Alabama Crimson Tide: Luke Del Rio
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It’s the most obvious position with room for improvement at Alabama: Quarterback. With AJ McCarron gone and no incumbent starter to step in, the race is wide open.
Throw in a new offensive coordinator -- you might have heard it’s a guy named Lane Kiffin -- and you’ve got all the ingredients for an interesting drama.
"That'll be a really good competition this spring -- really, really excited about our young players on the roster at that position," former offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier told reporters before the Sugar Bowl and before leaving to take the offensive coordinator job at Michigan. "With any young quarterback there's a steep learning curve, and for those guys it's about getting snaps every day and continuing to progress, and I like the development that we've seen in those young players. They need to continue to grow. We need to have a really, really good offseason. But I'm very excited about what that competition is going to hold come spring."
Nussmeier, obviously, won’t be around to see it. Neither will Luke Del Rio, who transferred to Oregon State in January in what was a curious move considering he was the only true freshman to travel with the team last season.
Battling for No. 1: He isn’t yet on campus, and he won’t be until after the spring. In fact, Jacob Coker is too busy trying to graduate from Florida State to concern himself with where he ranks in Alabama’s quarterback competition. But that hasn’t stopped Tide fans from anointing him the front-runner to replace McCarron. Coker, who slipped past Nick Saban and his staff as a recruit out of high school in Mobile, Ala., committed to Alabama in January, ending the months-long drama surrounding his decision. His legend ballooned over that time, casting him as a quarterback with a cannon for an arm and a competitive streak that nearly allowed him to beat out eventual Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston. We’ll see during fall camp whether he can live up to such high expectations.
Strength in numbers: It’s been conveniently ignored that Coker isn’t in a one-man race to become Alabama’s next starting quarterback. Considering that he won’t even compete in spring practice, it’s safe to say he’s not in all that enviable a position to win the job in the first place. For Blake Sims, Alec Morris, Cooper Bateman and Parker McLeod -- and yes, the race includes that many contestants -- making a lasting impression during the spring will be vital. Sims, despite being listed as McCarron’s backup last season, doesn’t have the skill set to fit Saban’s pro-style system. An athletic, running quarterback, he could ultimately be a change-of-pace option at the position, leaving Morris as the next most experienced quarterback. Morris, a strong-armed Texan, has two years with Saban under his belt. But considering he didn’t attempt a single pass in 2013, it’s safe to say that Bateman and McLeod are right on his heels.
New on the scene: The wild card in all this is David Cornwell, who graduated from high school in December and enrolled at Alabama in January. The No. 2-rated pocket passer in the ESPN 300, he’s got all the tools to do well in Saban’s system. The question is when. Considering his lack of experience in high school -- he missed almost all of his senior season -- and his status as a true freshman, it’s likely too much to ask for him to compete for the starting job right away. The one thing in his benefit is that Kiffin is new. He doesn’t have an impression of any of the quarterbacks and will judge the competition with fresh eyes. With a strong showing in the spring, Cornwell could make Kiffin and Saban think twice about playing a true freshman.
But there will be so much more to spring practice than Coker, mostly because he won’t even be there. If you think Alabama’s offense is simply waiting on his arrival, you’re wrong. While Coker finishes his degree in Tallahassee, new Tide offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will have more than enough work to do.
So while spring practice may still be several weeks away, here’s a look at three things Kiffin must accomplish during camp. You’ll notice Coker’s name is nowhere to be found.
Oh, the other guys? Yeah, Alabama has quite a few quarterbacks already on the roster. Blake Sims, AJ McCarron’s backup, is still around. So is Alec Morris, who traveled with the team as a redshirt freshman last season. Luke Del Rio’s transfer makes last year's trio of true freshmen one less, but Cooper Bateman and Parker McLeod are both back. And David Cornwell, No. 4 in the ESPN 300, enrolled early and will compete during spring practice as well.
Kiffin, who is also the quarterbacks coach, has five guys who want to win the starting job now. They're not going to wait around until someone else -- we won’t say his name again, remember? -- arrives in the summer.
Getting Sims more comfortable taking snaps under center and throwing from the pocket will be a big challenge for Kiffin, as will developing confidence in the younger quarterbacks. Having them all in tune with the new playbook will be a big goal of the spring, giving them the leg up they'll need to enter fall camp ready to compete from Day 1.
