For the first time since September 2011, Alabama is looking for a new starting quarterback. AJ McCarron was very good and very durable during his time in Tuscaloosa, leaving no one with starting experience on the depth chart in his wake.
Luke Del Rio transferred to Oregon State, but Jacob Coker transferred in from Florida State, so there remains a sextet of players vying for the role at the moment. However, the rumored impending transfer of Parker McLeod, as first reported by Charles Power of BamaOnLine, would knock that number down to five before the season.
Sophomore Alec Morris and true freshman David Cornwell are the long shots, with Coker, senior Blake Sims and redshirt freshman Cooper Bateman the three most likely candidates to win the job.
QB 1: Jacob Coker
2013 Stats (w/FSU): 18-36, 250 YDS, 0 TD, 1 INT; 10 CAR, 15 YDS, 1 TD
Recruiting Info: 3-star prospect; No. 15 pro-style QB in 2011
For reasons that should be obvious, Saban and Kiffin have not anointed Coker the starter or even the favorite. How unfair would that be to the other QBs on the roster—the ones who have, you know, actually started practicing with the team?
Still, insofar as someone new can be a lock to start at the most important position on the field, Coker is a lock to be the quarterback.
At 6'5", 230 pounds, the former Florida State backup has ideal size for the position—something the 6'0" Sims does not. He also has a cannon for a right arm. There isn't a throw on the field he can't make.
However, the question with Coker isn't whether he can make all the throws; it's whether he can read a live defense well enough to make the right throws. That is something that, no matter how he performs in practice, cannot be known in earnest until the regular season.
Until then, Coker is the consummate "Man of Mystery" in college football. The best we have to go on is tangential reports and firsthand accounts. He technically competed into fall camp for the right to start at Florida State last season, but even in the moment—before Jameis Winston was Jameis Winston—it felt like a competition in name only. Still, that hasn't stopped former coaches from raving about him.
Here's what Seminoles quarterbacks coach Randy Sanders said about Coker before the BCS National Championship Game, per Bruce Feldman of FoxSports.com (then with CBS Sports):
I've never had anybody with his size who throws it as well as he does. Jake has a really quick release with tremendous arm strength. Rarely does it not spiral or not go where he wants it to go…
Coker's arm is kind of at a different level (than Winston's). Jameis has a very special arm, and this isn't any knock against Jameis, but Jake's probably the best I've seen in 25 years at throwing it…
A lot of times when you have a quarterback competition, the most valuable player isn't the guy who wins the job it's the guy who doesn't win the job because they have the ability to almost divide a team. Jake's done a great job of supporting Jameis and helping him in any way he can. That's part of what makes him a special player.
That is some flattering praise. On top of being a grade-A teammate, Coker has an arm that compares favorably with that of the Heisman Trophy winner. But how about the Heisman runner-up?
Here's Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher—a Saban disciple—on how Coker compares with every Saban-era Crimson Tide quarterback, including McCarron, per D.C. Reeves of TideSports.com:
Including what they've had, he's much more talented than anything they've had. I don't mean to discredit the previous guys, they were all great. But this guy is extremely talented. Arm and mind. He's a backup because he's behind the best quarterback in America. (Coker) may have been one of the top three or four quarterbacks in America physically.
We could have been right there in the same position last year with him, I really believe that. You just had to make a choice. If he had played, got his reps and got in that role, we would have done extremely well. I'm a Jacob Coker fan.
Again, even though Fisher credits Coker's mind (in addition to his arm), it is hard to tell what sort of decisions a player will make based on practice reps and mop-up duty. It's one thing to see and think clearly when you're wearing a non-contact jersey or up by 50 points. It's another thing to stay poised against a six-man blitz on 3rd-and-4 with two minutes left and the game on the line in Death Valley.
What can Alabama fans expect from Coker next season? Heck, what can anyone expect from Coker next season? It's a question without a good answer. He could be a Heisman finalist and high-round NFL draft pick. He could also be a backup by Week 5. The range on his season is greater than that of any player in college football.
