Taulia Tagovailoa’s big decision keeps paying off for Maryland

It’s Friday night, Maryland and Virginia are tied in this renewed rivalry matchup, and Taulia Tagovailoa is not a happy quarterback. During the third quarter, officials dare to call his long scramble just short of the first-down marker. Tagovailoa knows that he stretched out far enough for the spot, but he’s not directing his fire toward the refs who got the call wrong; rather, his own sideline when he notices members of the punt team taking the field.

He reflexively holds up both hands as an unmistakable signal to the coaches: Stop! Then, he motions for head coach Michael Locksley to throw a challenge flag. He’s approaching the sideline, not even a visor and the Terps’ black face shield can mask his frustration, and he’s still aggressively miming the act of pulling an imaginary flag from his waist. The redshirt senior quarterback who’s learning how to master his emotions is becoming, well, emotional.

But Tagovailoa — who without argument will leave College Park as the best to ever play quarterback for the Maryland Terrapins — has a point. Locksley knows it, too, and eventually so do the officials who call their own review, reverse their error and give Maryland the first down. Three plays later, Tagovailoa does a very Tagovailoa thing where he fakes the handoff, scampers out of the pocket and while still on the run, launches deep to any receiver ready for a home-run play.

He connects with Jeshaun Jones for this 64-yard touchdown. The blowout is on, with Maryland breezing to the 42-14 victory and a 3-0 record that’s still a work in progress. But now, Tagovailoa is smiling and racing down the field to celebrate, spreading his arms out as though he just might take off and fly. He was right: the fourth-down call should’ve been challenged. Just like he was right: he should’ve returned to College Park for moments like this.

“At Maryland, obviously, we’ve been through a lot of ups and downs, been through a lot of stuff together over here,” Tagovailoa told me after going 19-of-30 for 342 yards, the 13th time he’s surpassed 300 passing yards in his college career. “I felt like there was no reason for me [to leave].”

Technically, Tagovailoa had 1.5 million reasons to leave. In the merry-go-round era of the transfer portal, players have more freedom of movement than ever before. Adding in the monetization of the open market that benefits some higher-profile student-athletes, there’s a natural enticement to find better opportunities for name, image and likeness deals. With a famous and unforgettable last name (older brother Tua plays for the Miami Dolphins) and an armful of Maryland records (Taulia owns the honors in passing touchdowns, passing yards, total offense, completions and completion percentage), he could’ve capitalized on his fame and sought a larger platform elsewhere.

Recently, Tagovailoa, now a 23-year-old college graduate, revealed that he had been offered $1.5 million to transfer to an unnamed SEC team. And he turned it down. To him, there’s no price tag on the “unfinished business” he has left to do in Maryland.

“I have Coach Locks. He’s a very great coach, a very offensive minded coach who loves me, he loves all his players and will go to the ends of the earth for them. I just didn’t see myself [going] — whatever money offered me, it didn’t matter to me. It was more so about being with the guys in the locker room,” Tagovailoa said. “And then another part of it was, just my legacy. This is something I can bring my kids to, when I have kids. Or, like my family. This is my home … We have unfinished business. I want to win the Big Ten championship and I want to do it with Maryland.”

This is where he’s grown up. The Tagovailoa family moved from Hawaii to Alabama following Tua’s college career with the Crimson Tide. Family comes first for the Tagovailoas so if one left for the mainland, pretty soon several Tagovailoas would follow suit, making their home in Alabaster, Ala. Though Taulia initially committed to follow his brother’s footsteps at Alabama, he transferred to Maryland in 2020. His brother moved on to the NFL, his parents remained in Alabaster while Taulia went about honing his skills in the Mid-Atlantic.

The Taulia experience has had its highs. Through the first four weeks of the 2021 season, Tagovailoa enjoyed early Heisman buzz with more than 1,300 passing yards, 10 touchdowns against one interception and a 75.5 completion percentage rate. He also possessed the highest passer rating while under pressure among Division-I quarterbacks.

But the experience has also come with its share of lows. In Week 5, that season, Tagovailoa tossed five interceptions in a conference loss to Iowa. One mistake spiraled into another, and another, and another, and became emblematic of Tagovailoa’s greatest area of growth: he had to learn how to move on from bad plays and get out of his own head.

“I’ve been with Coach Locks, he knew I was a hothead and I get very emotional. When we score, I’m up. I’m amped up. When we’re down, I’m hard on myself,” Tagovailoa said. “I meet with Coach Locks every night and he would always talk with me about stuff like that. … He knows I can do the football stuff. It’s really just the mental side of being a quarterback, and having the skill set of a player but the mind-set of a coach when you’re playing quarterback. It’s a continuous thing that I’m still working on.”

Maryland shakes off another slow start and thumps Virginia

Friday night presented another test. Virginia stunned Maryland by scoring on its opening two drives, so as Maryland worked back from the deficit, little sparks of unease flared up — like Tagovailoa showing how badly he wanted Locksley to challenge the wrong fourth-down call. His instincts paid off, but after taking a 21-14 lead, he tried another one of those very Tagovailoa things on the Terps’ next series, spinning out of pressure and trying to create magic out of nothing. This time, however, he spun one too many times and held on to the ball just a touch too long, taking a 16-yard sack on third down.

When Tagovailoa walked back to the sideline, Locksley kept his quarterback close for a quick summit.

“Self-correct,” Locksley said, asking for the quarterback’s evaluation.

“Bonehead play,” Tagovailoa responded.

“It’s great for him to be able to self-correct without me having to have that type of conversation,” Locksley said. “That ability to communicate when he comes off, what he didn’t do right, what he did wrong but also keep his emotions about him to where the next series, that one bad play [doesn’t] turn into two.”

Though Tagovailoa has quarterbacked Maryland to consecutive bowl wins, the next test will come next week in next week’s conference opener in East Lansing. Over the past two seasons, the Terps have struggled against the upper echelon of the Big Ten, losing all eight matchups against the likes of Iowa, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin. Though he had plenty of financial reasons to leave, these Big Ten opponents are all reasons Tagovailoa needed to stay.

“Nowadays in football, a quarterback is judged how many games you win. You can have all the yards in the world, all the touchdowns in the world but if you’re winning six games or seven games, it’s just that’s not it,” he said. “I think that will complete everything for me personally and also for this team — to win games, win 10 games, win 11 games and play in a really big bowl game, make the playoffs. The sky’s the limit for us. I feel that that’s what we can do and that’s why I came back.”

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