Tua Tagovailoa is openly lobbying for an award this season.
After coming up short last year, he spent the offseason honing his craft, spending hours working to get every small detail right. It was literally, he said, “the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”
He envisions the ball in his hands with the game — and the season — on the line. If he messes up, he says, it was “going to be my fault.”
“Let’s say it’s 6-6 and it’s the fourth quarter,” Tagovailoa says, “and I have to go out there to hold and we have to kick a field goal and there’s 2 seconds left.”
Yeah, that’s right, Alabama’s star quarterback isn’t talking about throwing a game-winning touchdown or taking home a Heisman Trophy, despite finishing as the runner-up last season. The university hasn’t launched a formal campaign on his behalf, and even if it did, you don’t get the sense he’d want any part of it.
Instead, Tagovailoa’s eyes are on the Peter Mortell Holder of the Year Award.
After Tagovailoa was listed first on the team’s depth chart at holder, long-snapper Thomas Fletcher tipped him off to an actual award for the position. Tagovailoa was immediately intrigued. An Alabama sports information director promised to look into getting him on the watch list. “I’ll try to work my way up to get my name out,” Tagovailoa says. “… I’m working my butt off trying to get it.”
There is a wink and a nod to the whole thing, of course, but it’s clear it isn’t something he thought of as trivial. During a recent conversation, he dives into the intricacies of the hold: the direction of the laces, the tilt of the football, etc. “Holding is actually a really, really hard thing,” he says.
Upon hearing this, Mortell rejoices.
For four years, Mortell has been working to promote an award that began as a joke and has turned into much more. It’s been hard to get the general public interested, though. Holders, who often double as punters or backup quarterbacks, aren’t just under the radar — they’re positively subterranean. An above-average fan would struggle to name their favorite team’s holder, and even then the only time they’re remarked upon is when they screw up.
But then there’s Tagovailoa, who brings a whole different kind of attention to the position.
“He’s the quarterback, right?” Mortell says, joking. “We’ve heard of him. … We’ve heard he’s up for this other award, I think it’s called the Heisman.”
Mortell said the HOTY search committee, which prefers to remain anonymous, has had some “initial eyes” on Tagovailoa. It likes his presence and the added dimension he brings to the field goal unit. But for now, the committee is waiting to release a full scouting report.
But before hanging up, Mortell did add one thing.
“Tell him we’re going to be watching this year,” he says, “so the pressure’s on.”
In December 2014, Mortell — a former walk-on punter turned Minnesota holder — sat in his apartment, waiting on all-conference honors to come out the following day. He knew they’d recognize the best quarterback, the best running back, the best receiver in the Big Ten. They’d even recognize the best punter and kicker and return specialist.
So Mortell sarcastically turned to his roommate, a non-student-athlete named Cavin Metzler, and said, “I hope they select me as first-team holder.”
“Yeah,” Metzler said. “That’ll be the day.”
The next day, Mortell decided to take matters into his own hands. The former walk-on punter went to the football team’s graphic designer, Travis Perry, and asked for him to work up an image lauding Mortell as the Holder of the Year. He then figured out a funny caption to post along with it on Twitter and he hit send.
“The next thing I know, it took off,” Mortell said. “It went viral really quick.”
“Your hands are too slow” they said.
“Your cadence has no rhythm” they said. This one’s for the state of Minnesota. pic.twitter.com/HkgGRK0aL1
— Peter Mortell (@PMortell1) December 1, 2015
More than 12,000 retweets and 17,000 likes later, he was recording a mock acceptance speech that aired during the Home Depot College Football Awards Show.
Riding a wave of press, Mortell put together a fundraiser for the University of Minnesota’s Masonic Children’s Hospital. The goal, he says, was to raise $10,000, and they ended up tripling that.
And wouldn’t you know it, the HOTY (pronounced ho-D) stuck. It has become equal parts an advocacy group for holders everywhere, a tongue-in-cheek exercise in the power of social media and a charitable organization, which has benefited the VA Medical Center in Ann Arbor, Locks of Love and the Fields & Futures organization in Oklahoma City. The official Twitter account is a must-follow with insane highlight tapes, trick shots and a heavy dose of humor.
But seeing his award gain traction, with videos sent in from the likes of Baker Mayfield and Jim Harbaugh, has been thrilling for Mortell.
“Every day I have new holders sending me videos of them holding, and they’re making highlight tapes,” he says. “I think that’s the result of the position going unnoticed for so long.
