In what many are calling Alabama's most interesting, curious and competitive position battle, assumed incumbent starting quarterback A.J. McCarron, a redshirt sophomore, will be challenged by redshirt freshman Phillip Sims.
I, however, don't believe the outcome will be very surprising, though the competition itself might. I believe the starter for 2011 is a firm lock for this coming season. Beyond that, however, may be a whole different story.
A.J. McCarron was recruited directly by offensive coordinator Jim McElwain into the 2009 class. Ranked as the No. 7 quarterback in the nation at the time, McCarron came into the program and quickly forced Star Jackson, the previous No. 2 (jersey and position) quarterback, out of a job in spring practice. Jackson transferred to an FCS school so he would not have to wait a year to participate.
Throughout the year, McCarron took a mild number of snaps behind Greg McElroy. The stats are negligible since they were accrued during blowout wins against softer opponents, with A.J.'s main target being Julio Jones. McCarron's on the field performance, however, was impressive.
Other than a certain play that resulted in a spanking, McCarron looked poised in the pocket and comfortable when flushed out. His accuracy looked good for his first few times experiencing the rush of a real SEC game.
In addition, we learned that his thin arms belied the great velocity he could actually put on his throws. Though no Ryan Mallett, he did show it was better than his predecessor McElroy (arm strength being one of the few complaints about him).
A.J.'s competitor, Phillip Sims, brings his own deck to the table. Coming out of high school Sims was rated as the No. 2 pro-style quarterback in the nation, and he holds the state of Virginia's prep record for all-time passing.
Though he was soft in the middle when he came to Alabama, it wouldn't be surprising to see if he cut some of that bad weight under conditioning coach Scott Cochran's training regimen. His arms are long, his legs are thick, he can throw a dart or loft a touchy pass and he is accurate.
With their ages being so similar and both brimming with talent and potential, this certainly seems to be a battle for the ages. However, I have my doubts about the victor. Here are a few points.
A.J. McCarron is a skilled quarterback who has the potential to be a starter at almost any school in the nation. The young man, who many claim is very reminiscent of Brodie Croyle but taller, has a legitimate chance to make it to the NFL someday.
A college career as a backup would take that chance away. Losing the starting battle would send McCarron, who is much smarter and better than Star Jackson was, to another school, and who could blame him? Team loyalty doesn't trump a player's personal life goals, especially with NFL ramifications, and any fan claiming it does does so out of arrogance.
The loss of McCarron would leave Alabama without the significant type of backup Nick Saban and the team have become accustomed to. McCarron backed up McElroy last year, Jackson (despite my remarks, still a decent player) did before that, McElroy was John Parker Wilson's backup and before that Wilson was Brodie Croyle's backup. Needless to say, Alabama, especially Saban, likes to have a solid backup available.
If McCarron isn't available as a backup, Saban would have to turn to Phillip Ely, who seems to be a last resort/end of the world-type backup considering the caliber of the school. Ely is a three-star prospect ranked as the No. 20 quarterback in the nation. He is also a true freshman, with no college, let alone SEC experience.
If Sims were to get injured as the starter early in the season, Ely would be his replacement. Is Nick Saban the type willing to risk having a prospect already lacking in talent and potential be his game manager as a true freshman?
The other viable option at quarterback would be Blake Sims (no relation to Phillip Sims), who was recruited as an athlete. He may be a very strong option for wildcat formations but he does not seem to have the tangibles looked for in a full-time pocket quarterback, and at six feet tall he wouldn't even be able to see over the squat William Vlachos' head. Alabama runs a pro-style offense, not the spread.
This is the primary reason I believe McCarron will be the starter, at least in 2011. It's all about depth. Sims, however, would not transfer in 2011 if he were to lose the battle. He seems to be humble and hungry for knowledge, showcased here.
The outlook for Sims doesn't look bad at all. If he were to lose the battle for the starting position in 2011, he would still be able to take some snaps during the season. You could expect quite a few, actually, judging by the fairly smooth schedule the Tide face this year.
2012 and beyond would likely result in Sims transferring were he not the starting quarterback. A year under one of the greatest coaches in the game, even as a backup with limited playing time, is too good an opportunity to pass up for a redshirt freshman, and Sims has already said it's all about learning, for the moment.
The X-factor for the decision is the sheer amount of personal time Saban and McElroy spent tutoring McCarron for the past two years. Though it's arguable that Sims may or may not be the better passer, at this point in time McCarron would likely be the better game manager.
In the end, that seems to be more important to Saban. The coach doesn't like big, flashy, Ryan Mallett-type throws. He likes his conservative, clock-chopping plays. He doesn't want a Cam Newton that has to look at the cards on the sideline before every single play. I believe McCarron will be able to operate independently on the field, just like McElroy did. Sims, however, may not quite be ready to do so.
For Nick Saban, A.J. McCarron and even Phillip Sims, there are too many good collective reasons for McCarron to be the starter and just too many bad reasons for Sims to start. There are more risks involved with Sims being the starter. We all know Saban doesn't take risks. The Lesticles might work for some coaches, but that just isn't Saban's cup of tea.
Though the spring competition will be fun to watch, I don't believe the battle will come down to pure, raw talent.
The deciding factor will simply be what the most logical choice is based on off-the-field outcomes and possibilities rather than just on-the-field potential. 2012, and beyond, when both quarterbacks are in their prime, will likely hold a transferring student.
Don't forget: Nick Saban brings in a quarterback with every recruiting class. What will 2012 hold?