Hyperbole is a staple of television sports announcers, but it may not have been an exaggeration when former Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow said following Alabama’s win over Clemson in the College Football Playoff national championship game that the Crimson Tide won because of the offensive game plan developed by Bama’s Lane Kiffin. Indeed, Tebow may not have given Kiffin enough credit. Without the success of Kiffin as quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator, Alabama likely would not even have made it to the national title game.
Alabama had an unsettled quarterback situation going into the 2015 season. Lane Kiffin had done an exceptional job in 2014 by taking fifth-year senior Blake Sims and turning the former back-up into an all-star contender, earning Most Valuable Player as the Tide won the 2014 Southeastern Conference championship and advanced to the inaugural College Football Playoff.
Sims finished with 252 pass completions in 391 attempts (64.5 per cent) for 3,487 yards and 28 touchdowns with only 10 interceptions. The only other quarterback to have any game experience was transfer Jacob Coker, who saw mop-up duty in half of Bama’s 14 games, completing 38-59 pass attempts (64.4 per cent) for 403 yards and 4 touchdowns with no interceptions.
Kiffin did it again in 2015.
It took Coker a few games to firmly establish himself as Alabama’s starting quarterback, but when he did he came on with a bang, leading the Tide to 14 victories in his 14 starts. He completed 263 of 393 pass attempts (66.9 per cent) for 3,110 yards and 21 touchdowns with only 8 interceptions.
Like Sims, Coker was the MVP in leading Bama to its 25th SEC championship.
In fact, Coker was magnificent in championship season. In the SEC Championship Game he completed 18-26 for 204 yards and 2 touchdowns with no interceptions in the 29-15 win over Florida. In the 38-0 win over Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl, Coker completed 25-30 for 286 yards and 2 TDs with no interceptions. And in the national championship win over Clemson, Coker completed 16-25 for 335 yards, 2 TDs, 0 interceptions. The Mobile native led the Tide to its 25th SEC championship and 16th national crown.
Coker’s championship season totals: 3 games, 59-81 (72.8 per cent), 825 yards (275 per game), 6 TDs, 0 interceptions.
The only other returning quarterback with any game experience is Cooper Bateman, a 6-3, 220-pound upcoming fourth-year junior. He was redshirted in 2013, was the holder on extra points and field goals in 2014, and held again last season. In 2015 he also had some quarterback experience, including starting against Ole Miss (unfortunately, the Tide’s only loss), but in all other games being the backup to Coker. For the year he completed 37 of 51 passes (72.5 per cent) for 291 yards and a touchdown with two interceptions.
Alec Morris was the third team quarterback, but the junior – who earned his degree in December – elected to transfer to North Texas.
In addition to Bateman, that leaves upcoming third-year sophomore David Cornwell (6-5, 221) and redshirt freshman Blake Barnett (6-5, 205) who have participated in Bama practices, plus true freshman Jalen Hurts (6-2, 203) of Channelview, Texas, who entered The University for the Spring semester and who helped prepare Bama for the national championship game alternating with Barnett as scout team quarterback.
Never say never – after all, who would have predicted Nick Saban’s call for an onside kick with the national championship game tied in the fourth quarter --, but Saban has never started a true freshman at quarterback. But in upcoming days we’ll be focused more on Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell, and Blake Barnett.
There is also the possibility of a high school or junior college transfer quarterback being added, or even a graduate transfer, as was Coker, who started his career at Florida State before coming to Bama prior to the 2014 season.
Front and center in the competition for 2016 Alabama quarterback is expected to be Kiffin. Of course, there is always the chance that he could be plucked for a prime coaching position either at another college (though it would have to be a plum of a head job, which doesn’t exist right now) or in the NFL. But in Dallas, he talked like a man expecting to return for a third year at Alabama, a third year in finding a new starting quarterback.
“It is what it is,” he said. “It’s very unusual to have it happen two years in a row. It’s another set of challenges going into the spring and next year. It helps you grow as a coach because you’ve got a gap at quarterback and they have a different set of things they do.”
As for Alabama not being able to settle on a first team quarterback in either of the previous two springs he has been coaching for the Tide, Kiffin said, “Sometimes that’s good because it creates a competitive atmosphere for however many guys are involved. Most of the time it’s good to get it done early, but there are good sides to having it take longer, too.”
There are also positives to having a starting quarterback return, he said. “There is no way you could say I would like a replacement guy,” Kiffin said. “If I could have had Blake (Sims) again, I would have liked that. I’d like to have Jake again, because you get him going and then he’s gone.
“It’s good and bad. Obviously, you would like having the guy you know from the year before and having it done early and developing a system around him, but there are positives in having it be competitive. More guys are involved in the competition. There are good points in it.”
Before he left, Alec Morris said, “Coach Kiffin’s an awesome coach, really helps us a lot. I feel like I’ve learned a ton being around him. It’s definitely a big, big factor in all this.”
Alabama wide receiver ArDarius Stewart doesn’t seem concerned about the eventual winner of the Tide’s starting quarterback job. “All of those guys are great,” he said. “They all have the potential to be a starting quarterback. They are just waiting on their time.
“They all throw good balls. They come out a little different, but it’s my job to catch it.
“All of them have tendencies, better at one thing than another. But they are all great quarterbacks.”
As for trying to make a prediction, consider this. Derek Kief is an Alabama wide receiver. He said, “I’ve caught passes from all of them and all of them throw a nice, tight spiral that is easy to catch. I don’t know which one will win the job next year, but they are all good. In fall camp, I thought it would be Barnett or Cornwell.”
NEXT: Cooper Bateman