Tua Tagovailoa has become the NFL’s great unknown

With Tua Tagovailoa, it is always about the unknowns.

It was that way back in January 2018, when he burst onto the national sports radar and helped himself to an indelible piece of college football history. At that point, the unknowns were what made him exciting; the youngster from Hawaii, suddenly thrust into the second half of a national title game with his team trailing and asked to conjure some magic.

No one knew whether Tagovailoa had the game or the gumption to spearhead a revival against Georgia, but there was the basic fact that Alabama coach Nick Saban trusted him enough to switch out incumbent Jalen Hurts with the season on the line. You felt like something was going to happen — and of course, as the record books show, it did.

Now, having declared for the National Football League Draft and thereby officially ending his college career on Monday, Tagovailoa is back in the spotlight, and again it is all about what we don’t know rather than what we do. We know by now, after 24 college games and a record-shattering Crimson Tide career pockmarked by injury, what the 21-year-old quarterback is capable of at his best.

Those glimpses were enough to suggest that a booming NFL future — potentially as one of the superstars of the game — could beckon. And yet, surrounding it all are the question marks of whether his future productivity will be hampered by the physical issues he has and is continuing to work through.

“Unquestionably, unequivocally yes,” FS1’s Nick Wright said on First Things First, when asked whether leaving school was the right decision. “I couldn’t believe there was discussion that he might go back. Of course he should have gone pro. I also think he is making the right decision because I still think he goes in the top 10. I think Miami would be crazy for passing on him at No 5. If I am Miami, I take him at 5, injury risks be damned.”

Football is a game of so many moving parts that it takes a lot for one person coming out of college, especially in the current era, to generate an explosion of hype. Yet that’s what happened with Tagovailoa before the start of the season just past, his junior year in Tuscaloosa.

In Miami, Dolphins fans embraced what initially looked like their team’s season of tanking due to the expectation that a No. 1 spot in the draft order would lead to the selection of Tagovailoa. “Tanking for Tua” T-shirts did a brisk trade for a bit, before the Dolphins went on a surprise run of late-season wins and before the ailments of the 2018 Heisman Trophy runner-up changed everything.

Tagovailoa had been hurt last season, suffering damage to both ankles late in the campaign that hindered him in the national championship blowout loss to Clemson. His problems this season were infinitely worse.

When Tagovailoa spoke to reporters on Monday, he gave an update on the complicated hip injury he sustained in a convincing victory over Mississippi State, on what would have been his final drive before being taken out of an essentially meaningless game.

“I don’t think any of the doctors can tell the foreseeable future,” Tagovailoa said. “I don’t think the guys rehabbing me can tell me that. From what they’ve seen in New York, everything looks good. But you can’t really tell until the three-month mark or the four-month mark.”

By the time the NFL Combine rolls around, he will not be close to 100 percent. His exact prognosis won’t be fully known when the draft selections are made. Tagovailoa said he hopes to play in the NFL in the upcoming season, but there is no certainty of that, either. Whoever drafts him had better be prepared for an extensive rehab process.

However, there will still surely be plenty of QB-hungry NFL front offices entranced by the possibility of securing their signal caller of the future — not just a superb athlete and speedy thinker, but someone with proven ability to produce when it matters most.

Yet the salaries commanded by the position make the possibility of injury a chilling prospect. That means no one quite knows where — and when in the draft order — he could wind up.

“He has certainly had a tremendous amount of adversity that he has had to overcome, especially recently,” Saban told ESPN. “This young man has probably made as big an impact on this program as anybody who has played here.”

Tagovailoa isn’t anyone’s idea of the No. 1 pick anymore — that position presumptively having been taken over by LSU’s Joe Burrow after his phenomenal Heisman Trophy-winning campaign, one that could be capped off with a national championship on Monday. Anywhere else on the board would be no great surprise for Tagovailoa, from No. 2 downwards toward the bottom of the first round. Any number of teams could make a case for him, yet just as many could find ways to talk themselves out of it.

And when he does eventually take the field in the NFL, there is that lingering possibility for greatness, thanks to the speed of his mind, the inherent athleticism, that laser-guided arm. Or, if things turn against him and physical predicaments take over, the unpredictability of the NFL means there is a possibility that all the potential could go unrealized.

The most interesting player in college football just became the most fascinating incoming member of the NFL. As ever, with Tagovailoa, it is all about the unknowns.