Vince Passas doesn’t want the credit, but the fact remains: after working with quarterbacks Marcus Mariota and Tua Tagovailoa at Saint Louis, both became top-five NFL draft picks within five years of each other.
Five years after Mariota was the second overall pick of the 2015 NFL Draft by the Tennessee Titans, Tagovailoa was selected fifth overall by the Miami Dolphins in April.
“That’s pretty awesome. I just thank the good Lord for sending them my war or having our paths cross somehow in life,” Passas told KHON2. “I’m just so grateful to be a part of both of their journeys and I’ve been given more credit than I really deserve. Those guys are the ones that are gifts from God and I was just fortunate to be at the right place at the right time to help these guys in their journeys and be a part of it. That’s really special.”
In both of their senior seasons at the prep level, Mariota and Tagovailoa both quarterbacked the Crusaders to an HHSAA Division I title. Mariota did it in 2010 with Darnell Arceneaux as his head coach, while Cal Lee was at the helm when Tagovailoa led the team to the state crown in 2016. Passas was the QB coach on both of those teams.
When Mariota and Tagovailoa went on to become Heisman Trophy finalists in their respective college careers, Passas was invited by each to attend their Heisman ceremonies in New York. Mariota won the award in 2014, while Tagovailoa was the runner-up in 2018. Although Saint Louis fell just short of joining Woodrow Wilson High School in Dallas, California’s Mater Dei High School and Virginia’s Fork Union Military Academy as the only pre-college schools to produce multiple Heisman winners, Passas isn’t any less pleased with his two star pupils.
“Just so proud of Tua and Marcus and for them to represent our program and our school at Saint Louis, it’s really amazing,” he said. “We’re all so proud of them and we still think that Saint Louis is the greatest school on the face of this earth.”
Mired in uncertainty due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the upcoming 2020 NFL season also brings a fresh start to both Mariota and Tagovailoa, who will each be playing for new teams this year. Mariota joined the Las Vegas Raiders as a free agent back in March, while Tagovailoa will be a rookie in Miami this fall. Players began to report to fall camps over the past week with contact practices currently scheduled to begin on Aug. 17.
Despite the status that Mariota and Tagovailoa hold as high draft picks, neither are currently penciled in as starters for their teams. Mariota was brought in to push incumbent starter Derek Carr, while the Dolphins have yet to make their plans clear on how much Tagovailoa will play this year as he continues to recover from a hip injury that ended his college career last November.
While the Dolphins did announce that Tagovailoa has been cleared to be a full participant, Passas hopes the lefty takes a similar route to current NFL stars Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson and Aaron Rodgers, who all played sparingly in their rookie seasons. Passas sees an ideal situation for Tagovailoa to continue to get his body right for a rebuilding Miami franchise.
“I think for Tua, hopefully Miami doesn’t need him to play right away, kind of bring him along how Green Bay did with Aaron Rodgers, Kansas City did with Mahomes. I think one year of having his body completely healed, getting used to the speed of the game,” Passas said. “I think he’ll be smarter about taking risks on some plays where throwing it away is good. I think saving himself for another play, I think that might prevent some of the injuries there and be a little smarter about it. It’s hard. Tua’s a competitor and he always wants to win and wants to win every play and that’s his nature. That’s the competitive spirit that he has in him.
“Tua has something that I think all the other quarterbacks don’t have in the draft there: it’s this ‘It’ factor, this leadership, a guy in the locker room. Gosh, if he can do it in our school and our program, be able to do that and show his leadership and what kind of genuine person he is at the No. 1 program in the nation at Alabama, I’m sure at Miami he’s gonna be their franchise guy, leader. Something about Tua, he’s got this aura about him that rallies people about him. He does a great job of making the people around him so much better. I think he has the ‘It’ factor about him.”
While Mahomes, Jackson and Rodgers were each held back for developmental reasons as rookies with an older starting quarterback ahead of them, Passas believes that Tagovailoa’s football mind is already NFL ready.
“I think he’ll adapt really well. He processes information really well and fast and I think that’s one of his attributes there is he’s able to process information,” Passas said. “You tell him once and he’ll be able to pick it up and get it. I think getting adjusted to the speed of the game, the speed of the game is a couple of levels higher now. Playing in the SEC, that’s the closest conference to the NFL as far as speed-wise and athletic players and dealing with lineman that can run a whole lot faster than you can and that’s a different animal and a different beast and the speed of the game is pretty intense and fast. I think Tua has the right frame of mind to be in that caliber.”
In Mariota’s new situation in Las Vegas, Passas sees an avenue for him to revive his career.
“Being in the Raiders situation, I know (Raiders coach Jon) Gruden doesn’t need for him to play right away,” Passas said. “By bringing Marcus in, I think Marcus is just one play from getting back on track again. I think it’s a blessing. Things happen the way it does and I think Marcus is in the right place at the right time.”
Passas has also had a hand in the development of quarterbacks from across the island from a bevy of different schools. Names such as Mililani’s McKenzie Milton and Dillon Gabriel, as well as Pearl City’s Jordan Ta’amu, are just a few of the many names that have come through Passas’ “Get Better” quarterback camps, which are held free of charge at Saint Louis. His quarterback clinics have also expanded to the mainland, where he has tutored signal-callers in Las Vegas and Arizona. Another potential name to look out for? Passas says Micah Alejado, who is originally from Oahu but will enter his freshman season at Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas, could push for the starting job as a freshman.
Despite his recent travels, Passas will remain on the coaching staff at Saint Louis, which ushers in the Ron Lee era whenever games are next played. A quarterback competition between AJ Bianco, Connor Apo and Kekahi Graham is expected, and Passas says all three have Division I talent. Passas believes Tagovailoa won’t be the last pro quarterback to come out of the school, as the Men of Kalaepohaku have continued to churn out prominent college quarterbacks, with Hawaii’s Chevan Cordeiro and Washington State’s Jayden de Laura as the latest examples. But whoever the next quarterback from Hawaii is that makes a name for himself on the national stage regardless of which high school on the islands they came from, there’s a high chance that Passas had something to do with it.
“Just trying to get the next generation of quarterbacks ready, give them their chance and their opportunity to not only make a name for themselves but to really help their families out with their athletic ability and throwing, and being a quarterback at some program where they can get a discounted education and use this as a vehicle to continue their education and repay their family for what they’ve done for them up to this point,” Passas said. “I think if all of them get a discounted education to college, I think that’s the greatest gift they could ever give their families back and they make a name for themselves and be able to continue and start making a mark for themselves.”