Maryland junior quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa was raised to eliminate distractions. It’s why he put cable television and social media to the side. As the second-year starter, he’s shifted his focus to being more disciplined and becoming a better leader. The Terps’ success might depend on it.
After Tagovailoa’s season-opening performance against West Virginia on Saturday, the offseason work and refined approach appear to have paid dividends.
“That’s just a way for me to focus and stay disciplined with keeping the main thing the main thing, and that’s football and watching film at night,” said Tagovailoa, who threw for 332 yards and three touchdowns in the 30-24 victory.
Sophomore wide receiver Rakim Jarrett, who recorded 122 yards against West Virginia, said Tagovailoa showcased poise, calmness and leadership. Last season, Tagovailoa was thrust into the starting job without having a traditional offseason to learn the system and develop chemistry with the team. The results were mixed.
“I just wanted to see what Taulia can do with this offense once he gets a full year under him,” senior wide receiver Dontay Demus Jr. said. “Once he got the chance to understand everything, he showed y’all what he can really do.”
Tagovailoa took advantage of the offseason by improving the chemistry between him and his teammates. When the Terps lived together during training camp over the summer, Tagovailoa and some of the receivers spent late nights going over the playbook with the hope of better connections on and off the field.
During player-run practices, which Tagovailoa helped organize, he held players accountable so that they could be on the same page when it mattered most.
“If we didn’t do certain things well on 7-on-7s, we’re not leaving the field until we get those things perfect to the point where we don’t miss,” senior receiver Brian Cobbs said. “I feel like the level of professionalism with Taulia and the receivers improved a lot.”
It was evident against West Virginia. Demus and Rakim Jarrett both hauled in touchdowns of more than 60 yards from Tagovailoa’s right arm.
Familiarity is another key for the younger brother of Tua, the Miami Dolphins starting quarterback. During Taulia’s two years at Thompson High School in Alabama, he would lead offseason workouts and even stay after games to get in more work with teammates. That resulted in a culture shift that is still felt today.
“I think his presence and his work ethic stayed here with the kids that were younger when Taulia was here,” Thompson coach Mark Freeman said. “His work ethic flows down to our success today because of how much they respected him.”
In the age of NIL and players making money through social media, Tagovailoa is unique to his peers. He only uses his phone for two reasons: talking to his family and watching film, something he said Locksley and offensive coordinator Dan Enos had taught him how to do better during the offseason.
Narrowing his focus isn’t new for Tagovailoa. Growing up, he and his three siblings learned that cell phones and video games were privileges. He was taught that if he is busy playing video games, there was someone else working to be better than him.
“We would compare the pros and the cons,” said Diane Tagovailoa, Taulia’s mother. “All these hours playing games or on social media, what else could you be doing in your day? Even after a game or church, my husband, [Galu], would be like, ‘We got to work.’ That was the main thing.”
“Being mature, being more disciplined, and doing the right things” were among also key changes in Tagovailoa’s lifestyle, and that trickled down to things like eating and sleeping better, he said.
“This year, I’ve been eating all three meals,” he noted. “I’ve been getting more of a gut. I gotta gain weight. My sleep got way better from last year too. Being mature, being more disciplined, and doing the right things.”
Still, Tagovailoa has a ways to go to be where he wants to be and lead Maryland back to prominence. In the second quarter against West Virginia, the Terps were facing a 4th-and-1 while trailing 21-17. Maryland ran a zone-read and Tagovailoa was supposed to hand the ball off but instead tried to make the play on his own and got sacked.
“[Tagovailoa] pre-determined that he was going to make the play himself instead of relying on his training,” Locksley said. “I feel he should have handed the ball off, and it would have been an easy first down for us. Those are the plays we got to continue to work on subtracting out of his game.”
Freeman remembers Tagovailoa being the same way in high school, always wanting to try his best to extend plays. The coach said those types of players will have good moments — and plenty of bad ones. But it’s a trait most coaches would be happy to have.
“Taulia is a guy that has a lot of confidence in himself,” Freeman said. “I kind of turned him loose a little bit here. When you do that, you live and die by it. I tell you, he’s going to make a lot more of those [plays] than he messes up.”
Moving forward, Locksley wants to help Tagovailoa to be less antsy in the pocket with his eyes focused down the field instead of the pass rush. Overall, Locksley believes Tagovailoa’s decision-making against the Mountaineers was on point, which is a positive sign in his growth after throwing seven interceptions in five games last season.
“He got the ball to the right people, the good majority of the time,” Locksley said. “Our goal is to build on the game that he had last week and just continue to work on the execution part with him.”
Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
TV: Big Ten Network
Radio: 105.7 FM