By Jess Nicholas
April 2, 2016
With Alabama’s first spring scrimmage in the books, the best way to evaluate the quarterback battle at this point is to say that everything old is new again.
When Alabama said its goodbyes to Jake Coker following its win over Clemson in the National Championship Game in January, the consensus was that for the first time in Nick Saban’s Alabama career, the “Next-Man-Up Theory” at quarterback wouldn’t apply.
Cooper Bateman had started one fateful game during the 2015 regular season, Alabama’s lone loss to Ole Miss, and had been Coker’s backup for the other 14 games. But against Ole Miss, the differences in the two players’ skill sets were apparent. Coker’s arm strength was superior, his size and strength advantages were obvious, and he had both the vision and the confidence (to say nothing of the physical ability) to see a tight window and attempt to make a play through it.
Bateman had better accuracy and better wheels, which for a time threatened to set him and Coker up as the modern-day Tyler Watts and Andrew Zow, with Bateman taking the Watts role. But Alabama’s coaches switched to Coker and never looked back, and apart from blowouts and a couple of times when Coker needed a one-play breather or to fix an equipment issue, Bateman never played again.
Flash forward to this spring, and the consensus opinion – better defined as, “the opinions of wishful fans” – was that Alabama would not simply elevate Bateman to the starting job. Instead, thought many, Nick Saban would take the opportunity provided by Bateman’s iffy showing against Ole Miss to jump super-stud redshirt freshman Blake Barnett to the head of the line. Barnett, a California-bred gunslinger who has good scrambling ability, might make more mistakes early on, but by the end of the year, could very well be on his way to being Alabama’s most productive QB in school history.
Not so fast.
Almost like clockwork, Alabama’s first scrimmage ended Saturday with Nick Saban talking up David Cornwell, who was thought to have the lead in last year’s battle heading into the fall before Coker took it back from him, while Cooper Bateman drew the most praise from observers in attendance for his command of the offense and his consistency.
Barnett, meanwhile, was intercepted three times, twice for pick-sixes. Alabama did not release his final stats.
For that matter, Barnett was the only one of the four who did not either receive a direct mention of praise from the coaching staff, or a mention in the stat report. Jalen Hurts, the fourth quarterback, carried the ball 10 times for 57 yards, making him the second-leading rusher on the day.
In fact, other than Bo Scarbrough’s explosion at running back (9 carries, 132 yards, 3 TD), the story of the day was the defense, which is typically the case at Alabama and portends good things for the fall. Veteran observers say this may be the fastest defense Alabama has ever fielded. Whether it’s also one of the best defenses Alabama has ever fielded remains to be seen.
Other position battles include multiple spots on the offensive line. Ross Pierschbacher seems to have the inside track for the center job, while Lester Cotton, Bradley Bozeman and Dallas Warmack are fighting for left guard and Korren Kirven, Jonah Williams and Charles Baldwin are battling at right tackle. Minkah Fitzpatrick, as expected, looks to move into Cyrus Jones’ old cornerback spot, which would open up the Star safety position for Maurice Smith. If Fitzpatrick stays at Star, look for Anthony Averett and Kendall Sheffield to battle for the other corner slot.
It must be said that Saturday’s scrimmage was just the first in a series, and Alabama will settle most of its questions in fall camp. But for now, it appears the quarterback battle may follow a familiar formula, prioritizing experience and consistency over promise and growing pains.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN