It’s been a season of firsts for many of the No. 2 Saint Louis Crusaders.
Not so much for legendary coach Cal Lee and his staff, who have been through the title tilts and won championships as coaches and/or players. For quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, displaying his acumen at clock management — running time off it or blistering opponents through hurry-up mode — isn’t a first. He is, however, becoming a master at it. It’s the kind of intangible that isn’t measured at Elite 11 camps pitting the nation’s finest QBs against each other, never mind that he was the very best in that competition.
It’s no surprise. But it’s not a first. A first would be two weeks ago, when Tagovailoa took a slide after a first-down run. He had never even practiced it. It just… happened.
Then there was a first-down run during the second half of a 35-3 win over No. 6 Kamehameha on Saturday night. He eluded a furious pass rush, lost his right shoe, and kept going until the Warriors dragged him down close to the goal line. He sat the next play — equipment rule — as the Crusaders scored on a short run.
There are other firsts. Tosh Kekahuna-Kalawe has emerged as a premier pass catcher. Ronson Young and Noah Alejedo are quite reliable, as well, and it doesn’t end there. Lee and Tagovailoa have said for some time now that there are 20 capable receivers in the brotherhood. On Saturday, Tagovailoa completed passes to 10 different Crusaders.
Kekahuna-Kalawe: 5 receptions, 72 yards, seven targets
Alejado: 2-18, three targets
Young: 3-18, four
Jaymason Nunuha: 1-32, five
Dylan Silva: 1-13, one
Chris Sykes: 1-15, TD, one
Chandler Washington-Villanueva: 3-48, four
Jonah Panoke: 2-23, four
Austin Tuisano: 1-7, one
Mitchell Quinn: 1-12, two
Makoa Close: one
That might be the most I’ve ever seen, but it isn’t the most by Saint Louis this season. A total of 12 different receivers caught passes in the season opener at Hilo.
That depth of personnel and talent, and the wide spread of targets, don’t really build the resume of an all-state receiver wannabe, but it certainly makes Tagovailoa and the Saint Louis offense very difficult to predict. He trusts everybody. That trust, along with a serviceable offensive line — “We didn’t really block that well, to be honest,” Lee said — facing some of the state’s toughest front sevens, has put the Crusader offense in new territory. Last year’s offense had some veterans up front, but a lot of inexperience at receiver and slot. This year, Tagovailoa is apt to use his legs as much as he did during his sophomore season — the same year he fired 33 TD passes with a mere three picks.
“I don’t think we face a tougher front that we face in the OIA and the ILH,” Tagovailoa said of Kamehameha. “At the same time, you know, we made some adjustments and everything worked out good.”
By post-game, even on homecoming night at Aloha Stadium, it was business for the Crusaders. Lee was already in future thought, possibly ready to take a good look at video. The penalties. The missed assignments. Oh, the tape never lies. Crusader coaches were busy ushering the team into the mauka tunnel and into the bus. Tagovailoa relished the moment, short as it was. The stat sheet reads that — besides being sacked four times — he ran for 12 net yards. The real yards sideline to sideline, from the pocket to the first-down marker and beyond, and all that footwork against Kamehameha’s pass rush, well, he may have run the equivalent of a mile.
Four games, and four wins, into the 2016 season, Tagovailoa is 78-for-117, 1,196 passing yards, 13 TDs, no picks. He has also rushed 35 times for 227 yards and five more TDs. The career passing total by the Alabama commit: 6,699 yards.
And yet, nobody keeps his cool quite like him. His mind is in another place, and the younger Crusaders are finding their way there.