Opinion: During week of uncertainty at combine, Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa is rolling with the challenges

INDIANAPOLIS — Tua Tagovailoa almost squirmed. His angst was evident in a moment where others may have seized the chance to boast.

“You guys are making me talk about myself,” the Alabama quarterback and one of the most intriguing prospects of the 2020 NFL draft said with a smile when asked to describe his attribute that best translates to the pro game. “It’s making me feel uncomfortable up here. I’m not too sure honestly.”

A short time later when asked what makes him the best choice if a decision came down to him and Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow, Tagovailoa deflected yet again.

“That’s a good question. I’m not one to talk about myself too much,” he said, and then his eyes lit up. “But if you want me to talk about the other guy, he’s a fierce competitor. He’s really good. As you can see, he’s broken a lot of records and he’s done a great job this past season.”

The uncommon responses perfectly reflected the awkward situation in which the 2018 national champion-winning quarterback and Heisman runner-up finds himself this week. 

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For the better part of two years, draft experts regarded him as one of the biggest slam dunks of a prospect. More than a year before he was even eligible to declare for the NFL draft, many projected the left-handed Hawaiian as the top player coming out of college in 2020. 

But after the devastating November day in which a dislocated right hip and posterior wall fracture ended his junior season, everything changed. 

Now, it’s Burrow — fresh off his own heroics in the national championship game— who is projected to go first overall in April. 

Meanwhile, Tagovailoa arrived at the combine with the biggest questions involving the medical evaluations conducted this week. With March 9 the target date for his medical clearance and April 9 set for his pro day, the star quarterback can only talk. 

But anyone who knows Tagovailoa is familiar with his humble nature and preference to let his play do the talking, so selling himself in this manner doesn’t fit.

But what’s worse, Tagovailoa — the guy accustomed to always having the ball in his hands — can’t even answer the most pressing questions hanging over him. He must leave that to the medical experts, whose findings will go a long way toward shaping NFL talent evaluators’ opinions of him. 

So for now, Tagovailoa is trying to handle this challenge the best way he knows how. By relying on his immediate and extended support system. By maintaining his faith. By controlling the aspects he can control. And by letting his unquenchable optimism continue to fuel him.

In the same way that he tends to take what the defense gives him, Tagovailoa is rolling with whatever comes this week. 

“It’s been a process, now,” he said Tuesday morning. “We went to the hospital at 10 yesterday in the morning. I was the last person to leave. We went there at 10, and I was back by about 7:49 p.m. So right in time for the informal and formal interviews.”

The lengthy days and various interviews can prove wearing. However, after all he has been through up until this point, Tagovailoa can manage. 

“I think the lowest point was just at that moment when I got hurt,” he said. “That was the lowest point. I didn’t feel bad for myself when I was on the helicopter going to Birmingham, when I was in the hospital. The lowest point was when I got hurt. … At that point, what can you do? That’s sort of my mindset. I can’t do anything about my injury. No feeling sorry for myself. I did feel bad when I went out to see my team play and I couldn’t help them. It was hard.”

The combine is all about displaying an ability to respond under pressure. Teams ask uncomfortable questions. They drill players on their knowledge of football concepts. They try to get a clearer picture of the athletes as people.

Poise, decision-making and leadership qualities are three of the most important traits for a quarterback. In these interviews, Tagovailoa has a chance to affirm to coaches and general managers his unflappability, even in this setting where most everything is beyond his control.

But his character has never been in doubt, nor has his leadership or ability to weather adversity. The only way Tagovailoa can lose this week is if medical reports unearth some troubling details about his recovery, but those close to the quarterback insist that every progress report to date has been positive. 

Tagovailoa, however, can’t dramatically change the narrative until his pro day, when — if fully recovered — he can display the same arm strength, accuracy, touch and athletic ability that once had NFL types salivating. 

But even then, uncertainty will loom. The hip dislocation is just one setback that Tagovailoa has faced, as he was also sidelined at Alabama by injuries to his hand and both ankles.

But the quarterback said he won’t strive to convince coaches and general managers that he is not injury-prone.

“First off, I think going into the interview rooms and these informal interviews, I just feel like I’ve got to be myself,” he said. “If I’m not the person for the organization, then I’m not the person. I just feel like if I’m just myself going into the interviews, the right team will find me.”

Aside from the instances Tuesday in which he was asked to discuss his strengths, Tagovailoa did seem to have a peace about himself.

He acknowledged the rehabilitation process has “been a grind,” but he credited his family, friends and fans for fueling his drive. 

“The amount of support I had for my family first off was out of this world,” he said. “From the fans, the fan support was out of this world because it wasn’t just people from Alabama sending cards or messaging us. There were people from London, Singapore that were messaging us. I didn’t even know they watched football out there. It’s crazy the amount of support that we had.”

And to that point, despite declaring a life-long love for the Dallas Cowboys and acknowledging an understanding that he may rank high on the Miami Dolphins’ wish list, Tagovailoa is grateful. Grateful for the process. Grateful for the lessons learned. And grateful for the future, regardless of which team drafts him.

“For me,” he said, “whatever team decides to pick me, I’d be grateful, whether it’s first or 32nd or 200th. I’d be grateful just to get picked.

“As a competitor, I want to be able to play," he later added. "But you look at a lot of the guys that are really good and a lot of the greats, they’ve been mentored by big-time quarterbacks as well and veteran quarterbacks. If a team needs me to go out there and start for them, I’ll do that. But if they need me to sit behind someone and learn from them, I can’t see what’s wrong with that as well.”

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones and listen to the Football Jones podcast on iTunes.

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