Developing young weapons
Former offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier has been blamed by some for limiting the explosiveness of Alabama’s offense in 2013. Further analysis disputes that fact, though, as Alabama had the fifth-highest percentage of plays of 10 or more yards in the country last season. The more appropriate critique might have been who was making big plays rather than how many as Nussmeier struggled to incorporate new offensive weapons like O.J. Howard and Derrick Henry.
Howard, despite being the most athletic tight end on the roster and one of the best playmakers on offense, caught just 14 passes. In nine games he caught one or no passes. Meanwhile, Brian Vogler, the starter, had all of eight receptions in 2013 and caught no passes in the final three games.
How Henry, the clear winner of the Allstate Sugar Bowl with 161 total yards and two touchdowns, took so long to develop is anyone’s guess. He didn’t carry the ball a single time in Alabama’s four closest regular-season games: Texas A&M, LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn. His big body might have helped when Alabama faced a number of short-yardage situations in the Iron Bowl.
Kiffin, though, won’t have the excuse of youth with Howard or Henry this fall. Getting them more involved in the offense and developing underused weapons like Chris Black and Raheem Falkins will be paramount to Alabama's success in 2014.
Reestablishing the offensive line
Here’s a bit of not-so breaking news: Alabama's 2012 offensive line that so many called the best in the history of college football is gone. All of it. With Cyrus Kouandjio and Anthony Steen off to the NFL, every piece of that five-man puzzle has left campus.
Now Kiffin and offensive line coach Mario Cristobal must find new faces to build around. Three starters will return -- center Ryan Kelly, guard Arie Kouandjio and tackle Austin Shepherd -- and one or more of them will have to assume a greater leadership role with so many veterans gone. Leon Brown, who filled in admirably for Steen in the Sugar Bowl, looks ready to start, and the left tackle competition will be heated with a number of returning players and incoming freshman Cam Robinson eager to earn the spot.
Philosophically, a return to a more physical style on the line could be in order. With more inexperience up front than usual and a new quarterback under center, Kiffin might lean toward a run-heavy offense, especially early in the season. Establishing that proper mindset on the line early might be more important than finding who the starting five will be during spring practice.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Lane Kiffin's hiring as offensive coordinator at Alabama sent shockwaves through college football, and understandably so. How Nick Saban could call on one of the country's most divisive coaches in the downslide of his career was confounding. After all, it was only a few months ago that Kiffin was being mocked after he was called off USC's team bus to be told he was fired.
Along the way, he upset many, most notably those in the South who saw him bail on the Vols after one turbulent season in which he went so far as to receive a public reprimand from SEC commissioner Mike Slive.
Now at a well-seasoned 38 years old, Kiffin has a chance to start over. Now all he has to do is coach.
But that job isn't as easy as it seems. There's a laundry list of to-dos between now and the start of the season at Alabama, and Kiffin is suddenly the man in charge of solving the No. 1 dilemma facing the Tide: find a starting quarterback.
To say Kiffin is behind the eight ball in that respect is an understatement. He may have been consulting Saban on campus for a week in mid-December, but he wasn't getting to know the quarterbacks at that time. He wasn't dissecting their throwing motions and he wasn't thinking ahead to the moment he might tweak their technique.
Chances are he had no idea who Blake Sims and Alec Morris were a week ago, and now they're his two most experienced quarterbacks on the roster.
To say Alabama hasn't developed a viable starting quarterback might be an understatement, too. Doug Nussmeier left as Alabama offensive coordinator in something of a hurry. Not only did he close his stint with two uninspiring losses, he also never firmly established who AJ McCarron's successor might be.
Saban would have you believe it's Sims, considering the comments he made during the last offseason, how he was listed No. 2 on the depth chart and how he indeed came on the field in those rare moments McCarron was allowed to rest on the bench. But Sims threw only 29 passes in 2013, connecting on 18. Even when Alabama thumped teams like Colorado State, Georgia State and Chattanooga, Sims had hardly any time to work on his often erratic throwing motion. That awkward heaving of the ball that led to three interceptions at last April's A-Day game may have improved with time, but there was no seeing it during the season.
