The rookie quarterback was making the kind of throws he had seen so many times before, even making something out of nothing with his legs, and as Xavier McKinney watched it all from afar with pride,
The rookie quarterback was making the kind of throws he had seen so many times before, even making something out of nothing with his legs, and as Xavier McKinney watched it all from afar with pride, it was almost as if he was back at practice at Alabama trying to match wits with Tua Tagovailoa and intercept him.
“I got him a couple of times, man,” McKinney told Serby Says, and laughed. “It’s hard to get interceptions off of him. He doesn’t really make a whole bunch of bad decisions. He doesn’t make a whole bunch of bad reads, to be honest. I got a couple, but the ball that he throws, if you watch it on TV, it’s really pretty, it’s on-point accurate every single time, whether he’s getting pressured or he’s not. He almost throws the same ball as he does if he’s not getting pressured and when he actually is getting pressured. That’s the beauty of him and how he throws the ball.”
McKinney is the blue-chip rookie safety drafted by the Giants in the second round, who is close to returning from a fractured foot suffered in training camp. In the wake of his former teammate and friend’s triumphant second start for Miami last Sunday against Arizona’s Kyler Murray, McKinney offered a message for a city and a franchise and a fan base starving for the end of a treacherous post-Dan Marino curse.
“You got a helluva QB, man,” McKinney said. “You got a good guy in general. He’s a great person, so that’s all you can really ask for. I think they should be really excited in what the future holds with having him as their QB.”
Tagovailoa’s 41-yard touchdown pass to DeVonta Smith in overtime to win the 2018 national championship game against Georgia will stand as a forever moment in Tuscaloosa, and in McKinney’s mind. It prove to be one of coach Nick Saban’s finest hours as well, when he replaced Jalen Hurts at halftime with this freshman Throwin’ Samoan.
“It was a shock at first,” McKinney said. “But the way we kind of went about things at ’Bama, for every position it was always ‘next man up.’ I was just glad to have both of them on my team at the time.”
McKinney recalls one other play that epitomized the magic of Tua Tagovailoa.
“Or the second one, which was probably one of the craziest plays I’ve ever seen a QB make, I think it was Louisville, the first game of our sophomore season,” McKinney said. “I think he threw it to [Jerry] Jeudy in the back right corner of the end zone. I think he made a spin move, and as he made that spin move, he was getting hit at the same time from behind. He was falling backwards, and he still threw like a perfect pass in the back right corner of the end zone. Once I saw that play, I was like, ‘This guy’s pretty amazing.’ ”
McKinney and Tagovailoa were Roll Tide teammates for three years — the quarterback from Hawaii and the safety from Georgia, the one helping the other, the two of them dreaming of the NFL together.
“I just talked to him pretty much after every practice trying to figure out what he saw from me that I can do better, and just trying to figure out how he just read the defense, how he read the safeties and trying to see like any room where I kind of can improve,” McKinney said. “As I started to do that, he was just like, ‘Hey, you also let me know what I can do better as a QB,’ if I could read where he might want to go with the ball, or just different little things like that just to make him better.”
And theirs became a friendship built on trust.
“We had deep conversations,” McKinney said.
So you can imagine McKinney’s horror when Tagovailoa crumpled to the turf in excruciating pain last Nov. 16 against Mississippi State with a career-threatening hip dislocation injury and was carted off, his nose bleeding.
“It hurt me personally,” McKinney said. “It hurt us as a team. Just seeing a guy like that go down, we just knew how much he meant to us as a team. We knew how much of a leader he was for us going into that stretch that we had. But just to kind of see him go down, it was really rough, to be honest. We had to push through it, man, and we tried to do the best we could to fight through those times and play for him.”
These are the times that try a man’s soul.
“He handled it well during those times,” McKinney said. “He’s a very positive guy, as everybody pretty much knows about Tua, never really gets down on himself or anybody else. He just sees it as another challenge in his way that he has to conquer through. He never got frustrated or anything like that, which was good, because knowing that type of injury, that could easily frustrate somebody and make things very hard to push through that, but he definitely did it, and it made it much easier for him on his recovery.”
McKinney knew the mettle of the man and never feared that Tagovailoa’s career would be over.
“No I didn’t,” he said. “I knew he was gonna come back stronger than how he left. I never thought about anything else.”
Of course Tagovailoa had doubts, how could he not?
“Literally almost a year from now, we’re making a decision to decide if I was going to be able to play again or not. I’m just blessed to be here,” Tagovailoa told the media this week.
He has carried his upbeat demeanor into the Dolphins huddle.
“Very collected,” Dolphins center Ted Karras said by phone. “Has good command over the guys in the huddle. Concise with the play call.”
It couldn’t have been easy replacing a popular veteran like Ryan Fitzpatrick. But Tagovailoa has made it seem easy.
“I think he throws a magnificent football, I think he’s a great leader and a guy who works really hard and earned the respect of his teammates, and just keeps striving to win like the rest of us,” Karras said.
Same as Tuscaloosa Tua.
“He’s calm, he’s cool, he’s collected,” McKinney said. “He’s kind of even-keeled. He never gets too high, he never gets too low. He’s always trying to make sure that the goal is achieved, which is the goal is always winning.”
Karras was asked what one play opens his eyes, and he referred to a 17-yard run on which Tagovailoa sliced between diving Cardinals Haason Reddick and Markus Golden.
“When he split the two would-be tackles on that scramble in the fourth quarter. We hadn’t really seen him take off too much, so that was really encouraging,” Karras said.
Tagovailoa, the fifth-overall pick in the 2020 draft, has his first showdown Sunday with precocious Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert, the sixth pick.
“I have no animosity towards Justin Herbert, and for me, it’s not even a competition between me and him, it’s a competition for myself to go out and see what I can do to help our team be successful against their defense,” Tagovailoa told reporters. “And I’m pretty sure it’s the same for Justin as well.”
McKinney was thrilled with Tagovailoa’s 20-for-28, 248-yard, two-TD breakout last Sunday.
“It’s nothing new, man,” he said. “Tua, that’s my guy, man, that’s my brother. Being able to see him back out there, back doing the things that I’m used to seeing him do, it was just great to actually see that. I was happy to see him out there on the field and make plays like he always does. He played a helluva game, too, though, so it’s always exciting to watch him.”
Tua good to be true.