to make any sweeping statements about who his quarterback would be next year.
“Look, we have two good quarterbacks on our team, no doubt,” he said with the national championship trophy on his right and the game’s offensive MVP, Tagovailoa, on his left, onstage in Atlanta. “I think that we haven’t really made a decision about that, and it’s not imperative we make one right now. We’ve got two fine young men who really respect each other and have worked hard to help each other all year long.”
Translation: I don’t know who it will be, but I really like this kid beside me right now.
How Hurts handles this new wrinkle will be interesting to see play out. But consider this: Despite Hurts leading Alabama to back-to-back national championship appearances, despite becoming the first true freshman to win SEC Offensive Player of the Year since Herschel Walker, despite more than 6,500 total yards and 61 touchdowns, the idea that fans would clamor for another quarterback is nothing new. The moment Alabama lost to Clemson, the call for Tagovailoa -- although no one could yet pronounce his name -- were noticeable.
Hurts shut out the noise then and put together a great sophomore season with 17 passing touchdowns to just one interception.
But now it’s clear that his style of play needs to change. Being a caretaker of the offense won’t cut it when an offensive weapon like Tagovailoa has presented himself.
Hurts will need to spend the next few months fine-tuning his game and becoming more comfortable moving the ball downfield. Getting outside of his comfort zone as a runner is a must in order to utilize the skill Alabama has at receiver.
The chances of him transferring immediately, while tantalizing right now, don’t seem likely. Hurts, if anything, is not a rash personality. He’s not prone to snap judgments based on emotions.
Rather, look to spring practice as the time to see this drama play out.
Alabama will be everyone’s preseason No. 1-ranked team yet again, and it will have to decide whether Hurts or Tagovailoa is the quarterback to lead them in the fall.
The two quarterbacks will play nice and feed off one another for now and on throughout the process, but sooner or later, Saban will have to pull the trigger on someone.
"I said, 'Man, I just feel it. I feel like you're going to have a great game,'" Fromm said.
Ridley had the best game of his career -- a team-leading six catches for 82 yards. Though it wasn't enough to beat Alabama on Monday night in the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T, the accelerated maturation of its young players and the tangible experiences they gained this season are evidence of the possibilities that lie ahead for Georgia.
Fromm is a true freshman. Ridley is a sophomore. Their coach, Kirby Smart, just led his team to the national championship game in his second season -- and they led 13-0 at halftime before eventually losing 26-23 in overtime.
"Give them credit," Smart said of Alabama, "but I think everybody can see that Georgia's going to be a force to be reckoned with."
Call it a premonition.
It was only one season ago that Georgia finished 8-5. This season, the Bulldogs finished 13-2 with the program's first SEC title since 2005, a Rose Bowl win and a berth to the national title game.
Georgia fans flooded into the stadium just 70 miles from campus on Monday night, giddy with hope as Smart had the program one victory away from its first national title since 1980. Now the bar is set -- regardless of whether it's fair or realistic.
"It's a lot of motivation," Sony Michel said. "The standard is set. The guys coming back, I'm sure they're going to be hungry, they're going to be willing to work, to do whatever it takes to get back here plus more."
It's the seniors, though -- players like Michel, Nick Chubb and Javon Wims -- who have laid the foundation. As the Bulldogs were getting ready to run out of the tunnel and onto the field, Chubb found Smart and told him, "I'll go anywhere with you, and I'll follow you anywhere, and I'll fight for you because I believe in you."
"That meant more to me than anything," Smart said after the loss.
It was also a reminder of the kind of tangible leadership it takes to propel a team to the highest level. After spending 11 seasons on Nick Saban's staff, Smart understands The Process as well as anyone.
"I just hope the younger class doesn't take it for granted that it's just going to happen," Smart said. "You've got to make it happen, and they've got to believe that."
Georgia should be a consensus top-10 team heading into next season, in spite of losing an abundance of talent in the backfield and on defense. The Bulldogs will return 13 starters and also have the nation's No. 1 recruiting class coming in.
Oh, and they've got a starting quarterback who has already played for the national title.
Fromm, the SEC Freshman of the Year, finished his rookie season 12-2 as a starter.
"Fromm is a very bright kid," Ridley said. "You can ask anyone in the room that. He's very talented and he's very smart. Our coaches really trust him to make the right checks and the right reads. When he's out there if he has confidence in you he's going to continue to go to you. I guess I started out hot tonight and he continued to work me. Unfortunately we came up short, but it's branding and it's going to continue to grow."
