As Alabama's QB Situation Sits Up in the Air, Nick Saban Has Two Good Options at Hand

Jalen Hurts or Tua Tagovailoa? Alabama could win with either signal caller, but only one may stick around in Tuscaloosa this fall after this closely-watched QB competition plays itself out.
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The first of the four offensive coordinators who have worked so far with Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts agreed completely Thursday with one of the stronger statements made by Hurts’s father.

Averion Hurts said a lot in an interview with Bleacher Report’s Matt Hayes, but one of his most emphatic statements was this one: “Jalen is a quarterback, and he wants to play quarterback. He loves Alabama, loves Coach [Nick] Saban and everything about that place. But he wants to play, and he will play…"

Florida Atlantic coach Lane Kiffin, who served as Alabama’s offensive coordinator from 2014–16 and who helped recruit Hurts to Alabama, agrees wholeheartedly with that point. “Someone asked me that question about a month ago in an interview. Should he play another position? The guy was the SEC Offensive Player of the Year as a true freshman—the first one since Herschel Walker to do that,” Kiffin told myself and Jason Horowitz on Thursday on SiriusXM’s Playbook. “And you want him to play another position? That doesn’t make any sense to me at all.”

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Kiffin, who has his own quarterback competition to judge between Oklahoma transfer Chris Robison and one-time Florida State signee DeAndre Johnson, said that while he wasn’t at Alabama last year to see the practices involving Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa, he believes Hurts’s future is at quarterback regardless of the outcome of Alabama’s quarterback competition. “I know while we were there we had a great quarterback that every team in the country would want,” Kiffin said. “He is a great quarterback. He still is.”

What Averion Hurts said in Hayes’s Bleacher Report story shouldn’t surprise anyone who has been paying attention. The only thing out of the ordinary was the brutal honesty on the part of the elder Hurts about what would happen if his son didn’t win the starting quarterback job. “He'd be the biggest free agent in college football history,” the elder Hurts told Hayes.

After Thursday’s practice, Saban addressed Averion Hurts’s comments. “I had a meeting with Jalen’s dad after the second scrimmage [Saturday],” Saban told reporters in Tuscaloosa. “It’s going to be handled in a private manner. Jalen’s done a great job and had significant improvement. But everyone has career decisions to make.”

Translation: Saban isn’t going to alter his evaluation schedule to fit anyone’s timetable, and he plans to keep on winning no matter who is still on the roster. And that’s the one thing that feels the most certain. Alabama can win with either quarterback, and Alabama probably would also win with neither quarterback. But more than likely, the Crimson Tide will continue to roll with just one of them.

Saban would love to have both quarterbacks available this season. Any coach would. But the timing of this particular competition suggests someone will leave at some point before Alabama’s season opener against Louisville in Orlando on Sept. 1. Averion Hurts made clear that his son, a rising junior, would seek a place to start at quarterback if he isn’t the starter. Tagovailoa, a rising sophomore, probably would do the same thing. Neither one came to sit on the bench, and either one would have more than 100 FBS programs willing to give him every opportunity to win the starting job in 2019. Had Tagovailoa not been inserted in the second half of the national title game—when he led the Crimson Tide back from a 13–0 deficit for a 26–23 overtime win—he might be somewhere else already.

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Neither player has redshirted, meaning each would be able to sit out the NCAA’s mandatory year-in-residence for undergraduate transfers without losing eligibility. If Hurts didn’t win the job this season, he could graduate in December, transfer and play immediately in 2019, but he’d only have one season left to play. If he transfers before the first game, he would be eligible to play in 2019 and 2020. Tagovailoa, meanwhile, would be eligible to play in 2019, 2020 and 2021 if he transferred before this season started.

Tagovailoa’s hand injury, suffered on the first day of spring practice and aggravated last week, has paused the competition. But since neither quarterback is on track to graduate this offseason, it isn’t critical to make a decision before preseason camp. Since either player would have to sit for a season should he transfer, arriving at a new school in late August or early September wouldn’t take him off schedule.

Saban hasn’t dealt with this exact situation at Alabama, but he’s seen his share of quarterback drama. In 2014, the Crimson Tide held a competition between Blake Sims and Florida State graduate transfer Jake Coker. In 2015, Coker beat out Cooper Bateman only to be lifted in favor of Bateman before the Ole Miss game and win the job back during that game. In 2016, Hurts, Blake Barnett, Bateman and David Cornwell competed for the job. Barnett started the season opener against USC, but Hurts took over during the first half and never looked back. Last season, Hurts held off Tagovailoa. As the season wore on, there was some internal support for Tagovailoa to take over, but Saban stuck with Hurts until the Tide reached a point of desperation at halftime of the national title game against Georgia.

Averion Hurts made clear that his son’s preference is to stay at Alabama. But he also made clear that his son wants to play quarterback. If Tagovailoa is the better choice for Alabama’s offense—as the second half of the national title game suggests—the Tide probably will lose Hurts and dozens of other programs will clamor to take him. If Hurts is the better choice, the same probably goes for Tagovailoa.

And until Saban makes his choice, this topic will dominate the college football conversation.