At least Sims had more reps than Morris, though, as he didn't drop back to pass a single time in 2013. The big redshirt freshman from Texas got a few courtesy snaps late in games, but he was only there to hand the ball off and run out the clock. If he progressed during the season, it wasn't with game experience.
Really, Morris is in the same boat as Alabama's three other freshmen quarterbacks: Cooper Bateman, Luke Del Rio and Parker McLeod. None of the three attempted a pass during the season and none did much of anything during the scrimmages before the season to show they might be ready to take the helm.
We might as well throw David Cornwell in that mix. The newly minted college freshman arrived on campus only a few weeks ago after enrolling early. ESPN's evaluators thought so much of his arm to rank him as the No. 2 pocket passer in his class, but a knee injury cost him most of his senior season, so rust might be a factor.
The good news for the freshmen, sophomores and veterans alike is that everyone will get a clean slate under Kiffin, whose most-overlooked title at Alabama is that of quarterbacks coach. Implementing a quicker tempo and introducing new tweaks to the offensive game plan might be part of Kiffin's new job, but his most pressing duty is finding the next McCarron. Without someone reliable under center, Alabama won't be a team capable of competing for an SEC title.
If Kiffin can develop a successor worthy of McCarron's legacy, maybe he can start to rewrite his own resume. After all, it's a big job he's being asked to do at Alabama. If he nails it, both he and Saban will look awfully smart.
AJ McCarron is heading to the NFL. Alabama's cadre of young quarterbacks will miss him plenty. But they'll miss Nussmeier even more. For freshmen such as Alec Morris, Cooper Bateman, Luke Del Rio and Parker McLeod, he was all they knew. He was the one who met with them every day in the film room and helped them on their mechanics. They listened on headsets as Nussmeier called plays in to the sideline and they got used to his voice on the other side of the phone. He was their guy.
"That'll be a really good competition this spring -- really, really excited about our young players on the roster at that position," Nussmeier told reporters of next season's quarterback battle prior to the Sugar Bowl. "With any young quarterback there's a steep learning curve, and for those guys it's about getting snaps every day and continuing to progress, and I like the development that we've seen in those young players. They need to continue to grow. We need to have a really, really good offseason. But I'm very excited about what that competition is going to hold come spring."
Nussmeier was, and still is, known as a teacher of quarterbacks. He played the position himself, toppling school records at Idaho, but he also helped tutor the likes of Jake Locker, Keith Price and Drew Stanton as an assistant coach. He even worked with Marc Bulger when he was with the St. Louis Rams. And when he got a hold of McCarron at Alabama, the relationship was, by all accounts, a special one. The two spoke very fondly of one another and Nussmeier should deserve a tremendous amount of credit for helping McCarron shed the "game manager" title in favor of "Heisman Trophy contender."
Alabama's current crop of quarterbacks no longer have the benefit of Nussmeier's tutelage. David Cornwell, the No. 2-ranked pocket passer in the ESPN 300, won't have the man who convinced him to come to Tuscaloosa any longer. Cornwell will instead begin his journey with the same clean slate as everyone else wearing crimson and white.
How Alabama's quarterback competition plays out this spring and fall is anyone's guess. Blake Sims could wind up winning the job and the idea of throwing the football could become somewhat less important given his propensity to flee the pocket. But if it's one of the youngsters under center, it will take a strong offensive coordinator to help them grow.
Maybe Nussmeier wasn't the right guy to call plays and lead the offense as a whole. Maybe he wasn't the right guy for Alabama to move forward. But very few ever questioned his ability to mold young quarterbacks. And that, without a doubt, will be missed in the coming months.
No. 3-ranked Alabama's season isn't over yet. Practices and a bowl date with No. 11 Oklahoma in New Orleans remain.
For Nick Saban, who after weeks of speculation and a new contract gets to focus solely on his Crimson Tide again, the next few weeks will be valuable. Not only does finishing the season well matter, but gathering momentum into next year is important as well.
With that in mind, here are five key areas Alabama must improve upon between now and the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2.
