Not too many minutes following Alabama’s 45-40 win over Clemson in the 2015 College Football Playoff National Championship Game in Glendale, Ariz., in January, someone noted that Clemson would probably be the favorite in 2016 because the Tigers returned quarterback Deshaun Watson. And a few minutes after that, speculation started on who would be the Crimson Tide’s 2016 quarterback.
In Alabama Coach Nick Saban’s usual pre-game Monday press briefing he gave something of an answer, and probably one that not many expected.
“We’re sort of down to two guys here,” he said. “Cooper Bateman and Blake Barnett are probably the two guys tat we’re getting ready to play in this game, and that’s the way it’s going to be for right now.”
This game is Alabama’s season-opening contest against Southern Cal on Saturday in Arlington, Texas. Kickoff in the Dallas Cowboys Stadium will be at 7 p.m. CDT with ABC televising the game.
This is the third consecutive year that Saban and Offensive Coordinator Lane Kiffin have had to develop a new quarterback.
Most analysts (who don’t get to see very much of practice) had speculated that the battle was between Bateman, a fourth-year junior who was the back-up last year, and true freshman Jalen Hurts, whose practice feats were becoming legendary, even though they were mostly unseen. Barnett is a redshirt freshman who has seen no college game action.
Saban said, “We're going to try to continue to try to develop all of our guys,” though no mention was made of third-year sophomore David Cornwell, who has been limited in training camp owing to a foot injury suffered in the summer.
Saban said the decision was based on “what’s going to give us the best chance to win this game. But it’s also about future development of our players. We want to play the guy that’s the most ready to give us the best chance. We also want to continue to develop guys that can compete at this position in the future.”
Also Saban concluded that “there is nothing else to say,” he did get questions about the position.
He said, “The big thing (is) Cooper has a great knowledge of the offense; really manages things well when he's out there because of his knowledge and experience. I think he's continued to improve his passing ability and we have a lot of confidence in him. We feel good about the progress he's made.
“I don't think any of us are satisfied with any part of our team right now in terms of trying to continue to improve and develop and certainly quarterback's not any different. And the quarterbacks themselves probably would tell you the same thing.”
Saban said that Barnett has benefited from having been at Alabama for a year and a half, particularly in knowledge of the offense. He said Barnett has confidence, is stronger, and is throwing the ball better.
The Tide coach is as high on Hurts as are most Alabama fans, and it seems the freshman just needs experience to be a starting candidate. Saban said, “Jalen's got a tremendous future. I think he's got great ability. But I think that what you have to be really concerned about is, is a guy ready to go out there and not just do things that he can do, but can he run the offensive team? If the back's lined up on the wrong side, is he going to put him on the right side? Is he going to be to point out the protection right so we pick up the blitz?
“These things are things that we want to be able to continue to develop in the players so that when they go out on the field, they can have success. Jalen Hurts has tremendous ability. We are not giving up on that ability and hopefully we'll be able to develop it that at some point this season he's going to be a productive player for us.”
Saban said that sometimes a quarterback is better in a game than in practice, and cited his experience with former LSU quarterback Rohan Davey at LSU. He said that Davey was a terrible practice player, but did the job in the game. The result, the coach said, is that it’s not possible to say with certainty how a player is going to do in a game.
“I don’t have a crystal ball,” said Saban (who actually has five of them as national championship coach, one at LSU and four at Alabama).