And no, that is not hyperbole.
QB 2: Blake Sims
2013 Stats: 18-29, 167 YDS, 2 TD, 0 INT; 15 CAR, 61 YDS
Recruiting Info: 4-star prospect; No. 19 ATH in 2010
Unlike the two career backups who are projected to start under center as seniors in the SEC this season—Georgia's Hutson Mason and South Carolina's Dylan Thompson—Sims does not have the advantage of knowing his playbook inside and out.
Kiffin's arrival in replacement of Doug Nussmeier set all of the QBs on the roster back to a relatively even playing field. Sims still has the experience advantage because (a) there wasn't a crazy amount of coaching turnover and (b) he's been playing with these teammates for multiple seasons, but that advantage is now a mild one.
And while Sims (and the other non-Coker QBs) did get the advantage of learning Kiffin's system this spring, any momentum they gained—at least with regard to public sentiment—was fractured during an ugly A-Day game, which was dominated by the defense.
Even after the game, Saban warned fans not to hand the job over to Coker. His comments must be viewed with coachspeak-wary lenses, but it would be remiss not to at least mention them.
"Blake Sims did a good job during the spring," said Saban, per Andrew Gribble of AL.com. "As I said before, we were a little disappointed, he was a little disappointed in the way he played in the A-Day game. We didn't really feature what he could do."
It's nice that Saban put the blame on himself and Kiffin (and the nature of spring games in general), but especially in a fishbowl like Tuscaloosa, it's naive to think the A-Day game doesn't matter. Sims looked like a backup doing a poor imitation of a starter, and he did it in front of 73,000 accustomed-to-McCarron fans.
Sims' height doesn't necessarily jibe with Kiffin's pro-style offense, although his arm looked better during spring practice and his mobility adds a wrinkle that Alabama fans (and opponents) aren't used to.
If he's forced to play in short spurts of meaningful games next season (ostensibly due to injury), he should be able to manage the team and keep the offense moving along reasonably. But if he's forced to be a long-term option, the Crimson Tide might be in trouble.
He's essentially a high-basement, low-ceiling safety net.
QB 3: Cooper Bateman
2013 Stats: n/a
Recruiting Info: 4-star recruit; No. 4 pro-style QB in 2013
In terms of recruiting pedigree, Bateman is the star of the depth chart at the position. He has the background of an Alabama starter.
At 6'3", 208 pounds, he has the size of a McCarron-type signal-caller, landing somewhere between the freaky measurables of Coker and the less-than-desirable stature of Sims. He also falls between them on the arm-talent spectrum (if such a thing exists).
He was also the most impressive Alabama QB during A-Day:
The only thing Bateman doesn't have is experience. Even Coker and Sims—two players with zero combined starts—supersede him in this regard. Bateman is a redshirt freshman who's never taken a snap or thrown a pass in a real, live college football game.
To wit, that makes him a risky potential option—at Alabama of all places. Tide fans think the word "game manager" is pejorative, but, in truth, that is all that this current team needs. With so much offensive talent, it needs a quarterback who won't screw things up.
Bateman projects as a good one, in time, but something would have to go wrong for Saban to throw him into the fire in 2014. This team would have to be out of the College Football Playoff much earlier than expected and grooming him for next season, or Coker and Sims would have to be injured or woefully unproductive.
If he's forced to play this year under that type of circumstance, expect to see a watered-down playbook. Even more watered down than it's sure to be with either Coker or Sims at the beginning of the year. It would be a heavy diet of T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry combined with play-action passes to give Bateman the easiest conceivable reads.
Still, it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world for Bateman to get some reps this season. If Coker is playing well as the starter, he could easily be the one—as opposed to Sims—who subs in during garbage time. The reps would be good for him before the QB competition next season (if Coker struggles or heads to the NFL) or in 2016.
He, Cornwell and 2015 blue-chipper Blake Barnett are the future.
Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT