There has rarely been a quarterback so tied to the success — and at times failure — of the Maryland football team as Taulia Tagovailoa has been since his arrival three seasons ago.
His record as a starter since transferring from Alabama — a modest 15-13 after Saturday’s 37-0 win over Rutgers at SECU Stadium — pales in comparison to many others who’ve played the position before him for Maryland.
Boomer Esiason? He was a big part of the Terps going 8-4 in each of Bobby Ross’ first two seasons (including the first of three straight ACC titles when Boomer was a senior in 1983) and left with 17 school records.
Scott McBrien? He went from being unwanted at West Virginia to unsung at Maryland, picking up where Shaun Hill left off in 2001 and helping Ralph Friedgen build his record the first three years to 31-7 (21 wins with McBrien.)
Yet you might have to go all the way back to Jack Scarbath — with a 24-4-1 record and a runner-up finish for the 1952 Heisman Trophy — to find a quarterback who singlehandedly impacted the trajectory of this program more than Tagovailoa.
Esiason and McBrien had more talent surrounding them than Tagovailoa has, and Scarbath probably did as well.
There have also been other Maryland quarterbacks who put up big numbers, mostly on bad teams. Scott Milanovich, whose passing yardage record Tagovailoa broke last week against No. 2 Ohio State, played on teams that went a combined 15-29 over four seasons.
Where would the Terps be if not for Mike Locksley coaching both Taulia and his older brother Tua in Tuscaloosa before returning to College Park for the 2019 season? A year later, the younger Tagovailoa committed to Maryland after losing the starting job at Alabama to Mac Jones.
Locksley knew how important finding a quarterback would be, and took big swings. He recruited Jalen Hurts, who lost his starting job at Alabama to Tua Tagovailoa, and current USC star Caleb Williams, but both chose Oklahoma. It would have continued two decades of a quarterback drought if Locksley didn’t finally get Taulia.
“Obviously the old adage, ‘If you’ve got a quarterback, you’ve got a chance,’” Locksley said after Maryland secured its first shutout since joining the Big Ten for the 2014 season and its first overall since 2008. “I feel really good that we’ve got a quarterback. I continue to see the growth in him.”
As for growth in the program, the signs are there. A 7-5 record means this is the second straight year in which Maryland will win at least seven games, but that sort of record often gets coaches at big-time programs fired. Locksley, though, is secure. Saturday’s win automatically adds a year to the extension he signed last summer; it now runs through 2028.
Meanwhile, Tagovailoa’s place in the school’s record books is even more permanent, especially if he returns for a redshirt senior year in 2023. He has five major career records.
A week after taking over from Milanovich as Maryland’s all-time leader in passing yardage, Tagovailoa erased Milanovich again from the top line with his record-breaking 50th career touchdown pass and threw for over 300 yards in a game for a 12th time, which is also a record.
“It was great to see Taulia continue to build on his legacy here, breaking records of some great quarterbacks that have come before him,” Locksley said.
“In a short period of time, it’s really been about two years and five games (in 2020 when he missed time because of COVID-19) when you count up the opportunities he’s had. Played at a high level here the past couple of weeks.”
Coming off a game in which he outplayed Heisman Trophy candidate C.J. Stroud of Ohio State by completing 26 of 36 passes for 293 yards and two touchdowns, and running for a third, Tagovailoa backed it up by going 25 of 37 for 342 yards and the record-breaking touchdown, a 27-yarder to Jeshaun Jones in the fourth quarter.
It hasn’t been a totally stress-free tenure for Tagovailoa, who much like his coach has trouble hiding his displeasure when teammates make mistakes. Locksley would like to see Tagovailoa keep “a neutral mindset” when it comes to his body language and facial expressions.
“He can sometimes rub people the wrong way because he is so competitive, but that’s what that position is all about,” Locksley said. “When you’re in a position of leadership, everybody’s not going to like you, what you have to say. He’s much like a coach on the field. When things are not going the way they should on offense, he has no problem speaking his mind.
“I have no problem with the type of leadership he provides our team. I think he’s a person people respect because of the work he puts in. He’s not one of those guys that’s a frontrunner. He’s one of the best workers we have in our program and he’s very demanding of his teammates, which is a good thing.”
Tagovailoa’s time with the Terps has not been injury free either, especially this season. He sprained the MCL in his right knee toward the end of a 34-27 loss at No. 4 Michigan back in late October, then re-injured it three weeks later at Indiana and again last week in the waning seconds of a down-to-the-wire 43-30 loss to the No. 2 Buckeyes. Tagovailoa limped off Saturday with the Terps up 14-0 and on their way to a 17-0 halftime lead.
Replaced briefly, Tagovailoa returned for the second half. At the end of a short first-down run in the third quarter, Tagovailoa appeared to have been hit on the knee again. But he stayed in and didn’t come out until throwing the touchdown pass to Jones with a little under 10 minutes left.
The two celebrated on the sideline by raising one of the other’s arms in the air as the touchdown pass record was announced to the small crowd. Tagovailoa said after the game that it never crossed his mind to come out when he tweaked the knee.
“It was an easy decision for me, we’re playing this game for the seniors, trying to end them the right way, the things that they did, the years that they’ve been here sacrificing their body and their time and stuff like that,” said Tagovailoa. “It’s only right to give it your all for the seniors.”
Jones, who after starting his college career with three touchdowns in a win against Texas at FedEx Field in 2018 before twice suffering season-ending ACL injuries, appreciates the toughness Tagovailoa has demonstrated this season.
“It just shows what kind of guy he is,” said Jones, who caught nine passes for 152 yards, both career-highs. “That’s him, day in and day out. He’s going to leave it all out there on the line for his brothers. I think that’s what kind of motivates this team, especially offensively. Everyone feels they have to bring that same energy.”
Locksley said that what Tagovailoa has done in his time at Maryland is reminiscent of what he did in high school, first in his native Hawaii and later after the family moved to Alabama to be able to watch Tua quarterback the Crimson Tide.
The team in Birmingham was rebuilding, much like the Terps.
“Having known the kid since I think his ninth or 10th grade (year), with the process of recruiting his brother, I’ve said this before: When you threw for over 14,000 between two states, took a program very much like ours — that was probably not one of the top programs in that area — but he elevated the program.
“He’s a winner. He’s competitive. He throws the ball really well. He’s a guy that just makes plays for us. What he’s been able to do here, I’m not surprised. I still think there’s more. It’s my job to get it out of him. Our job of doing the things he’s capable of executing. It’s great to be able to see him and the things we expected him to do, he’s been able to do.”
Aside from his relationship with Locksley, Tagovailoa wasn’t even vaguely familiar with the Maryland football program, only hearing of the history of injuries and inconsistent play at the quarterback position after he arrived. It was simply the faith he put — and prayed about with his family — in his coach.
“It was mostly (Locksley’s) vision,” said Tagovailoa. “Going into a place, you have goals, you have aspirations, stuff like that. It’s different when you’re coming from a different team, you’ve got to get used to the players. I think Coach Locksley, he always puts everyone in a great position to be successful. He’s very caring of us. Everyone doing their part, coming here I’ve got to do my part and help benefit the team.”
Unlike his coach, Tagovailoa isn’t yet considering his legacy at Maryland.
“What I think when I go on the field is more so doing my job,” Tagovailoa said. “I think everything works better when you focus on your job instead of the records or anything else. It’s something to look back on and be very proud of and thankful for.”
A reporter asked Tagovailoa if he has ever taken a peek of where he stands in “the books”.
“What book?,” he said. “Like I said, it’s just doing my job. You guys know more than me about that.”
Don Markus covered college sports at The Baltimore Sun, where he was on staff for 35 years. He is the author of “100 Things Maryland Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die” and was a producer for the podcast series “Len Bias: A Mixed Legacy.”