Trent Dilfer got the phone call from Galu Tagovailoa in early January, not long before Galu’s son Tua, the gifted Alabama quarterback, announced he would forgo his senior season and declare for this year’s NFL Draft.
Dilfer listened to the request Galu had made and immediately tried to talk him out of it.
“Before he decided to go into the draft, his dad asked if I would consider working with him,” Dilfer told Newsday. “I said, ‘I don’t think so.’ This business [of coaching draft-eligible quarterbacks] has become a nice industry, and this pre-draft stuff is good for [coaches’] brands. I don’t want to steal their core business. I’m like, I don’t know. I’ll never do the pre-draft stuff. I’ll just usually consult.”
Besides, Dilfer, a former Buccaneers first-round pick who won a Super Bowl with the Ravens after the 2000 season, had his own football responsibilities at the Lipscomb Academy in Nashville.
“I’m a high school football coach,” Dilfer said, “and I love it.”
Galu was insistent and wouldn’t take no for an answer. He’d seen the impact Dilfer had on a 16-year-old Tagovailoa at the Elite 11 camp where Dilfer worked, and he liked how Dilfer dealt with Tua.
“I didn’t blow smoke,” Dilfer said. “He was a talented kid, but he played with his hair on fire. His playing style was crazy. Every play, he tried to throw a touchdown pass, and sometimes he did. But I told him this isn’t going to work.”
Finally, Dilfer agreed to prepare Tagovailoa for the draft, but only on his terms:
Tagovailoa would spend weeks in Nashville and work out at Lipscomb. He’d train twice a day in the weight room — up to five hours a day under a personal trainer’s supervision. He’d eat meals prepared specifically made for him. He’d work with Dilfer and former NFL head coach Ken Whisenhunt. And he’d do it without drawing attention to himself — not until an April 9 virtual workout, specifically designed by Dilfer and sent to NFL teams.
Dilfer was astonished by what he saw from Tagovailoa — who had surgery in November after suffering a season-ending right hip dislocation — through the process.
“He’s gone through a lot, from the injuries, the disappointments, the emotional hit that you get when you have that type of injury,” Dilfer said. “When you have that big-time injury, there are a lot of fears. Then the COVID-19 thing hits. But he’s done brutally hard stuff, worked 9-5 every day. It’s rehab, small muscle development, boring meetings with me and Ken Whisenhunt. But through all that, he’s never flinched, never complained, never pushed back.”
As Tagovailoa awaits Thursday night’s draft, where he could be selected as high as second overall behind LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, the presumptive No. 1 overall pick by the Bengals, there isn’t a shred of doubt in Dilfer’s mind about his future as a big-time quarterback. In fact, he thinks Tagovailoa can become one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history.
“He throws it as good as anybody I’ve ever seen,” said Dilfer, who played 13 NFL seasons. “I would say Tua is the next guy that can do the Brett Favre-Patrick Mahomes-type thing. He has that magic in his game.”
He believes Tagovailoa can learn from the mistakes Dilfer admits he made over the course of his career — without having to make those same mistakes himself.
“The core of my coaching is that I’ve lived the life you’re about to live, and I’ve made mistakes doing it,” Dilfer said. “I’ll show them some patterns and danger signs. Here’s where I blew it. When I was successful, here’s what I did.”
Dilfer acknowledges that he didn’t reach his own potential despite coming into the league from Fresno State as one of the most heralded quarterbacks of his time.
“I was the 6-4, 238-pound kid who was fast and smart and tough and had all the tools,” Dilfer said. “But once I got to the league, I was complacent and thought I had arrived. The great ones, they’re always climbing. You’ve got to keep climbing. If you’re not climbing, somebody’s passing you. I didn’t have that mentality.
“I didn’t treat it as a craft, and it is a craft,” he said. “You’re an artist when you’re a quarterback. There are so many nuances, how you lead. I didn’t understand leadership until my fourth year, how you interact with coaches, understanding the coach’s life, their investment in you as a player. It took me a while to learn those lessons, and now I can share those mistakes.”
In one of his only offseason interviews, Tagovailoa has acknowledged that the help he has received from Dilfer and Whisenhunt has been valuable.
“With the amount of experience that they have,” he said at the NFL Scouting Combine, “it’s just going through the process knowing what to expect that’s been the biggest thing.”
Dilfer understands that Burrow is considered the better — and perhaps safer — prospect, and certainly appreciates his brilliant 2019 national championship season. But he sees a significant difference between the two in terms of sheer physical talent and strength.
“Burrow is a BMW 750 Ultimate, and when you press on the accelerator, there’s a lag,” he said. “Tua is a Maserati. You flex your foot at all on the accelerator and you’re jerked back in your seat. They’re different engines.”
Leigh Steinberg, Tagovailoa's agent, has been representing elite quarterbacks since Steve Bartkowski became his first client to be drafted in the first round, by the Falcons in 1975. He sees greatness in Tagovailoa, even if there are skeptics who worry about his hip injury, as well as ankle and wrist problems through some of his career at Alabama.
“When you look at him prior to his injury, this was considered to be the draft where he would be the top pick,” Steinberg told Newsday. “Once you get past the injuries, what he offers is still incredible, because he is a high-percentage thrower. Good footwork, smart, strong arm, and I think he’ll be picked toward the top of the draft.”
Any concerns about the hip?
“The doctors have given him a clean bill of health,” said Steinberg, who has represented 64 first-round picks and 11 Hall of Fame players, including Troy Aikman, Steve Young and Warren Moon. “They don’t consider him injury-prone. He’s playing football, not badminton or ping pong. He never would have amassed the staggering stats he had if he was injury- prone.”
Tagovailoa’s accomplishments at Alabama indeed are impressive. As a freshman, he replaced Jalen Hurts and won the national championship after the 2017 season. He finished his Crimson Tide career with 87 touchdown passes and only 11 interceptions. If he can stay healthy at the next level — a big if, in the minds of some teams — Dilfer believes he will achieve a high level of success.
“Don’t take my word for it, because I’m biased. I’m his buddy,” Dilfer said. “All you’ve got to do is watch the games and watch what he does.”
About the draft
What: Annual NFL Draft.
When: Round 1, Thursday (8 p.m.); Rounds 2-3, Friday (7 p.m.); Rounds 4-6, Saturday (Noon).
On the air: TV: NFL Network, ESPN, Ch. 7. Radio: SiriusXM, Westwood One, ESPN.
First pick: The Bengals hold the first pick and are expected to draft QB Joe Burrow of LSU, the 2019 Heisman Trophy winner.
Last year: With the No. 1 in the 2018 draft, the Cardinals selected Oklahoma QB Kyler Murray.
The Giants: They have the No. 4 pick overall.
The Jets: They have the No. 11 pick overall.
Last year: The Jets had the No. 3 pick and took Alabama DT Quinnen Williams. With the No. 6 pick, the Giants drafted Duke QB Daniel Jones.