MIAMI – Tua Tagovailoa was easy to identify Thursday even though he wore teammate Ryan Fitzpatrick's jersey and a mask to his first media session of training camp.
The mask was protective, and in a way the jersey was, too. Tagovailoa is happy to keep a low profile befitting his rookie status, even though he's widely hailed as the Miami Dolphins' future franchise quarterback.
A former star at Alabama, Tagovailoa knows how to deal with the pressure of great expectations.
“I think the best way to handle it is really not pay attention to it,” he said.
But Tagovailoa will be difficult to overlook because he's full of potential and personality. The latter was evident when he stepped in front of a media Zoom camera wearing Fitzpatrick's No. 14, rather than his own No. 1.
“I thought I could break ice making you guys laugh,” Tagovailoa said with a grin.
The 37-year-old Fitzpatrick is the team's 2019 most valuable player and the likely starter in the season opener at New England a month from Thursday, because the Dolphins have good reason to transition carefully to Tagovailoa.
There are lingering questions about the career-threatening hip injury that ended his Alabama career in November, and Tagovailoa himself wonders how well he'll hold up when tackling starts. In addition, the coronavirus pandemic slowed the development of all rookies by wiping out NFL offseason programs.
“Tua is going to develop quickly or slowly, depending upon how much he grasps the offense, how quickly he comes along and how he develops,” new Miami offensive coordinator Chan Gailey said. "A lot of that’s based on health. We’ll treat him just like we treat everybody else, and we’ll try to put him in a position to be successful when the time comes.”
Tagovailoa has repeatedly said his focus is on learning the Dolphins' playbook and building relationships, not on how long he's Fitzpatrick's understudy.
“They're going to put the team in the best position possible,” Tagovailoa said. “If that’s me supporting someone, that’s what it's going to be.”
As to whether his surgically repaired hip will hold up to contact, Tagovailoa conceded doubts will be there until he starts to play — and maybe longer.
“To answer that question honestly, you just never know until it actually happens,” he said. "I won't know the feeling until I do get tackled. It’s that trial-and-error thing. You’ve got to go out and do it to know whether it does hurt or it doesn’t.
“As far as how I feel right now, everything is going well.”
That's what the Dolphins want to hear. They took Tagovailoa with the No. 5 overall draft pick, the highest they’ve used on a quarterback since selecting future Pro Football Hall of Famer Bob Griese in 1967.
So Tagovailoa's not likely to remain No. 2 to Fitzpatrick for too long. In the meantime, the rookie and veteran have bonded, with Fitzpatrick — a father of seven — embracing the role of mentor to his eventual replacement.
“I got to meet his family two days ago,” Tagovailoa said. “It was pretty funny. We were on FaceTime. Everyone is scattered around the house, and he introduces me to his kids and then his wife. He's like, ‘This is everyone, this is my family.’ Lo and behold, he forgets two of them.”
Fitzpatrick might lose track of his own kids, but there's no overlooking Tagovailoa, the backup quarterback for now and perhaps the face of the franchise for years to come.
NOTES: The Dolphins will wear a jersey patch this season to commemorate Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Don Shula, who died in May. The patch will feature Shula’s name and “347” to signify his career victory total, an NFL record.
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