TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Strange but true, the University of Alabama coach who saw the most of quarterback Blake Barnett during practices last season might have been defensive coordinator Kirby Smart.
Being a true freshman on the way to redshirting, Barnett was the primary scout team quarterback during the Crimson Tide’s national championship run, and his style of play each week depended on the opponent.
Whatever the starting defense needed him to do, run a spread attack, be an opportunistic runner who took off out of the pocket, execute a pro-style attack, Barnett’s job was to mimic it and give his teammates a good look at what was coming. But in addition to being versatile, he also had to be durable.
“I think he’s gotten frustrated a little bit because those big guys push on him, and it’s not like he’s got the best offensive line in the world in front of him,” Smart said at the Cotton Bowl media day. “But he is a competitor, and I can tell you he’s grown up a lot this year.”
Just how much could have a big impact on Alabama’s quarterback competition, which is now less than a month from being under way and with no one knowing how long it’ll take to reach the finish line. Each of the previous three went into the regular season before a winner was declared.
In 2015, five were vying for the job, but with Jake Coker’s subsequent departure and Alec Morris leaving for North Texas as a graduate transfer, three candidates remain. Jalen Hurts, who entered the mix as an early enrollee, ran a spread offense last year and is probably destined to lead the scout team in the fall.
“I’m obviously the new guy on the block,” Hurts said.
That leaves Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell and Barnett, a 5-star recruit in 2015 who was rated by the 247Sports composite rankings as being the second-best pro-style quarterback in the nation behind UCLA’s Josh Rosen.
Cornwell came out of last spring looking like he might be the one to beat, but in the fall it came down to Coker and Bateman, who is now the closest thing Alabama has to an incumbent.
“All of those guys are great—they all have the potential to be a starting quarterback,” wide receiver ArDarius Stewart said. “They are just waiting on their time.”
What coaches will be looking for is something similar to what Coker did against Ole Miss last year, when he came off the bench, took command of the offense and the other players responded.
Granted, it would be great for everyone involved if that happened in the spring, and this time the offense has more returning starters after having just two a year ago, yet no one is counting on it.
“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,” offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin said.
“I think there’s no way you could say I would like a replacement guy. If I could have had Blake [Sims] again, I would have liked that. I’d like to have Jake [Coker] again because you get him going, and then he’s gone. It’s very unusual to have it happen two years in a row.”
Actually, the back-to-back-to-back first-year starters are something different for Alabama as it used to have as much stability as anyone at the position during head coach Nick Saban’s first few years in Tuscaloosa.
John Parker Wilson, Greg McElroy and AJ McCarron started every game over the first seven years, which helped lead to three national titles, although two of those teams had a first-year starter taking snaps. Coker was obviously able to match that in 2015, but with no senior on the 2016 roster the winner of this competition could also be a multiyear starter.
Consequently, as the veteran player and the only one with game experience at the collegiate level, Bateman will go into the spring as the player to beat.
He completed 37 of 52 attempts for 291 yards in 2015, with one touchdown and two interceptions. Doubling as Alabama’s long snapper, he played in all 15 games, and coaches raved about the effort he made in improving the parts of his game that needed the most work last year.
But most of the buzz surrounds Barnett, and fans are especially eager to see what he can do, especially since he’s believed to have the most upside.
“Blake has showed a lot of progress, and I think everyone’s excited—I’m excited and we’re all excited—at what he has shown already against us," linebacker coach Tosh Lupoi said.
Here’s what Alabama’s defensive coaches from last year (Smart has since moved on to be the head coach at Georgia and took secondary coach Mel Tucker with him to be the Bulldogs’ defensive coordinator) said during the playoffs about Barnett:
- Smart: “He’s got great mobility, makes good decisions. He’s a competitor, he gives us his best every day. He’s a good leader with that unit out there, he keeps the scout team organized, he along with Cornwell do a good job of kind of pushing those guys and challenging them.”
- Defensive line coach Bo Davis: “Blake looks great. He looks real good. Good young quarterback who is going to have a lot of success. He really does a great job and helps us on the scout team. He’s done a heck of a job for us on defense because he can do so many things, moving around, making us be able to rush right, rush lanes and keeping us honest up front. He’s talented enough to do all the things you need, and we’re honored to have him on our team.”
- Tucker: “He has a good presence. It’s very competitive. He enjoys playing the game. He’s very consistent. Day-in and day-out you know what you’re going to get from him. He competes well, he throws a really nice ball, and he’s got tremendous athletic ability—he can challenge you as a runner both as a scrambler and with quarterback runs. He gives us every type of look that we need. Whatever we need him to do, he can do it, and the players around him respond. As a coach, I have a high level of respect for Blake.”
- Lupoi: “Blake has a pretty solid combination of being able to run away from you when he needs to, as well as throw the ball well. That’s why we recruited him here to Alabama. He was an exceptional player coming out of high school, and he’s shown a lot of the reasons why we recruited him.”
One factor to watch with Barnett will be his physical development as he was initially listed as 6’5”, 200 pounds, although he was probably closer to 190. He’s now above the Mendoza Line in terms of pounds, but strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran has a good frame to work with.
McCarron was pretty skinny too when he arrived on the Capstone.
“He needs to add some weight, but he’s a good quarterback,” cornerback Marlon Humphrey said.
“Blake Barnett was different than what I expected. He’s a lot more shifty.”
That element of his game could be an added bonus, especially after obviously working on it with the scout team. That was partly due to necessity as Smart said he got “roughed up” by the Crimson Tide’s defensive linemen despite wearing a no-contact jersey, but you know the old saying about things that make you stronger.
Besides, he’ll probably never face a tougher defense, which had a reputation for practicing hard, under such lopsided circumstances.
“A guy who has mobility adds problems for the defense, much like Blake Sims a year ago,” Kiffin said. “I don’t know what his future is. He has a lot of work to do. We have a ways to go with him. But to date we’ve been very pleased with him.”
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.