TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Sooner or later, University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban is going to have to make a decision.
It may not be today, this week or even this month. But at some point, it’ll be obvious who should be the Crimson Tide’s starting quarterback, and the matter will be resolved. In the meantime, he’s not giving away anything.
“You all don’t need to be reading more into this than what there is,” Saban said during his press conference Monday. “Do you understand we’re doing this for now? So that means that’s how it is today. We act like now there’s going to be two quarterbacks for the whole season or there’s not any competition.”
Regardless of who it might eventually be between Blake Barnett and Jalen Hurts, these are uncharted waters for Saban, who is in his 21st year as a head coach at the collegiate level.
Not only has he never had a competition like this between two freshmen (Barnett has an extra year after redshirting), but only once has he had a freshman quarterback in the starting mix.
It was 2004, and coming off his redshirt year, JaMarcus Russell played in 11 games with four starts for LSU, which a lot of Crimson Tide fans still remember because one of them was against Alabama. But the Tigers were better with senior Marcus Randall, like when he came off the bench to lead a come-from-behind win against Oregon State in the opener.
Known best for the “Bluegrass Miracle” against Kentucky in 2002, Randall had been in and out of the starting lineup for a couple of years due to injuries with Matt Mauck. Then Saban landed Russell, the all-time leading passer in Alabama high school history who had won the state’s prestigious Mr. Football award.
“JaMarcus was a hot-shot prospect who had come from Mobile,” said Phil Savage, executive director of the Senior Bowl. “He needed some incubation time.
“This is a little bit different, and it’s trickier too because the two main contenders are so close in age. This one’s going to be more of a challenge to manage, I think.”
Regardless, LSU is where Saban’s M.O. at the position started to really take hold, of not just playing whoever gave the team the best chance to win, but the guy who, as he calls it, had won over the team.
It’s almost always reflected in how well the offense moves the ball. Thus, a major reason why Alabama’s recent quarterback competitions have all lasted into the regular season: He wants to see how each looks and performs under live fire and how the team responds.
“Rohan Davey was a guy that I used to go like this in practice [covers face with hands] because some days he would throw the ball end over end in practice and then go throw for 400 yards in the game,” Saban said. “I kind of like that, even though it was hard to take sometimes in practice. But you knew the guy was going to always play well in the game, because he was that kind of competitor.”
For those who wonder how Alabama got to this point with its quarterbacks during the ongoing dynasty, they only need to look at its recruiting classes and note the quarterbacks who left.
It began with Nick Fanuzzi, who was recruited by offensive coordinator Major Applewhite out of San Antonio, Texas. He briefly played during the 2007 season opener against Western Carolina but did not attempt a pass. With Greg McElroy the heir apparent, Fanuzzi transferred to Rice and became the most accurate passer in that school’s history.
He was followed by the likes of Star Jackson, Phillip Sims, Phillip Ely, Alec Morris and Parker McLeod. Along with having multiple-year starters such as John Parker Wilson, McElroy and AJ McCarron, which might have discouraged some recruits because they didn’t want to sit and wait, it helps explain converted running back Blake Sims winning the starting job in 2014 and Jake Coker transferring from Florida State.
Had he not left for North Texas, Morris might have gotten the long look that junior Cooper Bateman received in the spring and training camp, but we’ll never know. Instead, some of his snaps went to Hurts, the son of a football coach who as an early enrollee arrived in January and helped play the part of Clemson’s Deshaun Watson during the on-campus practices for the national championship.
“I think that was a big part of his learning curve,” Saban said.
Although the hype around him grew over the spring, when Hurts showed he had that desired “it” factor during A-Day, few expected to see he and Barnett take nearly all the snaps against Southern California.
Previously, every true freshman quarterback under Saban at Alabama had redshirted (although McCarron almost played in 2009 when McElroy suffered a rib injury against Florida). The veterans seemed to get the benefit of doubt due to their maturity, which in this case pointed to Bateman or sophomore David Cornwell before he suffered a foot injury over the summer.
Yet Barnett started, and the ABC television broadcast was quick to remind everyone that it was the fifth time Alabama had a first-year starter at quarterback under Saban, with the other four resulting in three national championships and the other an SEC title.