Fromm's performance wasn't flawless, and at times he understandably looked like a freshman. He took a sack he could have avoided, and he threw an errant pass that bounced of a helmet and led to an interception, but it was a season-long process of learning that should only benefit the Bulldogs next fall.
"I wouldn't want to have no other quarterback," said receiver Terry Godwin. "He's out there making the right checks, putting us in the right plays, and off the field he's caring about us. He's an overall complete guy. On the field he's the leader we need."
They'll need it even more without the likes of Chubb, Michel and linebackers Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy -- all players who helped Georgia establish its identity as a team with a smashmouth defense and a powerful running game.
"We know our identity now," Ridley said. "We know the things we're capable of doing. Now it's just time to get back to school, get back in the lab, just start over. When you take a loss, that's all you can do ... get back to school and start over from scratch and build a better and stronger identity."
There's only one concern for Georgia: Alabama won the national title with a true freshman quarterback. The Bulldogs aren't the only ones who set the standard on Monday night.
Call it a premonition.
A full Saturday slate may seem impossibly far away, but the sport's opening weekend is stuffed with matchups that should once again make it worth the wait. To help take the sting out of your first day of college football withdrawal, here's a look at a few of the Week 1 games in 2018 that are worth marking down on your brand-new calendars.
Alabama vs. Louisville (Orlando, Florida)
The champs are back, and they just might have a new frontman. What will next year bring for instant hero Tua Tagovailoa? What about the 25-2 talented starter he replaced, Jalen Hurts? There may not be a more interesting question in the college football offseason for a team that will likely be a preseason favorite to win another title. The first hints will come in Orlando against a Lousiville team that will be getting its first taste of life after Lamar Jackson.
Michigan at Notre Dame
This rivalry went on hiatus in 2014 on somewhat bitter terms thanks to the Chicken Dance and a blowout. The revival starts in South Bend on Sept. 1, when both Brian Kelly and Jim Harbaugh will get a chance to jump-start the season with a quality win. At the end of what is shaping up to be an angsty offseason for both fan bases, may God and Twitter have mercy on the man who coaches the losing team in this one.
Auburn vs. Washington (Atlanta)
The Tigers got some good news last week when 3,000-yard passer Jarrett Stidham announced that he'd be back for another year at Auburn. Washington is still waiting to hear if its offensive standout -- running back Myles Gaskin -- makes the same call or heads off to the NFL. Either way this game features an interesting clash of styles between the fast-paced offense that took down both championship contenders in 2017 and a Washington defense that should once again be stingy against the run.
LSU vs. Miami (Arlington, Texas)
Miami may have the turnover chain, but no one is flashing more bling on defense this year than LSU. The Tigers recently agreed to pay defensive coordinator Dave Aranda $2.5 million per year to keep him in Baton Rouge. Both groups will have to stop a healthy dose of speed and talent in their season-opening matchup at Jerry World next September.
Florida Atlantic at Oklahoma
The Sooners have to replace Heisman winner Baker Mayfield, but quarterbacking heir apparent Kyler Murray should get some significant help from wide receivers Marquise Brown and CeeDee Lamb. That pairing could post some big numbers against the Owls' secondary. Of course, the lead-up to this game may be as fun as the product on the field as the Lane Train starts rolling again for Lane Kiffin's second season at FAU.
Virginia Tech at Florida State (Monday, Sept. 3)
Willie Taggart makes his Seminoles coaching debut in a home conference game in prime time on Labor Day. The two ACC foes haven't played each other since 2012. Virginia Tech should be one of Clemson's biggest threats in the league in 2018 and will provide an interesting, immediate measuring stick for Taggart's new team. We'll see how many knots Taggart has left to untangle after Florida State's disappointing 2017.
Tennesee vs. West Virginia (Charlotte, North Carolina)
Next up in the coaching debut category is former Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. His first test will be against a West Virginia team that returns veteran quarterback Will Grier and his favorite target, David Sills. Will the Volunteers find reason for optimism to start the year? Either way, they'll likely be happy when the offseason officially ends.
Cincinnati at UCLA
Chip Kelly turned the Pac-12 North on its head a decade ago. Can he do the same in the South Division now that he's back in the college game after a six-year hiatus? Drawing the curtains open on the Kelly era against Cincinnati might not provide for a huge opening statement, but you'll want to see what he has cooked up in the laboratory during the past year spent away from the sidelines.
