Accountability, maturation and leadership: Three defining characteristics of Taulia Tagovailoa’s continued development

(Photo Courtesy of Maryland Athletics.)

After the Terps arrived back in College Park at 4 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 25, sophomore quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa entered the team’s practice facility just seven hours later. The young quarterback was eager to get back to work and make corrections after Maryland’s disappointing 43-3 road loss against No. 16 Northwestern the night before.

Against the Wildcats, in his first career start, Tagovailoa struggled mightily as he threw three interceptions against the stout Northwestern defense. While Tagovailoa got to the facility at 11 a.m. the Terps weren’t scheduled to report for their daily coronavirus testing until noon. However, he arrived early to get a jumpstart on reviewing film and preparing for that week’s upcoming opponent, Minnesota.

Tagovailoa’s early start represented a sign of his continued commitment to improve. It also indicated that he treats the quarterback position as a profession instead of a job, which is essential, according to head coach Mike Locksley. As Locksley described, a job is something you do from 9-5, a profession is something you do 24/7.

“Taulia is one of those guys who treats playing quarterback as a profession,” Locksley said. “He takes copious notes, he’s a studier, he meets with me, he meets with Coach Montgomery. He’s a gym rat, he’s always in the office.”

One of the areas where Tagovailoa shows his willingness to improve is displayed through these film reviews with Locksley. They typically involve both men reviewing the footage from the prior week’s games and practices. Examining the film, Tagovailoa critiques his game and identifies potential areas of improvement, such as technique and footwork. Beyond those on-field intangibles, Locksley conveys one consistent message in those meetings from week-to-week.

“The biggest thing that Coach Locksley always stresses to me in our meetings is just being myself and not worrying about the pressure that comes with my last name or anything like that,” Tagovailoa said. “He just helps me to be myself and that’s the reason why I came to Maryland.”

A vital part of the self-evaluation process involves not only reviewing film during these sessions, but also before they begin. Reviewing beforehand is useful because it allows the young quarterback to come prepared with questions and clarify any potential confusion with Locksley. This natural exchange of ideas between the young signal caller and his veteran offensive coach is beneficial for the young quarterback’s development.

“I really feel like it benefits me a lot and it does help because with Coach Locksley there’s always something to get better with,” Tagovailoa said. “It’s his offense, so he knows the ins and outs of it, where to look and what positions to key. I think it helps me throughout the game.”

Occasionally, as an added benefit during meetings, Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa calls in to check in on his former offensive coordinator and younger brother. Tua offers his opinion on certain aspects of his brother’s game, which Taulia often takes into consideration.

However, these film sessions aren’t only beneficial to Tagovailoa, they’re also exciting for Locksley. As a head coach, he doesn’t have the opportunity to work with one particular position group, instead Locksley is an overarching leader for the entire roster. 

While offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery coaches the quarterbacks and organizes the offense, he’s running Locksley’s offensive system. Therefore, these individual meetings between Locksley and Tagovailoa offer an additional perspective on both areas of strength as well as  improvement for the young quarterback moving forward.

“It gives me the opportunity to continue to stay involved in coaching, which I love to do,” Locksley said. As the head coach on a daily basis to not have a position group kind of feels like you’re on an island by yourself and this gives me the opportunity to coach and be a part of developing players.”

Now four starts into his career, Tagovailoa has become increasingly comfortable with the offense, but he’s still a long way from where he wants to be. Recognizing he’s young, Tagovailoa has decided to focus more on his areas of weakness, which he can use to learn and grow from. That being said, Tagovailoa still remains focused on replicating the positive signs of his game from week-to-week.

Focusing on his intangibles on the field, one of the most important areas where Tagovailoa is searching for growth lies in his leadership ability. Although he’s only a sophomore, as the starting quarterback, Tagovailoa is naturally thrust into a leadership role. Still evolving as a leader, sometimes this season Tagovailoa has hung his head and exhibited a poor attitude after making a mistake. This represents an area where he recognizes that he needs improvement.

Even though Tagovailoa’s attitude has been impacted by mistakes this season, the young quarterback has consistently taken accountability for his mistakes postgame when speaking with the media. After both three-interception performances this season, Tagovailoa owned his mistakes and recognized how costly those turnovers were. Coach Locksley expects this kind of accountability from each of his players and Tagovailoa attributes to learning that accountability from his family. 

“Whether you win the game or lose the game it’s always on the quarterback,” Tagovailoa said. “The two games that we lost I made bad mistakes and I showed bad body language when I did make those mistakes. That’s not a sign of a leader, so I own up to that stuff and I just got to continue growing.”

One of the areas where that continued growth is most evident is during practice. Cornerback Kenny Bennett who faces off against Tagovailoa and the first-team offense every day in practice, cited the young quarterback’s development in his decision-making and comfortability in the offense. Bennett also referenced Tagovailoa’s ability to bounce back from mistakes, emerging as a leader for this young Terps roster with 56 new players.

“I just see him really growing into a leader for this team truthfully,” Bennett said. “He’s really making strides in all parts. He’s also somebody I see with anything he messes up during practice, he’s always the last person to leave the field, being a student of the game.”

Being a student of the game and the last one to leave the practice field is representative of both his unrelenting commitment to excellence and an area of his preparation in which he takes great pride. Tagovailoa added that his goal is to leave the practice field each day with confidence, rectifying earlier mistakes. 

Spending extended time on the field after practice can be dedicated to several areas. Sometimes Tagovailoa uses that time to refine his throwing mechanics, other times he uses it to recognize how certain players come out of their routes and he even utilizes it sometimes to assist the secondary in improving their ball skills.

However, with one game remaining this season after Saturday’s cancellation, Tagovailoa’s individual and collective goals remain simple. Whether he’s handing the ball off 50 times to the running backs or carving up defenses through the air, the young quarterback’s sole focus is on winning. 

Tagovailoa and the Terps have a final chance to do that on Dec. 12 against Rutgers in their final regular season game. It’s also another opportunity for him to display that consistent growth and maturation since the season opener against Northwestern on Oct. 24.

“I love this team,” Tagovailoa said. “We all push each other. It’s a good feeling to know that we have each other’s backs.”