Tua the story as N.F.L. draft begins on Friday
Wherever he ends up, Samoan quarterback Tuanigamanuolepola "Tua" Tagovailoa will be the story of the National Football League (N.F.L.) draft which begins on Friday afternoon Samoan time.
A stellar three-year career at college football powerhouse Alabama means there are very few concerns about his playing ability being asked by professional scouts and talent evaluators.
Rather the questions are being asked over whether Tagovailoa will be able to stay on the field and display those talents, with the 22-year-old suffering a dislocated hip and fractured posterior wall, along with a broken nose and concussion, when he was sacked by Mississippi State last November.
The injuries meant he would never play another game for Alabama, and their severity caused Tagovailoa to fall from his position as the presumptive 2020 number-one draft pick.
Tagovailoa insisted he was “100 percent” fully recovered at the beginning of April, but it remains to be seen whether the N.F.L. teams looking to recruit a quarterback will be convinced.
The Athletic’s draft analyst Dane Brugler ranks him as the sixth best overall draft prospect:
“Tagovailoa has obvious reliability concerns and the medical feedback must come back clean, but his passing instincts to read, process and fire are outstanding, projecting as an NFL starter who might require a partial redshirt as his hip returns to full health.”
The consensus among draft evaluators and forecasters is that Tagovailoa is the second-ranked quarterback prospect behind Joe Burrow, and will be chosen with one of the draft’s first eight picks as the Cincinnati Bengals (no. 1), Miami Dolphins (no. 5) and Los Angeles Chargers (no. 6) all have a hole to fill at the position.
Even if he slides down the board on Friday and the injuries affect the start of his professional career, Tagovailoa certainly looks to have the character to confront that sort of adversity.
Alabama coach Nick Saban said the Samoan “has probably had as much of an impact on our program as any player we have ever had,” and the man himself has measured viewpoint on his predicament.
"I have no control over the circumstances or situation," Tagovailoa told NFL.com’s Steve Wyche.
"If I was healthy [or] if I wasn't, I would have no control. So, the best thing I can do is continue to work. Whatever team decides to choose me, I would be grateful."
He said he the biggest factor in his decision to forgo a senior season at college and enter the draft was his parents.
"Coming from a Samoan background, being raised culturally, our parents are everything to us,” Tagovailoa said.
“My dad and my mom, when they made decisions, big decisions, little decisions, they go and seek guidance from their own parents."
And he fully understands his responsibility as a Samoan on the precipice of the big league.
"It's surreal, you know," Tagovailoa said.
"I grew up watching guys like Troy Polamalu play. My dad grew up watching guys like Jesse Sapolu and 'The Throwin' Samoan,' Jack Thompson -- all these guys who have set the foundation for our people. We were known probably more so as the bigger guys, you know, the linemen. More of the aggressive guys. Then you got guys like Marcus [Mariota], who kind of broke the chain with Jack Thompson as quarterbacks, being of Samoan heritage or just Polynesian descent, paving the way for guys like me to also do the same for the future."
The other potential Samoan first round pick certainly falls into the former category.
Edge rusher A.J. Epenesa of Iowa is projected in the top three or four in his position according to expert consensus.
Dane Brugler ranks him as the 32nd best prospect overall:
“Epenesa is a downhill force player with the explosive hands and flexible body type that help him create rush lanes. While he is able to create knockback, he can be slowed once engaged and needs to improve his counter measures. Overall, Epenesa doesn’t win with pure speed or quick twitch, but his explosive length, heavy hands and savvy make him a productive power rusher and reliable run defender, projecting as an NFL starter with Pro Bowl upside.”
If the 21-year-old goes unselected in the first round of the draft on Friday, he will likely hear his name called in round two or three on Saturday from 12 pm Samoan time.
A couple more Samoans in U.C.L.A. tight end Devin Asiasi and Utah safety Julian Blackmon should get picked up between rounds four and seven of the draft, which begin at 5 am on Sunday Samoan time.
All three days of the event will be held online for the first time ever due to COVID-19 restrictions, with teams making their selections remotely from home.