Taulia Tagovailoa looks to make own path to the NFL draft

Taulia Tagovailoa becomes all-time passing TD leader at Maryland (0:14)

Taulia Tagovailoa connects for 27-yard TD pass (0:14)

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- For about two hours on a recent March morning, Maryland's indoor football facility was quiet enough to hear the smack of the ball hitting the receivers' hands at the Terps' pro day.

With 51 representatives from all 32 NFL teams watching and taking notes, the auditions were consequential and, at times, tense -- until the reggae music began blasting through the speakers.

The song by artist Lucky Dube was a special request from the Big Ten's all-time leading passer, Hawaii native Taulia Tagovailoa, as he began to showcase his arm strength with some deep passes.

"I'm an island boy," Tagovailoa said with a smile following his throwing session, noting the braids sprouting from the top of his head as evidence of his laid-back, pro day vibe.

As the younger brother of Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, it's impossible for Taulia to forget where he came from -- or where he's trying to go. The two brothers, once teammates at Alabama, continue to forge their own paths but are forever linked by Tua's success -- the barometer by which Taulia will always be measured. And while Taulia leaves Maryland as one of the most decorated quarterbacks in school history, his potential to go undrafted leaves him in a familiar position -- looking up at his brother, the No. 5 overall pick in 2020.

"That's one of the things when Taulia came here that was a concern of mine because I understood the family dynamics, understood being in Tua's shadow," said Maryland coach Mike Locksley, who recruited Taulia when he was the offensive coordinator at Alabama before reuniting with him at Maryland. "But what I've been able to see, and if you ever get to know the kid, he's a kid that's really stood on his own.

"His stats provide that data to show that he's a guy that can make those type of plays. I thought he handled -- because of his love for his brother -- being in that shadow as an honor, rather than something as a hindrance."

TUA, A 2023 Pro Bowl selection, has started 51 NFL games, completed 66.9% of his passes (second best in team history) and has the best passer rating (97.1) in Dolphins history. In 2022, at just 24 years old, Tua became the youngest NFL quarterback since Dan Marino in 1984 to lead the league in passer rating, with his 105.5 just a notch above reigning Super Bowl champion Patrick Mahomes (105.2).

It's a standard Taulia said he considers a "big blessing" as he works to join Tua at the professional level. But the NCAA played a role in his decision to enter the draft earlier than Taulia had hoped. In early January, Tagovailoa entered the NCAA transfer portal and filed a waiver with the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility to improve his draft stock.

"The opportunities these kids have with the extra year, the NIL piece, that's a smart business decision that Taulia made, his family and his group decided," Locksley said. "I thought it was a great decision on his part to maximize the financial gains of college if you're not maybe where you see yourself at the next level."

Taulia's waiver request focused on the circumstances surrounding his freshman season in 2019, when he was Alabama's third-string quarterback behind his brother, who was the starter, and backup Mac Jones. That season, Taulia played in five games -- barely.

He played four total snaps in two of those games, including a 38-7 route at Mississippi State when he entered to honor Tua, who suffered a severe hip injury earlier in the game. The maximum threshold for redshirting is playing in four games. The 2020 season doesn't count toward eligibility because of rules that emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic, which would have left Taulia another year to play if he had redshirted in 2019.

"Going into college you always have goals, and I just wanted more," he said. "I felt like I left a lot of plays out on the field, and with another year, I felt it was going to be another opportunity to show what I can do and maybe improve on the things I didn't do well the past couple of years. That's all I was trying to do with getting another year."

Maryland filed the waiver on his behalf, and coach Nick Saban and Alabama wrote a letter of support to the NCAA, according to ESPN sources. The NCAA denied his request a few weeks later, and Tagovailoa left for California, where he trained for Maryland's pro day.

The NCAA declined to comment on the case.

"When the NCAA didn't accept it, I felt like it was God's plan for me to -- I mean, I only had one decision," Taulia said, "to go to the NFL draft."

TAULIA'S PATH WAS more indirect than his brother's from the start, even though they both began at Alabama.

Tua quickly made a name for himself as a freshman in 2017, when Saban made the historic coaching decision of benching Jalen Hurts at halftime of the national championship game against Georgia in favor of Tua. He threw the winning touchdown pass in overtime and was named the game's offensive MVP.

In 2019, when Taulia was a freshman at Alabama, his older brother reached the peak of his collegiate career before suffering the season-ending injury at Mississippi State in mid-November. Despite having his Alabama career cut short by injury, Tua finished his junior season as the program leader in total touchdowns with 96 (87 passing, nine rushing).

Meanwhile, Taulia completed nine passes for 100 yards and one touchdown in five games. With Jones the heir apparent to Tua at Alabama, Taulia transferred to Maryland following the 2019 season in search of more playing time.

He found it.

Taulia finished his collegiate career with 11,356 passing yards, eclipsing almost every Maryland passing record along the way. He set a school mark for touchdowns (77), career completions (955), career completion percentage (67.1) and career 300-yard games (15).

Despite his eye-popping numbers, Taulia wasn't invited to the NFL combine. Taulia is also not listed among the 257 players ESPN NFL draft analyst Matt Miller projects to be chosen in the seven rounds.

As scouts watched him at Maryland's pro day, the reviews were similar -- Taulia is a "camp player only right now."

"He has experience, was very productive in college, is very athletic and can extend plays," one NFL scout told ESPN. "He escapes the pocket too soon, though, and his accuracy on film is not good."'

Taulia said his brother has been giving him advice.

"I want to be where he's at, and he helps me a lot," Taulia said. "The biggest thing for me, he knows how to talk to me. I'm more like, 'What should I do? Just tell me what it is; don't beat around.' Basically, just be myself and have fun.

"It's not a make-or-break thing if I don't do good. It's just being right with myself and making sure I'm at peace with everything and putting in the work the right way."

Taulia had an impressive showing at the East-West Shrine Bowl, where he completed nine passes for 142 yards and no interceptions. He also added a rushing touchdown.

He said his strengths are throwing the football from the shotgun and being on the move and scrambling -- he had 201 career rushing yards and 13 rushing touchdowns for the Terps -- but felt his arm strength has been one of the scouts' biggest questions. One NFL scout agreed, and told ESPN that overall, Taulia is "not a pocket passer and plays small."

"He has to be outside the pocket to make throws and see," the scout said. "He's not consistent enough."

Locksley said Taulia's biggest growth since his freshman season at Alabama has been the "football intelligence piece."

"Throwing the football's not the question," Locksley said. "What I've seen Taulia be able to do, with this father who's trained two NFL quarterbacks, is the mental piece of it, the maturity that comes with being able to make the right decision at the right time. I've seen that growth, I've seen the football maturity out of Taulia, and he will make somebody's NFL team because he is talented enough."

Locksley also noted that Taulia has had success in Maryland's pro-style system, which will equate to him being able to play for any team in the NFL.

"I know I'm a leader and a hard worker," Taulia said. "I've earned the respect of people in the locker room, every locker room I've went to. I'm a competitor and I love my teammates. That's the biggest thing, you earning their respect. I'm going to give it my all in everything I do."