Find motivation: The Iron Bowl loss has to linger. McCarron can say all he wants that he'll root for Auburn now, but in his heart of hearts he has to be jealous. He and his teammates have to be mad. This Alabama team that was supposed to be preparing for a trip to the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game in Pasadena, Calif. Instead, it's forced to muster the energy to travel to New Orleans for a BCS bowl no one in Tuscaloosa wanted. Finishing the season off right should be motivation enough, but that's not always been the case. Alabama fans will remember the last Sugar Bowl. It didn't end so well, with Utah upsetting the heavily favored Tide. In their last non-championship bowl, however, Alabama throttled Michigan State at the Capital One Bowl in Orlando, Fla., 49-7, on Jan, 1, 2011.
Replace Anthony Steen: Who will it be? The options to replace Steen as the right guard are numerous. Alphonse Taylor is listed as his backup, but Kellen Williams wound up starting in Steen's absence earlier in the season. Then there's Chad Lindsay, who has started three games at center and could slide over to guard. But if Alabama is truly looking ahead, it might turn to Grant Hill, who has played tackle primarily in his freshman season but came to Tuscaloosa as the top-rated offensive guard out of high school. Right tackle Austin Shepherd will return next season and there's a chance top-ranked offensive tackle Cam Robinson could step in at left tackle immediately, should Cyrus Kouandjio enter the draft. If the staff is serious about Hill playing as a sophomore, he might be better off beginning the process at guard now.
Stop the running game: It wasn't as if Alabama wasn't ready for Auburn's running game. Gus Malzahn's Tigers made no secret of their desire to move the ball on the ground against the Tide. And still, Saban and Co. couldn't stop it. Tre Mason and Nick Marshall helped Auburn to 296 yards rushing, the most allowed by Alabama since it faced Georgia Southern in 2011. In fact, Marshall's 99 rushing yards were the most by a quarterback in the Saban era at Alabama. Now, Oklahoma is not the same type of dynamic running team as Auburn, but it's not as far off as you might expect. The Sooners have demonstrated an ability to run the ball this season, averaging 235.8 yards on the ground per game, good enough for 18th in the country. For the sake of the bowl game and for the many Iron Bowls that lie ahead, Alabama has to figure out how to stop the run.
Find a quarterback: It would be unreasonable to assume that Alabama hasn't already begun looking for McCarron's replacement at quarterback. But the process that began long ago should begin in earnest during bowl practice. McCarron will continue taking reps, but at this point in his career, he doesn't need every snap to be prepared. Why not stick another quarterback in with the first team and see what they can do? Whether it's Blake Sims, Alec Morris, Cooper Bateman, Parker McLeod or Luke Del Rio -- and, yes, the list of candidates is that long -- someone needs to emerge before the start of spring practice. By getting a jump start now, Alabama can go into the offseason with a plan in place.
When looking at the future of quarterback recruiting for both SEC powers, one has to start with a look back at the 2013 signing class, as signal callers from that class likely will figure prominently in the future race for both teams.
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On the practice field, Alabama's freshmen hardly look green. The country's No. 1-ranked class hasn't disappointed the eye test. Throughout fall camp, you could see their potential.
More importantly, though, you could begin to see where they might fit into the defending champion Crimson Tide's plans.
This year, not the next or the year after that, some Alabama's 25 scholarship freshmen will be called on to contribute, whether it's on special teams or in a more meaningful way on offense or defense.
Last season, 10 true freshmen played for Alabama. Amari Cooper and T.J. Yeldon headlined the group, but players such as Denzel Devall, Darren Lake and Geno Smith made a difference as well. Kenyan Drake carried the ball 42 times at tailback and Cyrus Jones totaled 364 all-purpose yards between playing wide receiver and returning punts.
Starting Saturday, we'll begin to see how many members of Alabama's 2013 signing class make a similar impact. After watching them develop over the past few months, here's our best guess.
ILB Reuben Foster: Saban has lauded the blue-chipper's progress throughout camp, noting a "tremendous amount of progress." He's been rewarded with increased reps to help cut down on the learning curve, and it looks as if he's made the most of it. Though he'll likely start out on special teams, don't be surprised if he makes his way into the rotation at inside linebacker early on.
TE/H O.J. Howard: He's shown signs of promise in the passing game, but the staff wants to see more. The 6-6, 237-pound Howard has all the gifts athletically to terrify defenses with his wide receiver speed and a power forward size. Even if he's a ways off in terms of his comfort level with the playbook, as Saban has indicated, it's hard to see the staff keeping him off the field.
