HOOVER, Ala. — Perception isn’t reality when it comes to Alabama’s quarterback vacancy.
Despite the media, fans and everyone else anointing Florida State transfer Jacob Coker as the heir apparent to three-year starter AJ McCarron, Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban has stressed the competition remains open on numerous occasions, including SEC media days.
“That's really not internally the perception by me, our staff or our players,” Saban said. “Jake Coker has the opportunity to come in and compete for the position. Blake Sims has been competing for the position. Really did a pretty good job in the spring. Didn’t play great in the spring game, but we really didn’t do the things that he’s capable of doing. So there’s going to be a competition there, as well as some of the younger players will be involved in that competition.
“We really can’t make that decision or prediction as to what’s going to happen at that position, but the development of that position, regardless of who the player is, is going to be critical to the success of our team.”
Saban’s sentiments likely reflect the views of most coaches in the SEC. In 2013, the league featured veterans such as McCarron, Georgia’s Aaron Murray, Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel and LSU’s Zach Mettenberger. There was also Missouri’s James Franklin and South Carolina’s Connor Shaw.
All brought seasoned, steady guidance to their teams. But it's what they took with them that's of greater importance.
In sum, Manziel, McCarron, Murray, Mettenberger, Shaw and Franklin combined for 18,210 passing yards, 1,321 completions and 156 touchdowns last year.
Now, Auburn’s Nick Marshall, Florida’s Jeff Driskel, Ole Miss’ Bo Wallace and Arkansas’ Brandon Allen are the only quarterbacks who can be considered returning starters.
The question becomes how long will it take for a player to develop into someone who can effectively execute the team’s offense while also gaining the trust and respect from his teammates and coaching staff.
Coker, a fourth-year junior, and Sims, a fifth-year senior, are the main competitors with redshirt freshman Cooper Bateman considered a dark-horse. Sims has been in the system for four years, including the last two seasons as McCarron’s chief backup. As for Coker, he enrolled at Alabama in May after three years at Florida State under Jimbo Fisher, a Saban protege.
No matter who wins the job, neither has thrown a meaningful pass throughout their collegiate careers.
“I think every quarterback has to go through sort of a process of development because the three things that are critical factors to me at quarterback are decision-making, processing information quickly and making quick, good decisions,” Saban said. “So decision-making and judgment are critical factors, accuracy with the ball is a critical factor, and leadership is a critical factor. Two out of three of those things are a little bit innate in terms of a guy understanding a system, feeling confident in application of that system so they can make good choices and decisions, can lead, can be accurate, to enhance the players around him. That’s the challenge with a young quarterback. ... Older, more mature players seem to be able to do that a little more quickly. Not that there’s not some young guys that have done it very well and are very capable of doing it.”
Every team in the conference finds itself in a different place at the position. Georgia’s Hutson Mason, Missouri’s Maty Mauk, South Carolina’s Dylan Thompson and Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott enter the year with starting experience, but none were the starter at the outset of the 2013 season. Then there are LSU, Texas A&M, Kentucky, Tennessee and Vanderbilt, which exited the spring without clarity at the top of the depth chart.
Even with a new quarterback now tasked with directing his offense, Mark Richt isn't apprehensive. A smooth transition is expected from Murray to Mason, accelerated somewhat due to the events of last season. In his final home game at Sanford Stadium versus Kentucky on Nov. 23, Murray tore his anterior cruciate ligament, forcing Mason into duty for the final two and a half games of the year.
And after being in the program for five years, Richt had no doubts that Mason already had the trust of his teammates.
"(He's) a guy that got to watch Aaron's work ethic, to see how he ran the offseason program, how he would organize pass skeleton and those types of things," Richt said. " ... Not to say we don't miss Aaron because we do, but it was time for him to go. That's just college athletics."
Yet growing pains are to be expected.
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, widely regarded as a quarterback guru, said it takes the intensity of a live game against a formidable opponent to get a true measure of a quarterback’s ability.
For all his prodigious talent, even Cam Newton had a few bumps along the way.
“I think back when we had Cam (and) went through spring,” said Malzahn, then Auburn’s offensive coordinator in the Heisman Trophy winner’s lone season on the Plains in 2010. “You find a lot about them (when) they win the job. (But) it really took a good four games where I really knew fully what his strengths were — which he had a lot of them — to really try to build around those.”
Mississippi State began to get a bearing on those things with Prescott last year, as the Louisiana native took over for an injured Tyler Russell and ended up starting seven games. There’s still room for him to grow, though, which is exactly what coach Dan Mullen plans to refine this fall. In Mullen’s estimation, the worst thing a coach can do is force a player to do something that doesn’t mesh with his skill-set.
In the case of a quarterback, that’s doubly important.
“As a coach, how often have you been able to put a guy in a situation so that they're prepared for that moment?” Mullen asked. " ... It's the comfort of them in situations that you need more than maybe the playbook. These guys work. They know the playbook front and back. It is (more about) how are they going to manage that playbook within game situations that is the most important aspect, how fast they can be prepared to do that.”
And with an offseason to fine-tune his game, Prescott believes he’s committed the entire offense to memory. He’s focused on improving his footwork and his touch on deep passes. He’s developed a tight-knit bond with his receivers, too. But some things won’t come immediately.
Maturity doesn’t come overnight.
Much the same, Prescott said those pining for the next crop of star quarterbacks in the SEC to emerge need to practice a personality trait of their own: patience.
“Those guys were unknown at some point as well,” he said of last year’s star-studded group of signal-callers. “That’s just part of the game. It leaves the door open for other guys to step up and get out there.”