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With Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts qualified for the Alabama quarterback job, it can be tricky managing the situation.

A few weeks before Alabama opened spring practice, a story hit ESPN.com the morning of March 2.

"Alabama could play both Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa," read the headline above the story based on an exclusive one-on-one interview with Nick Saban. In it, the coach spelled out the opportunity both incumbent Jalen Hurts and challenger Tua Tagovailoa had to contribute in the Crimson Tide's title defense.

It would break from precedent from Saban's 11-year tenure at Alabama, but these are different days. That message was clear in the ESPN story published just as the spring practice hype was ramping up.

The Tide can't afford a transfer with two qualified candidates given a shallow depth chart in an era characterized by nomadic quarterbacks.

In the months that followed, there were stories that both Hurts and Tagovailoa had at least entertained the idea of leaving if the starting job went to the other guy.

This isn't a uniquely Alabama situation, either.

Similar quarterback logjams have led to defections for both of the Tide's playoff opponents from last year.

Clemson had three quarterbacks leave the program including five-star freshman Hunter Johnson (to Northwestern) after starter Kelly Bryant returned and No. 1 recruit Trevor Lawrence impressed in spring practice.

Georgia brought in Justin Fields, the other top QB in the recruiting class, despite true freshman Jake Fromm leading the Bulldogs to within a few plays of a national title. That led to the departure of 2016 starter Jacob Eason (to Washington) and reserve Stetson Bennett. That leaves Kirby Smart with two scholarship quarterbacks and -- like Saban at Alabama -- the need to keep two big names from looking elsewhere.

It's a delicate dance coaching humility with players at a position that requires the confidence to be the man.

Ole Miss coach Matt Luke, who lost 2017 starter Shea Patterson in a transfer to Michigan, said he'd like to have four quarterbacks on scholarship at any given time. That's increasingly difficult, he said, "because of the climate" surrounding quarterbacks.

Transfers are inevitable, Luke admitted.

"At that position, that's the way it's looking," Luke said. "You hope it doesn't happen. Every situation is different. I don't want to put a blanket on it because every situation is different but I think that that position, when you have guys stacked behind each other, sometimes it does get difficult."

As USA Today noted in May, five of the eight quarterbacks rated five-stars from 2015-17 have transferred already. That includes Blake Barnett, the jewel of Alabama's 2015 class who is now on his third school at South Florida.

"It's a me-now society," Georgia's Smart said. "They want the self-gratification. They want to know they're going to be able to play. It's different from any other position because any other position other than kicker, they know they can have another role."

Baker Mayfield became the other side of the argument the last few seasons. After starting his career at Texas Tech, the former walk-on won the Heisman Trophy and was the No. 1 pick in the draft after transferring to Oklahoma. Others -- West Virginia's Will Grier and Auburn's Jarrett Stidham -- also flourished in new environments last season.

Back at Alabama, should either Tagovailoa or Hurts remain with the program through graduation as a reserve it would break a decade-plus of trends. No quarterback who signed with the Tide under Saban completed his eligibility as a backup.

A total of 16 signed or arrived as preferred walk-ons since Saban's arrival in 2007. Three completed their careers as starters in AJ McCarron, Blake Sims and Jake Coker. Three are still on the roster in Hurts, Tagovailoa and redshirt freshman Mac Jones.

The other 10 transferred with eligibility on the table. Barnett's transfer was easily the most controversial of the Alabama departures.

"I think the culture has changed a little bit," Saban said on his radio show on the day Barnett's 2016 exit was confirmed. "There's certain pride that people have in competition. There's certain things I was taught growing up about not quitting and seeing things through. I think if I had come home and told my dad that I was going to quit the team, I think he would have kicked me out of the house. I don't think I would have had a place to stay."

Barnett was the highest ranked quarterback Alabama's signed since Saban took over the program. The No. 6 overall prospect in 247Sports' composite of the 2015 class followed an interesting trend in Alabama quarterbacks who didn't win starting jobs.

Those who unsuccessfully competed closest for starting jobs of competitions under Saban before transferring had an average recruiting ranking of No. 79.

That includes Barnett, Phillip Sims (No. 31 in 2010), Cooper Bateman (No. 81 in 2012) and David Cornwell (No. 82 in 2014).

The average ranking of the six starters under Saban: 322.

Only McCarron was a top-100 player who started while Jake Coker was No. 511 coming out of high school.

The movement among quarterbacks has roots in high school, Georgia's Smart said. He sees eighth-grade quarterbacks moving to new schools where an advantageous quarterback situation presents itself.

"When they go shopping and searching, they find a place they can go," Smart said. "A lot of them start for three and four years where it used to didn't be that way. Now, it's kinda trickling up to us."

South Carolina's Will Muschamp said the recruiting process starts earlier with quarterbacks as compared to other positions.

"I think a lot of that goes to the fact that most of those kids have the means to get to a bunch of places," Muschamp said, "more maybe than other kids do so they are maybe able to be more mobile and see more places so they are making their decisions earlier. I don't know that you ever want a guy who is affected by what someone else does."

Smart uses Hutson Mason as an example of a Georgia quarterback whose patience paid off. The No. 664 recruit in the 2010 signing class stuck it out as reserve three years before winning the starting job as a senior and passed for more than 2,000 yards.

Blake Sims had a similar road at Alabama. Experiments at running back and defensive back led back to quarterback where he won the job in 2014. He led the Tide to the SEC title, No. 1 seed in the inaugural playoffs and broke the school's single season passing record with 3,487 yards.

Sims remains the only player to enter his senior season with no assurances of starting. In fact, he was the public underdog to recently-arrived Coker before winning the job in the preseason.

Their situation differs quite a bit from the Hurts/Tagovailoa competition or the Fromm/Fields battle at Georgia. Both were on the back ends of their career in 2014 while only Hurts is older than a sophomore in the current scenarios.

Smart, who was Alabama's defensive coordinator from 2008-2015, said you can't make too many concessions as coach to make a high-profile young quarterback happy with playing time if it isn't deserved.

"Then you're being manipulated and being dictated to," he said. "You have to do what's best for your team and you also have to do what's best for each young man on your team for their development and whatever that development is, is what you're trying to do. You have to sell it to them it's about the team. You can't be just about you even though there's a me-generation and a me-society."

So far, the Tide survived the major transfer departure windows that follow the previous season and the close of spring practice. Asked again in May about the two-quarterback possibilities, Saban dismissed the talk saying he wasn't going to speculate about such a thing.

That sets the stage for one of the more intriguing Augusts at a program no stranger to quarterback drama.

It's hard to imagine a scenario that keeps both for another year if one fades into the background as the previous six quarterback battles have gone under Saban.

The stakes are high for both the quarterbacks and the coaches charged with navigating this tricky time.

Balancing individual glory and team stability is the challenge.

It leads to difficult decisions.

They loom for young talent from the two teams that played for the national title in January. It's just the reality for quarterbacks on college football's biggest stage.

Quarterback signees of Nick Saban era
2007: Nick Fanuzzi: Transferred to Rice after one year and finished four-year career among best quarterbacks in program history)

2008: Star Jackson: Transferred to Georgia State after two years and played a limited role in the new FCS program.

2009: AJ McCarron: Started 2011-13, graduated with two national titles as a starter.

2010: Phillip Sims: Transferred to Virginia in 2011 after losing starting job to AJ McCarron. Finished career at Winston Salem State.

2010: Blake Sims: Started 2014 season after four years in program.

2011: Phillip Ely: Transferred to Toledo after two years. Started in 2015, beat Arkansas and threw for more than 3,500 yards and 28 touchdowns in his career.

2012: Alec Morris: Transferred as graduate to North Texas. Threw one pass at Alabama and was part-time starter at North Texas.

2013: Cooper Bateman: Transferred as graduate to Utah in 2017. He started one game at Alabama and didn't appear in a game at Utah.

2013: Parker McLeod: Transferred after one redshirt year.

2013: Luke Del Rio: Walk-on transferred to Oregon State after one year and again to Florida where he became a starter in 2016.

2014: David Cornwell: Transferred to Nevada as a graduate in 2017. Named starter in preseason, lost the job and played in one game, a 45-7 loss to Washington State going 13 for 25 for 97 yards, three interceptions and no touchdowns.

2014: Jake Coker: Graduate transfer from Florida State started the 2015 national title season.

2015: Blake Barnett: Transferred to Arizona State after starting one game in 2016 and being benched. Played in two games at ASU, going 3-for-5 for 40 yards and one interception. Transferred again to South Florida in 2018 after not winning starting job at ASU.

2016: Jalen Hurts: Entering third year after starting first two.

2017: Tua Tagovailoa: Entering second season.

2017: Mac Jones: Entering second season.


Overall recruiting ranking for the Alabama QBs

John Parker Wilson No. 487

Greg McElroy No. 348

AJ McCarron No. 87

Blake Sims No. 305

Jake Coker No. 511

Jalen Hurts No. 192


Blake Barnett No. 6

Phillip Sims No. 31

Cooper Bateman No. 81

David Cornwell No. 82

Star Jackson No. 197

Phillip Ely No 553

Alec Morris No. 578

Parker McLeod No. 925

On campus

Tua Tagovailoa No. 32

Mac Jones No. 399

Michael Casagrande | mcasagrande@al.com
The tricky dynamic of keeping Alabama QBs from transferring
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