Both freshmen had their moments against USC, showed some maturity and poise, but Hurts was the one who especially drew raves, from even some of Saban’s staunchest critics:
Among Alabama fans, who are still arguing about who should have been the starting quarterback between Andrew Zow and Tyler Watts 15 years ago (Watts was more of a dual-threat QB), it seemed to confirm the hype about Hurts that had been building for months.
Even 2015 Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry, who had to deal with the fans’ high expectations two years before landing a starting job, chimed in by telling reporters in Tennessee, which was captured by TitansOnline.com: “That guy’s the truth.
“For a freshman like that to be calm, collected on one of the biggest stages is just a good sign for our offense and for this season. I expect big things out of him.”
The number that everyone zeroed in was four, the number of touchdowns Hurts was involved with, two passing and two rushing, making him the first Alabama quarterback to do so since Watts in 2001.
It’s also a little misleading.
Statistically, the base numbers of the two weren’t that different.
• Hurts was 6-of-11 (54.5 percent), for 118 yards and two passing touchdowns.
• Barnett was 5-of-6 (83.3 percent), 100 yards and one touchdown.
Hurts was better on third downs and on the ground, with 32 yards on nine carries. But he also had two turnovers, which should not be overlooked.
Still, it’s not much of a sample size.
“Yeah, we didn’t even really throw the ball that much,” wide receiver Gehrig Dieter said.
Neither got off to a good start, as the young quarterbacks were what Saban terms “rat trap,” as it took a while for them to settle down. At the end of the first quarter, when both had been on the field for two possessions, Alabama had one first down and 12 total yards.
The play that got Alabama going was a rollout, during which wide receiver ArDarius Stewart got behind the USC secondary and made an easy catch for a 39-yard touchdown. Hurts’ other touchdown pass was against a botched blitz, with no one covering Stewart for a 71-yard score.
Those two plays accounted for 93 percent of Hurts’ passing yards in the game.
“I just think the coaching staff did a really good job of seeing what was working and exploiting that…get the ball outside and let our guys run,” offensive lineman Ross Pierschbacher said. “It paid off.”
As for the rushing touchdowns, one drive started at the USC 13-yard line, the other set up by a 73-yard Damien Harris run.
Hurts was also not running the whole offense, but what Saban described as a “manageable” group of plays that he felt comfortable with.
“We want to broaden that during practice,” Saban said.
Granted, there are plays that both quarterbacks can execute just fine, and the more Hurts plays, the more he’ll get down the scheme that Saban prefers. But going with him full time at this point would be a pretty big departure for the program that prides itself on getting players ready for the next level.
“I think it took [offensive coordinator] Lane Kiffin to sort of pull Nick closer to the other side, if you want to term it that way,” Savage said. “It’s in certain respects the way the game has gone.
“Alabama runs a pro-style system as much as anybody in the country, but yet, especially with Hurts in the game, it was a total college offense. It was an RPO [run-pass option] system. It’s sort of ironic that the overwhelming effect of the spread-style offense has impacted Alabama, which has been the standard-bearer in terms of winning their way.”
That’s why Savage was more surprised to see the scheme that the Crimson Tide used with Hurts than Saban primarily using two freshmen at quarterback. After all, some other “rookies,” if you will, led big wins last weekend including Texas’ Shane Buechele, Florida State’s Deondre Francois and Georgia’s Jacob Eason.
All indications are that it’s a course that Saban isn’t about to deviate from, and he even sent a strong message to one of his more veteran quarterbacks: “It sort of always amazes me to some degree that players that aren’t getting what they want—whether it’s the amount of playing time or whatever it is—ever think that pouting is going to help them get what they want. That is one of those things that is beyond my comprehension.”
Meanwhile, he’s milking the situation for everything he can because preparing for Alabama’s offense is tough enough, but having to get ready for another type as well is difficult. Alabama visits Ole Miss next week.
So when asked who might start or if he anticipated using three quarterbacks again against Western Kentucky on Saturday, Saban remained coy this week. He isn’t going to say anything until he has to.
“You can anticipate anything you want,” he said.
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.
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Source: Bleacher Report -SEC Football