April 22, 2020 – One of the great people in football is Vinny Passas, the quarterback guru from Hawaii who spotted Tua Tagovailoa’s talent back when he was eight-and-half years old.
It was undeniable, jokes Passas, so he didn’t have to look very hard.
Passas is a national treasure out there in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and every college coach in America admires him. If he lived in Alabama, he would be an A-list celebrity. Passas coached Tagovailoa, Marcus Mariota, Jeremiah Masoli, Jason Gesser, and Timmy Chang, just to name a few famous quarterbacks, and his influence and legacy have helped shape football throughout his state and beyond.
How does a quarterback go from Hawaii to Alabama to the first round of the NFL Draft? Tagovailoa started that journey at Passas’ weekend quarterback camps, and then continued it at Honolulu’s Saint Louis High School where Passas was later Tagovailoa’s quarterback coach.
The NFL Draft begins Thursday night with the first round, and Tagovailoa is expected to be taken early. The last quarterback from the University of Alabama to be drafted in the first round was Richard Todd back in 1976 (sixth overall to the Jets). I’m sticking with my prediction of Tua to the Dolphins at five, but Passas says most people in Hawaii want him to go to the Chargers at six.
Slightly cheaper flights to games.
The Chargers are one of the teams that called Passas about Tua leading up to the draft. The Raiders are another. Just wanted to talk about Tua’s internal makeup and character. Tua is driven to greatness, says Passas, and that competitive fire has pushed him at every level.
Maybe too hard.
Hawaii loves Tua, and the island state will be celebrating on Thursday no matter where the native son is drafted. The NFL Draft begins at 8 p.m. ET, which means 2 p.m. HT. Every year, the event is about so much more than just the teams in the NFL and their fanbases. It’s also about the journey, the highs and the lows, and the people like Passas who put in the time along the way.
We’ve never seen anything quite like Tua’s path. It started in college with the high of all highs, “2nd and 26,” that magical pass to Alabama teammate Devonta Smith to win the national championship game. It all then ended in college, and just as shockingly, with that fractured hip against Mississippi State and an emergency helicopter flight from Starkville to Birmingham.
That helicopter flight helped save Tua’s NFL career. With proper training and the right team, Passas says, he can make it a long one.
Passas doesn’t have a favorite team for Tua. He just wants his famous former quarterback somewhere that doesn’t make him play right away.
“Let him have his body fully healed,” Passas said. “I kind of hope someone treats him like Pat Mahomes or Aaron Rodgers.”
Rodgers, a late first-round pick, sat behind Brett Favre, and didn’t start until his fourth season in the league. Mahomes, the reigning Super Bowl MVP, had a year to absorb and adjust to the NFL before becoming a starter for Kansas City.
“Tua has tremendous value no matter where he goes,” Passas said. “In fact, the lower he goes in the draft, I think the better it might be for him because the team might be a little bit better. Sometimes being the first guy picked or the second guy picked is not always the best pick.”
Like Alabama coach Nick Saban, Passas believes Tua’s talent is worth any risk a team might feel about his hip injury. He says it’s like Tagovailoa can “see the future” his skills in the pocket are so keen. His accuracy is the best Passas has ever coached.
How did Tagovailoa acquire that ability?
“He’s just gifted from the good Lord with his accuracy,” Passas said. “The only one who I think comes close to him is his brother, so it must be something in the genes, or something his dad is doing, or something his mom is doing with them.”
People fly Passas all over the country to coach quarterbacks. He’s stuck in Las Vegas right now because he was training quarterbacks there when the pandemic hit the U.S. The legendary coach says Tua’s edge over everyone else has never changed since he was young. It’s his unrelenting mindset to win every single drill, workout or play.
But it’s that same instinct that got him hurt, too.
For Tua, the biggest fight of his NFL career is going to be learning how to lose. If he can do that, he’ll give himself a better chance of having a long career.
Tua is going to have to be a different quarterback in the NFL.
“And I think he knows it, too,” Passas said. “Guys are bigger and stronger and more athletic. So, I think when it’s time to go down, it’s time to go down. And maybe you don’t have to win every single play.
“Defense is going to win more plays than offense. It’s just a matter of how you cut down the losses there, and sometimes throwing the ball away is good. Sometimes punting the ball away is good. And live to play another down.”
Passas remembers the days in high school when Tua would pace the sidelines before games and, like all young offensive players, announce, “We ain’t punting today, coach.” That was the goal at Alabama, too, and maybe even more so. Anything less than a touchdown on every drive really did feel like a failure with Tua at quarterback. That’s how incredible he was.
Alabama’s offense was so good with Tua that he tried to squeeze a touchdown out of every play in the first halves of games. And who could blame him? Chances are he wasn’t playing most of the second.
Managing his career responsibly is a skill Tua will learn to master in the NFL. He doesn’t have to change much. It’s just time to start thinking more like a professional. In the NFL, the margin of victory and style points don’t matter, but smart business decisions do.
“But who knows?” Passas said. “Tua can do anything he wants if he puts his mind to it. So, I don’t know, he might change the way offenses play now.”
That ability to create magic on a football field is what teams needing a star quarterback should be climbing over themselves to draft in the first round. For those who have known Tua the longest, how a team reins in all that talent will be the real trick.