OG Grant Hill: His name has consistently come up among those who have made an impression on his teammates. And he hasn't disappointed on the field, either. The former No. 1 offensive guard in the country has played some tackle, backing up Cyrus Kouandjio on the left side. Though he won't start, you have to expect injuries will happen in the SEC. Should Kouandjio or another lineman go down, the staff could be tempted to put Hill in.
LS Cole Mazza: With long-time snapper Carson Tinker gone, the specialist role is all Mazza's. On field goal attempts and punts, he'll be the one delivering the football.
Freshmen tailbacks: Not one or two, but all four of Alabama's coveted freshmen tailbacks are expected to play as rookies. Derrick Henry is likely the group's ringleader and is the most ready to contribute, but Altee Tenpenny and Tyren Jones have impressed as well. When Alvin Kamara returns from injury, he could be an added dimension to the offense, a scat-back type who can catch the ball out of the backfield or split out at wide receiver.
WR Robert Foster: He could be the best player to not see the field for Alabama this season. The former top-five wide receiver prospect came to camp at the last moment but never looked like he missed a beat, showing off tremendous athleticism and good hands. Because of the Tide's depth at the position, he shouldn't be needed this season. But if injuries occur, he could be called on.
OL Brandon Hill: No player made better progress physically from the spring to the fall than Hill, who is listed at 6-6 and 385 pounds and shed somewhere around 50 pounds during the course of the offseason. Though he's still not the ideal weight for a tackle, you can see now why the staff was so high on him. He's big, obviously, but he's got good quickness and strength, too. Like so many of this year's starters, he could come off the bench late in games as part of the second-team offensive line.
S Jai Miller: He's no rookie at nearly 30 years old, not to mention he's 6-foot-3 and 213 pounds. Miller, who spent a decade playing professional baseball, has experienced something of a learning curve since walking on at Alabama and only recently have we started to see where he might establish a role for himself. He's shadowed Landon Collins at money (dime) defensive back of late and could be a real spark for the Tide on special teams.
DLs Jonathan Allen, Dee Liner and A'Shawn Robinson: Senior defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan called the Tide's group of rookies the smartest he'd ever seen. Saban followed up that comment by saying all three have the ability to contribute this coming season. In need of pass-rushers, Allen and Liner could come off the bench to provide that spark. And Robinson, a mammoth of a freshman at 320 pounds, could give depth at nose guard, where Brandon Ivory is coming off an injury.
CBs Maurice Smith and Eddie Jackson: The battle for a rookie to play cornerback at Alabama is so steep, most don't make it. Geno Smith's late ascent to the starting lineup last season was rare. Though Smith and Jackson fit the bill physically as 6-footers with good size, the learning curve will be difficult with Saban handling the position himself. With the Tide thin at corner, they could make an impact late in the season if they play their cards right.
A ways off
CBs Jonathan Cook and Anthony Averett: There's time left to jockey for position, but it looks like Smith and Jackson have passed fellow rookies Cook and Averett on the fast track to playing time.
LBs Tim Williams and Walker Jones: It's hard to see either Williams or Jones playing much as rookies. Jones has too much ahead of him and Williams, who has made strides during camp and looks like a young Adrian Hubbard, isn't there physically yet.
WR ArDarius Stewart: He came in as an athlete who could have played on either offense or defense. Ultimately the staff put him at wide receiver, where he's looked good, but he'll need time to adjust to playing there full time.
QBs Cooper Bateman, Parker McLeod and Luke Del Rio: Ideally, all three will redshirt the season and retain full eligibility heading into next season, when the Tide will figure out who AJ McCarron's successor will be. With Blake Sims and Alec Morris dueling it out for No. 2 now, expect the rookies to ride the bench and learn the ropes in 2013.
Preparation for Virginia Tech didn't begin until Thursday afternoon, when the second half of the brief media viewing portion of practice came with the condition that cameras not film the proceedings. For the first time, there was something coaches weren't willing to show the outside world.
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For a split-second following the Tide's first scrimmage of fall camp the nightmare scenario had to be considered. Nick Saban told reporters that his quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate had his leg stepped on and was forced to the sideline late in the practice.
