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Tua Tagovailoa joins a long list of great quarterbacks

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    Galu Tagovailoa and Vince Passas teamed up to help make Tua Tagovailoa the player he is today.


    Tua Tagovailoa threw under the guidance of quarterback coach Vince Passas, right, during the Maximum Exposure camp in 2015.

Vince Passas is always in the midst of communication.

The phone rings. it’s a coach. It rings again. It’s a client. Riiinngg… it’s a sportswriter. He enjoys all of it, except maybe the first part a little less, though Passas is and always has been a true Saint.

When the second half of the College Football Playoff national championship began on Monday night, it was the emergence of Tua Tagovailoa that stopped everything. He put the phone down and took it all in. Tagovailoa, a 2017 Saint Louis graduate who enrolled early at Alabama, rallied the Crimson Tide from a 13-0 deficit to a stunning 26-23 overtime victory over Georgia.

Passas, the longtime quarterbacks coach at Saint Louis, just smiled. No surprises from Tua, not even the 41-yard TD pass that gave the Crimson Tide the win.

“I was just happy to see that the nation got to see what we know about Tua. Now he’s proven it to everyone there,” Passas said on Tuesday. “My favorite part of the game wasn’t just the touchdown pass, by the way.”

It’s the process that brings joy. Passas has seen that exact scenario and execution, literally, thousands of times. From Day One, when Tagovailoa was a sophomore starter for the Crusaders — on his way to a 33-TD, three-pick season — it was a jewel in the playbook drawn up by offensive coordinator Ron Lee.

“Alabama calls that ‘Seattle.’ Coach Ron calls it ‘Divide.’ It’s the same play. That’s Tua’s favorite play. For the three years we had him at Saint Louis, we must’ve repped it 20 times a day, five days a week. That’s 100 times a week for months,” Passas said.

“He could’ve thrown it blindfolded.”

The daily reps by Tagovailoa were the same process endured and mastered by the long, historic list of stellar passers on Kalaepohaku. Jason Gesser (Washington State, Tennessee Titans). Darnell Arceneaux (Utah). Timmy Chang (Hawaii, Philadelphia Eagles). John Hao (Hawaii). Joel Lane and dozens more going back to the 1970s.

Even with the massive success of QBs at Saint Louis with Passas as their QB whisperer, there was even more to come. In 2010, Marcus Mariota became an “overnight” sensation years in the making, a scholar-athlete who didn’t start until his senior year. By then, Passas began to see the future generation at his Get Better clinic on Sundays.

“McKenzie (Milton) and Tua were in sixth, seventh grade. McKenzie was a hotshot quarterback from Waipio (Panthers). Tua played for the Hammerheads at Ewa Beach,” Passas recalled. “They all came when Marcus and Jeremy Higgins were in high school. Tai-John Mizutani. Jordan (Ta’amu) was kind of sandwiched in between Marcus and Tua.”

That’s right. The future quarterbacks of Saint Louis (Tagovailoa, state champion), Mililani (Milton, state champion), Pearl City (Ta’amu, title contender) and ‘Iolani (Mizutani, title contender) were there working out just as Mariota, Jeremy Higgins and the star QBs of Saint Louis’ past did. Tagovailoa leads the all-time passing list (8,158 yards), Mizutani is fourth (7,592) and Milton is fifth (7,303).

Milton’s senior year was derailed by a collarbone injury on a pile-driver sack by Kailua defensive end Christian Mejia. However, Milton went on to start full-time as a true freshman last season for UCF. This year he sparked the Knights to a 13-0 mark and an unofficial national championship. He finished with 4,037 passing yards and 613 rushing yards, accounting for 45 combined TDs.

“When UH offered (Milton), I figured everyone else would offer, too. (Scott) Frost (then the offensive coordinator at Oregon) was the only other one who wanted him, but the head coach wanted someone else,” Passas said.

Frost then got the head coaching gig at UCF and Milton followed.

Ta’amu went to New Mexico Military Institute before accepting an offer from Ole Miss. When he got the call to start, he exploded with 368 passing yards and 76 yards on the ground against Arkansas. The Rebels went 3-2 with Ta’amu as a starter, including a 382-yard, four-TD performance against Kentucky.

“Jordan’s a phenomenal story. Amazing,” Passas said.

Now in his fifth decade of coaching, Passas won’t be surprised if next season’s Heisman Trophy finalists include more than one from the islands. He thinks it could be three QBs who truly get better.

“I think all three of them have the potential. McKenzie has a new coach coming over, but he is in the same type of system that will make McKenzie that much more valuable. For Jordan, it’ll be tough because they’ll be on probation, but he’s always a viable candidate,” Passas said. “Of course, Tua, it’s just a matter of time and he’ll get his stats up. He’ll just compete again with the guys around him.”

There’s always room for more possibilities. Passas didn’t blink with the idea of Hawaii-bound Chevan Cordeiro, who led Saint Louis to the state title last season, as a candidate.

“Like Tua, all he needs is an opportunity,” Passas said. “Once that opportunity comes, we learned with Chevan that when he gets it, he makes the best of it.”

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