James Madison at NC State
How about a little love for the little guys? James Madison has won 26 of its past 27 games playing at the FCS level. Even if that one loss was in this year's national championship game (against the North Dakota State dynasty), the Dukes have the best shot at providing an epic upset to ring in the new season. Any team that is willing to dial up a fake punt with three minutes left in a national championship game -- and pull it off successfully -- is worthy of some of your television screen real estate on what will be a crowded market when college football returns in eight long months.
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ATLANTA -- DeVonta Smith heard the playcall come in and knew he had a chance. On second-and-26 in overtime, with Alabama trailing Georgia 23-20, the freshman receiver had just learned he was going to run a go route into the end zone.
He smiled and looked over at his quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa.
"Trust me, bro," Smith told him.
Tagovailoa, the true freshman who replaced starter Jalen Hurts coming out of halftime, didn't say a word back. The lefty from Hawaii simply nodded his head, the picture of calm under pressure.
Seconds later, Smith and Tagovailoa connected on a touchdown that now belongs to history -- a 41-yard strike that delivered Alabama its fifth national championship under coach Nick Saban.
"Hole shot," Smith explained, referring to his splitting the coverage to get open.
On the sideline, Hurts saw it all unfold as if in slow motion.
Hurts had been benched, but the sophomore was still engaged, dissecting the coverage on his own. It was instinctual, he explained. He diagnosed a two-high safety shell and thought his backup wouldn't dare try it.
But Tagovailoa did and, moments later, Hurts was holding him in his arms. No one was happier for the freshman than Hurts.
"I love you," Hurts said he told Tagovailoa. "This is what you're made for. You're built for this."
As Hurts recounted the whole ordeal, as he revealed how he learned he was benched by Saban ("Ain't no conversation," Hurts said. "It was a decision he made. He's a boss and he made a great decision."), junior running back Damien Harris was shouting at him.
"We took that s---," Harris said. "They said we ain't supposed to be here. And we won the whole thing!"
That they did.
And without Saban's decision to pull Hurts, who knows?
It took guts. Ask former Alabama tight end O.J. Howard about Saban's decision, and he would tell you it took another piece of the human body, not one suitable for family programming.
Hurts was struggling, having completed just 3 of 8 passes for 21 yards. But he is still a former SEC Offensive Player of the Year with 61 career touchdowns, and he had taken this team to back-to-back championship games.
"He's one of the only [coaches] that could do that," Howard said of Saban's decision, "because he's a legend."
Ask Saban, and there was never a doubt. The offense was struggling, he knew Georgia had prepared all week for a run-heavy game plan and a curveball seemed in order.
"I just didn't feel we could run the ball well enough," he said, "and I thought Tua would give us a better chance and a spark, which he certainly did."
Ask players, and there was never a doubt, either.
Maybe they didn't expect the quarterback change, but they expected nothing less from Tagovailoa.
Wideout and fellow freshman Jerry Jeudy asked reporters if they remembered the spectacular touchdown Tagovailoa threw in relief against Vanderbilt. He went back further to the recruiting circuit to explain how it was nothing new to Tagovailoa.
"Even in practice you see that," he said. "It was his time to shine and he turned up."
Outside the locker room after the game, Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher stood by to wait to pay his respects to his former boss, Saban. Getting a sixth national championship, Fisher said, put Saban in the conversation for the best coach of all time.
Fisher had been through battles with Saban before and understood his thinking, going all the way back to a long forgotten bowl game at LSU when they had to make a change at quarterback from Josh Booty to Rohan Davey.
Saban's old offensive coordinator might have been the least surprised person in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Monday night when he pulled the trigger at QB. The narrative that Saban is inflexible caused Fisher to shake his head.
"That's about as polar opposite of what he's like," Fisher said. "He's very flexible.
"He has a feel for the game, the momentum of things. He understands the big picture of the game. He sees the thing in a very wide view. And he's able to make those calls; he's not scared to make those calls."
To do that in that moment with all that on the line? C'mon.
Saban put his faith in a true freshman with eight games of mop-up duty on his résumé. Tagovailoa promptly came in and threw for 166 yards and three touchdowns.
"I don't know how Coach Saban found me all the way in Hawaii from Alabama," Tagovailoa said. "Thank God he found me and we're here right now."
What's next? Well, that's where things get interesting.
Hurts has been through countless battles, compiling a 25-2 record under Saban. His ability to run the football -- and run it with power -- is a useful weapon that most teams can't account for.
But Tagovailoa? He's the wild card of all wild cards.
Tagovailoa's talent is obvious. No one has a coming-out party like that. His ability to create plays in the passing game and stretch the field is on another level.