“It’s developed into something you have fun with, but at the end of the day, your job is really important. You directly impact if points are going to be scored.”
Picture it: You’re Garrett Moores, you’re a specialist at Michigan and Harbaugh is 4 feet away from you, practically standing over you during practice. Harbaugh, your head coach and a former holder himself, is big on the details, and he’s shouting because he knows that a 5 degree tilt too far or too short can be the difference. Laces out is the cardinal rule. And you can’t mess up, or else.
It’s serious work. One time you wore gloves in the winter and Harbaugh and another coach heckled you so badly you never wore them again. You literally have the outcome of games in your hands. A kicker can mess up a good hold, but there’s almost no way to salvage a bad one.
“So many things that can go wrong,” Moores says. “If you take it too seriously, you’re going to get into your own head and mess up.”
Take Moores’ first time holding against Ohio State, for instance. It was the first overtime game in the storied rivalry’s history, and as he knelt on the turf to take the snap he saw the SkyCam pointed straight at him.
“I looked back to get the nod from the kicker and I looked into the camera and thought, ‘Holy s—! I’m looking into the faces of like 10 million people right now and this could go horribly wrong,'” he says.
Former UCF punter Mac Loudermilk, who won the HOTY two years after Moores, says there’s an art to holding. They count the rotations of the football, working with the long-snapper to avoid a laces-in situation. A good time from snap to hold is 1.3 seconds or less.
“It’s the ability to repeat the same catch-and-place action over and over again, regardless of how you catch the ball or where you catch the ball,” Loudermilk explained. “You have less than a quarter inch spot to put the ball in the ground to make sure the kicker gets the ball through the uprights. Whether you have to spin it a half rotation or a quarter rotation, clockwise or counter-clockwise, you’re computing all that in your head from the second that ball hits your hand and when it hits the ground you already know which way you have to spin it.”
In other words, you have to be mentally tough, Loudermilk says.
“People always say, ‘I can do that,’ but if you put the average Joe in there with three seconds left in the game and this ball is going to get spun back at you and you can’t catch it with your body, you have to catch it out front and put it on a spot, then nine times out of 10 they’re going to drop it,” he said. “We knew we had no do-overs with our job. There’s no having a bad play, shaking it off and moving to the next one. We can’t have bad plays.”
If Tagovailoa wants to take home the HOTY Award, he has his work cut out for him.
The biggest problem he faces is the main method by which holders are judged by the committee. Since there’s no official holding stat tracked by the NCAA, the committee is left with kicking accuracy. And Alabama, shall we say, is lacking in that department, having made just 5-of-9 field goal attempts this season. It even has a missed extra point on the books.
But there’s another issue which makes winning the HOTY an uphill battle, and it has nothing to do with Tagovailoa’s performance on the field. Because of the award’s tongue-in-cheek spirit, the committee looks for a certain amount of showmanship from its competitors. And if you go look at Tagovailoa’s typically subdued comments in the media and his run-of-the-mill back-slapping after field goals and extra points, you’ll see he’s not exactly acting the part.
With all due respect to UNC’s Cooper Graham and Kansas State’s Devin Antcil, there may not be a better example of HOTY campaigning than Rutgers’ Cole Murphy. The wide receiver/holder is turning it into an art form. His social media is awash with clever hashtags like #AngelicHands, #LiveLaughHold and #MurphyForMortell.
In the past, Murphy referred to his “electrifying hands” and kicker Justin Davidovicz’s “electric leg.” So naturally, their post-kick celebration became a play on that, with Davidovicz touching Murphy’s index finger and feigning shock.
— Cole H. Murphy (@Cole_Murphy_10) September 22, 2019
The thing is, while he is aiming for laughs, he’s kind of being serious, too. He has heard the whole “shut up and put the ball down” schtick, but he’s going to keep putting himself out there because being funny and putting himself up to ridicule, he says, is the most effective way of getting the message across about the value of holders and specialists in general.
.@Cole_Murphy_10 wants the Peter Mortell Holder of the Year award in 2019, and that means staying ready at ALL TIMES.
— Rutgers On BTN (@RutgersOnBTN) August 13, 2019
Will it ever become a proper award? Not anytime soon, according to National College Football Awards Association president Mark Wolpert. When contacted for this story, he said the HOTY isn’t under consideration to be added to its list of 25 sanctioned awards, which includes the Heisman.
“This is something that needs to be looked at more,” Murphy says. “Obviously you’re not going to see holders get drafted because they need more skills than that. But these guys can’t score if someone isn’t holding it down.”