Losing three defensive starters before the midpoint of the season isn’t ideal.
But, it pales in comparison to losing a Heisman candidate quarterback for the season and having three other starters leave a game early with injuries.
That, though, is the situation for Alabama football with two regular-season games remaining.
Junior wide receiver Henry Ruggs III (bruised rib), senior defensive lineman Raekwon Davis (sprained ankle) and freshman nose tackle D.J. Dale (twisted knee) all ended up in coach Nick Saban’s postgame injury report, but junior quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s season-ending hip injury was the big story that dominated headlines this weekend.
(Editor’s note: Since this story was written, Saban also announced that redshirt sophomore defensive lineman Phidarian Mathis is questionable for Saturday’s game against Western Carolina.)
Dr. Lyle Cain, the team’s orthopedic surgeon, released a statement after the game confirming that Tagovailoa’s dislocated hip is season-ending, but he also expressed confidence that the quarterback would make a full recovery.
A second statement from Cain was released on Sunday night that explained the next course of action.
“For the past 24 hours our medical team has consulted with multiple orthopedic experts across the country, who specialize in hip injuries and surgeries,” the statement read. “Based on that research, Tua is being flown to Houston tonight to be evaluated and is scheduled to have hip surgery Monday. As previously stated, we anticipate a full recovery. The main focus has been, and will remain, on Tua, his family, and making sure we are providing them the best medical care possible.”
Tagovailoa, who was already recovering from spraining his ankle against Tennessee on Oct. 19, was scrambling to evade two Mississippi State defenders but was tackled while throwing the ball away.
He lay on the field for over a minute before trainers helped him stand while putting no weight on his right foot. The CBS broadcast also showed his nose bleeding heavily as he was carted off the field.
Pundits questioned Saban’s decision to leave Tagovailoa in the game with Alabama leading 35-7. The coach told ESPN at halftime and reiterated in his postgame press conference that he wanted Tagovailoa to practice the team’s two-minute drill and the drive would’ve been Tagovailoa’s last drive anyway.
“If he’s physically able to play in the game, we wanted him to play in the game. That’s what he wanted to do and that’s what our team wanted to do,” Saban said. “If I would’ve known that anything bad was gonna happen, I certainly wouldn’t have put him in that situation.”
Junior running back Najee Harris, who was Tagovailoa’s roommate during their freshman year, was predictably upset by Tagovailoa’s injury. Harris cut short his postgame interview session even after scoring a career-high four touchdowns.
“I’m just hurt by what happened to our quarterback,” Harris said. “… Not to be rude to anybody, I’m just not in the mood right now [to answer questions].”
With Tagovailoa always universally projected as a top-three NFL draft pick, it’s fair to wonder if he has played his final snap in an Alabama uniform.
Whether Tagovailoa does forgo his senior year or opts to return, redshirt sophomore Mac Jones now appears set to start the remainder of this season for Alabama. Jones is 45 of 65 (69.2%) for 566 yards, four touchdowns and one interception this season.
Jones, known affectionately as “Joker” to his teammates, finished the Tennessee game in relief of Tagovailoa. He made his first career start against Arkansas the following week, completing 18 of 22 passes for 235 yards and three touchdowns.
Ruggs left Saturday’s game in the middle of the third quarter after being tackled hard inside the Bulldogs’ 5-yard line.
The Crimson Tide used a few formations with tight ends Kendall Randolph and Major Tennison afterward. It also showed some four-receiver looks with juniors Jerry Jeudy and DeVonta Smith, sophomore Jaylen Waddle and freshman John Metchie.
On the defensive line, Davis had two separate injuries. The first resulted in a brief trip to the medical tent, but the second, which Saban said was a sprained ankle, led to him being carted off at halftime and putting no weight on his left leg.
With junior LaBryan Ray missing the last two months with a foot injury and Dale having left the game in the first half, the team’s defensive line depth got some reps on Saturday. The team began the second half with redshirt sophomore Phidarian Mathis, senior Tevita Musika and freshman Byron Young as its three D-linemen. Redshirt freshman Christian Barmore and freshman Justin Eboigbe also rotated in.
Saban said in mid-September that he expected Ray to begin rehab within six weeks, but on Monday he said Ray has yet to be medically cleared.
If Davis and Dale aren’t able to play Saturday against Western Carolina, the team will be without five of its projected starters from fall camp, joining Ray, junior linebacker Dylan Moses and senior linebacker Joshua McMillon.
“It’s just the wear and tear of the season, really,” Harris said. “It’s about that time when people go down with injuries and stuff. We just gotta rehab right.”
The following players all would been starters or had otherwise significant roles on the team before their injuries.
RB Trey Sanders (foot); out indefinitely
LB Joshua McMillon (knee); out indefinitely
LB Dylan Moses (knee); out indefinitely
DL LaBryan Ray (foot); unknown
K Will Reichard (hip flexor); unknown
TE Miller Forristall (throat/voice box); expected to return to contact by mid-December
QB Tua Tagovailoa (hip); out for rest of season
WR Henry Ruggs III (bruised rib); questionable this week
DL Raekwon Davis (sprained ankle); questionable this week
DL D.J. Dale (twisted knee); questionable this week