- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It made sense for Nick Saban to begin his post A-Day spring game news conference with a caveat. After what everyone had seen that Saturday afternoon, a reasoned voice was needed, and Saban stepped to the podium to deliver his own sense of perspective.
“Nobody ever has a bad spring game,” Alabama’s head coach told reporters. “Let’s start with that.”
Fourteen practices behind closed doors led to a great deal of expectation surrounding A-Day, where the biggest question was, of course, at quarterback. Everything uttered about Blake Sims had been positive heading into the weekend. He’d improved his mechanics, they said. He’d made progress at becoming a better pocket passer, they added. Saban praised Sims for his command of the offense, his accuracy and his consistency. Throw in some pretty remarkable statistics provided by the school -- 515 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions in two scrimmages -- and it amounted to the kind of credentials that would lead anyone to believe that Sims had really turned the corner, that he was indeed the front-runner to replace AJ McCarron.
Then practice No. 15 arrived.
Much of the controlled environment from earlier practices and scrimmages was removed on Saturday. Saban, for instance, wore a tan suit and played the role of commissioner. A television audience and more than 73,000 fans looked on. Sure, it was a far cry from the usual 100,000-plus fans and the buzz that accompanies a regular-season game, but A-Day offers its own brand of pressure. If you mess up on that stage, not only is it a very public experience, but you’ll also have to dwell on for the months to come.
And given the way Sims and the rest of the quarterbacks closed out the spring, they enter the offseason with a sour taste in their mouths.
Sims was a shell of himself, completing 13 of 30 passes for 178 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. A first-half pass over the middle should have been turnover No. 3, if Landon Collins hadn’t dropped it. And the other quarterbacks? Cooper Bateman, Alec Morris, Parker McLeod and David Cornwell went 14-for-33 for 165 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. Alabama’s combined effort equaled an 86.37 passing efficiency rating -- lower than any of the top 104 quarterbacks in the FBS last season.
Saban did his best to downplay the significance of A-Day after the game ended, but it did little to erase what everyone saw. In fact, when put up against his comments only a few days earlier, his plea for reason came off as hollow.
“It’s an opportunity for them to go out and play a game-like circumstance, a game-like situation,” Saban said Thursday about the A-Day game. “It’s really your first opportunity as an individual, as a unit or as a team, to really create an identity for who you are and how you play.”
By that standard, his quarterbacks failed miserably.
“Blake had a really good spring, and he did a really good job in the scrimmages,” Saban said when asked to measure the performance of his quarterbacks, again attempting to weigh a poor spring game against a previously solid spring. “I thought in the game he was trying to speed everything up a bit. ... It’s like when a baseball pitcher tries to throw the ball a little harder and all of a sudden he can’t throw a strike.”
In other words, the pressure got to Sims. Though Saban would raise some valid points about how the setup of A-Day robbed Sims of some of what made him an effective quarterback, the bottom line was unavoidable. Sure, wearing a no-contact jersey kept Sims from taking full advantage of his athleticism to escape the pocket and buy time. But, to be fair, it also removed the pressure of facing a threatening pass rush.
“There’s a lot of things [Sims] could do to be an effective quarterback that he didn’t do in this game today,” Saban explained before changing directions. “We recruited a guy. Blake knows this and Blake embraced the guy before the game. They're going to compete through the summer and through fall camp.”
Ah, Jacob Coker.
If there was a bright spot amid the sloppy offense Saturday, it was the 6-foot-5 quarterback on the sideline wearing a crimson polo and camouflage hat. Coker, who backed up Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston at Florida State, is due to graduate from FSU and enroll at Alabama later this spring, when he’ll immediately join the race to earn the starting job.
"It was awesome," Coker said of his visit to Tuscaloosa. "Excited about getting there."
In a way, Coker went to A-Day with the possibility of seeing just how far the other quarterbacks had come. He might have been worried that if someone stood out, they could carry a lead into the offseason that would be hard for him to overcome.
But Coker had to leave A-Day feeling good about his chances. Nothing he saw there should have scared him. Hearing Saban mention him afterward in regard to the quarterback competition should have only reaffirmed his standing as a favorite to replace McCarron.
While it’s true that you can’t win or lose anything during a spring game, you can take a step back. There's always ground to lose. And Sims & Co. did just that on Saturday, yielding momentum to Coker. Whatever standing they built through 14 practices seemed to vanish with each errant pass and interception.
The perspective Saban pushed so hard for in his postgame news conference was hard to swallow considering the sour taste the passing game left behind. A-Day isn't everything, but it was the last thing this spring, and it wasn't the note any quarterback would have wanted to go out on.
3dGreg Ostendorf and Alex Scarborough