He's not exactly your typical Saban QB. He's a gunslinger, Jeudy said.
"He's got a great arm," the wide receiver said.
Good enough to permanently unseat Hurts as the starter? We'll see.
For now, Tagovailoa's work in the national championship game is the stuff of legend.
And Saban's decision to hand him the reins will forever be remembered.
He might have an SEC Offensive Player of the Year award under his belt and more than 6,500 total yards and 61 career touchdowns.
But on Monday night, he was toast, and his coach, Nick Saban, knew it. So coming out of halftime, Saban did the unthinkable: On the game's biggest stage, with a title on the line, he rolled the dice and benched Hurts in favor of a true freshman with eight games of backup experience under his belt.
The quarterback in question? Tua Tagovailoa. The previously unheard of lefty from Hawaii came in and resuscitated a struggling offense just in time for Alabama to overcome a double-digit deficit and beat Georgia 26-23 in overtime to win its fifth national championship under Saban.
Which begs the question: Is there any situation in which the Crimson Tide can be stopped?
If not under those circumstances, then when?
Tagovailoa was an afterthought coming into Monday night in Atlanta. But there he was, on the field on fourth-and-4, down a touchdown, with less than four minutes remaining. There he was, hopping around in a collapsing pocket, waiting and waiting and waiting before finding Calvin Ridley for the game-tying score.
There he was again, in overtime, throwing a 41-yard walk-off touchdown to DeVonta Smith. Tagovailoa pumped his fist, and confetti rained down inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
While there's no denying Hurts' accomplishment, there's no way anyone can say that Tagovailoa isn't special. Coming out parties such as this just don't happen.
Tagovailoa's ability to throw the ball sideline to sideline and stretch the field was exactly what Alabama needed against a hungry Georgia defense. He ran for a few yards when he needed to, but he worked wonders in the passing game, completing 14 of 24 throws for 166 yards and three touchdowns.
A quarterback battle in Tuscaloosa is coming. But just after midnight on this night, all that mattered was that Alabama found a way.
Less than a mile's walk from the stadium, the College Football Hall of Fame can start making room for another exhibit. Soon, in the home of the game's greats, Saban's name will be etched -- either alongside or ahead of Paul "Bear" Bryant -- as the best coach of all time.
Saban is now tied with the former Alabama legend with six total national championships. But Saban took 13 fewer seasons to hit the mark, which will surely be a bullet point in the debate about coaching supremacy.
The job Saban did to lead Alabama to another title cannot be understated. All season, this team has been fueled by what happened Jan. 9, 2017, in Tampa, Florida, when Clemson came back in the final seconds to beat the Tide in last season's national championship game. Hurts kept an image of the Tigers hoisting the trophy on the lock screen of his iPhone. Players used the loss as a source of motivation in myriad ways, and Saban warned them to "not waste a failure."
Beating Clemson in the Allstate Sugar Bowl was the start of something, as strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran followed the win last week by slamming the team's second-place trophy from 2016 on the ground in the locker room and, in a fit of expletives, smashing it to bits with a sledgehammer.
But beating Georgia -- the young upstart in the SEC, led by former Saban assistant and Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart -- was the culmination of a season-long redemption tour. Teammates exorcised their demons and put the program back on the top of college football when for so long it felt like an unlikely destination.
This isn't the most talented team Saban has had at Alabama -- not by a long shot. The defense was nearly overwhelmed by a cavalcade of injuries, starting with the season opener against Florida State, in which outside linebackers Terrell Lewis and Christian Miller suffered what was described then as season-ending setbacks. Then two-year starter and senior middle linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton was lost for the season with a knee injury. Then his backup, Mack Wilson, broke his foot.
Lewis and Miller somehow worked their way back into the lineup in time for the final game of the regular season, as did Wilson, only for Alabama to lose to Auburn 26-14 and, in the process, lose safety Hootie Jones to knee surgery. Alabama sneaked into the playoff, beat Clemson and paid the price, as starting outside linebacker Anfernee Jennings had to undergo season-ending knee surgery two days later.
It was as if fate's cruel hand were at work.
Still, Alabama survived. Not even defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt's decision to accept the job as Tennessee's next head coach but remain with the team through the playoff could derail Alabama's march to Atlanta.
Not even the high-risk decision to go away from Hurts and give a true freshman quarterback a shot.
Head down, mouth shut, Alabama did it the Saban way.
It wasn't a smooth ride to the championship stage inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Monday, but that only further cements the greatness of Alabama's head coach.
Through it all, the dynasty he built rolls on.