Gulp. Take a deep breath.
Then Saban made it clear: there was no real injury to McCarron and he'd be at practice the following Monday. And he was, much to the relief of Alabama's title chances. The strong-armed and accurate senior was at practice every day last week and participated fully in Saturday's scrimmage.
But wait the rumors of another injury to McCarron struck a week later. This time Saban said nothing, and instead McCarron took to Twitter himself, writing, "Ankle seems great to me. Rocking these @kobebryant shoes." He even provided photographic evidence of his feet, replete with the snazzy red sneakers.
If all the nervousness and excitement around McCarron seemed silly, it's because it was. There was never anything seriously wrong with him. There was never any reason to believe he'd miss a game. In fact, he could have sneezed at the wrong pitch and Alabama would have rushed to Dr. James Andrew for advice on what exactly the gesticulation meant.
But the truth is McCarron means everything to the Tide's title hopes. Without him, there's no telling how many games Alabama loses. Could a quarterback be made ready in time for the opener against Virginia Tech? Maybe, maybe not. And what about Texas A&M two weeks later? Alabama couldn't beat the Aggies with McCarron a year ago. What would happen without him?
On and on down the schedule you could pick out close games and potential losses if McCarron weren't taking snaps under center.
Why? Because for as good a running quarterback backup Blake Sims is, he's not the answer in a long-term scenario. Saban can say how well he plays, as he did Saturday, but there's always a note at the end. This past weekend it was the small fact that he forced too many passes and threw three interceptions.
The truth of the matter is that Sims is inaccurate and he does force too many passes to covered receivers. If you watch enough of practice you'll see how the ball comes out of his hand. It isn't what you'd call "typical" of an SEC quarterback. He isn't the guy to sit in the pocket and make the progressions. He tucks and runs. And that's fine coming off the bench. But starting? No, after a few turnovers that job would likely fall to more of a pure passer like Alec Morris or Luke Del Rio or Cooper Bateman or Parker McLeod -- combined playing experience: zero games started, zero snaps taken, zero passes thrown.
If McCarron went down, Alabama truly would be in a world of hurt.
But that's almost too obvious. Outside of McCarron, who are the three most indispensable players for the Tide?
C.J. Mosley: Nothing about Mosley's game fits the typical Alabama mold. He's rarely the biggest or the strongest player on the field. Next to Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower, he looked like a safety. But Mosley's sideline-to-sideline speed is outstanding, and in a league that continues to feature mobile quarterbacks that trait is invaluable. Last season Mosley became the first UA defender to break the 100-tackle mark since Rolando McClain, and he did it while splitting time. Now that the job is all his, it's up to Mosley to do even more in terms of production and leadership.
Deion Belue: A year ago Alabama fans would have scoffed at the notion of Belue being indispensable, but now he's the Tide's best cornerback and one of the few with any real experience. Without him, there really isn't much help for Saban to turn to off the bench. Geno Smith's status is unknown after a DUI, Cyrus Jones is still transitioning from playing offense a year ago and Bradley Sylve hasn't yet shown he's capable of playing meaningful snaps. Rookies Anthony Averett, Jonathan Cook, Eddie Jackson and Maurice Smith could contribute in the future, but now they're too green under the collar.
Cyrus Kouandjio: It makes sense that if McCarron is the most valuable player on the roster, the man charged with keeping him upright would have to be the second-most valuable. If that logic holds true, Kouandjio is irreplaceable as the Tide's left tackle and protector of McCarron's blind side. A future first-round pick with all the talent in the world, Kouandjio is the anchor to the offensive line. Without him, the group would be thrown out of whack and both the running and the passing game would suffer.
With a full week of practice already in the books, Alabama's No. 1-ranked signing class has been met with overwhelmingly positive reviews. Veteran defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan said there are some potential impact players in the class, saying of the group: "They're really smart, they're fast, they're big."
Ed Stinson, another established player on the defensive line, said the newcomers don't even look like freshmen.
"They're some big boys," he said. "They're strong."
Nick Saban, meanwhile, wasn't nearly as complimentary. That's to be expected, as the seventh-year head coach has had impressive looking players before. What he cares about is how they put those talents to use.
"You can look at that glass as half empty or half full," Saban said earlier in the week. "You see some players who can do it and you see some players who struggle to do it. I'm not disappointed. You make players aware of it. You point it out to them. 'Are you giving the kind of effort that you need? Are you having the kind of focus to execute the technique we need to have you execute?' I don't think there's any player who doesn't want to do it. It's just building the maturity and mental toughness to sustain it. That's part of the development of every player. The older players can do it because they've been through it before and can understand it. It's a process that the younger players have to go through so that they can develop those qualities and characteristics."
Saban wouldn't say who has disappointed and who has impressed. That's not his way. But this reporter has no such qualms. In this week's edition of Alabama Intel, we look at which freshmen have stood out so far.
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UA coach Nick Saban's comments indicated as much at an event in Mobile, Ala., last week. Though he called Ely a "good player" on and off the field and a good clubhouse guy, it was clear that he wasn't the type of athlete who could take over for AJ McCarron and start in the SEC. As the co-No. 2 quarterback with Blake Sims last season, Ely attempted just four passes in six games.
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No. 11 Alec Morris
Redshirt freshman quarterback
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Judging from McCarron's first scrimmage -- he reportedly completed 15 of 28 passes for 291 yards, four touchdowns and one interception Saturday -- his comfort level couldn't be any higher.
But beyond him, the competition at quarterback has been tight. Only five practices remain before A-Day, and the question of who will back up McCarron in 2013 remains unanswered.
Blake Sims won the day at Alabama's first scrimmage this past weekend, coming in second to McCarron in passing yards. Sims, a rising junior, was 13-of-19 for 129 yards, a touchdown and an interception. But it's still far too early to call off the competition for the No. 2 spot at quarterback. Since UA doesn't provide full scrimmage statistics, it's impossible to know how the rest of the crop of young quarterbacks performed. Presumably Phillip Ely, Alec Morris, Cooper Bateman, Parker McLeod and Luke Del Rio took snaps under center. The fact that Sims finished second in passing Saturday simply might have been an indication of the game plan from coaches and not the performance on the field.
"What we’ve tried to do is get everybody an equal opportunity," Saban said after the scrimmage. "But we’ve kind of got to pick who is going to get the reps, trying to pick the four guys who are going to get the reps that particular day -- especially with the ones and the twos.
"I've seen him around," said early enrollee Parker McLeod, one of three freshman quarterbacks Alabama welcomed in January. "I haven't really gotten a chance to talk to him. He's been busy."
Winning back-to-back national championships and developing into one of college football's best quarterbacks will do that. Publicly dating a supermodel pushes McCarron well into the threshold of celebrity, past the occasional television spot into the realm of obscure media reports on his parking habits.
"AJ's on a whole other level," Bateman explained. "He's a celebrity around here.
"But I had the chance during the [championship celebration] parade, we were walking down University and everyone, I mean everyone, is yelling his name over everything. I just asked him if he ever gets used to it. And he said, 'If you have the opportunity you're going to love it. It's the best four or five years of his life.' "
Alabama head coach Nick Saban told Bateman what it would be like to be the quarterback of the Crimson Tide -- on the field.
"When Saban recruited me from the very start, he said we're looking for someone to come in here, learn the offense, know it inside and out so you can manage the game out there on the field," Bateman said. "When you get out there, you don't even need coaches, because you're so well prepared and knowing what you need to do out there."
Bateman, McLeod and preferred walk-on Luke Del Rio might have to wait a few more weeks to get an audience with McCarron, but the time is coming. Spring practice is right around the corner.
McLeod, a former three-star prospect from Georgia, said he's anxious to begin learning under the All-American and All-SEC quarterback.
"He's an outstanding quarterback, one of the best in the country," McLeod said of McCarron. "So I'm really looking forward to spring practice to pick his mind a little bit."
Spring Game Wrap-Up: April 19
TBD Temple Vanderbilt TBD Texas A&M South Carolina 8:00 PM ET Boise State Ole Miss
TBD Arkansas Auburn TBD Idaho Florida TBD Clemson Georgia TBD Tennessee-Martin Kentucky TBD South Dakota State Missouri TBD Southern Miss Mississippi State 3:30 PM ET West Virginia Alabama 9:00 PM ET LSU Wisconsin