April 1, 2018 | View PDF
Ah, Spring, where young men’s thoughts turn to...football. Alabama and Auburn are hard at work in their spring practice, or spring training for the older fans. Auburn took spring break off from practice to give the players a break and give the coaches more time to evaluate players, especially those who have moved to different positions. It seems that most of the players took the break to energize themselves for the grind that always awaits during the last half fo spring practice. This is when they will be evaluated as to their readiness to play in the fall. It really amounts to a six-week job interview for 24 positions. There will be surprizes from younger players as they battle experienced players for jobs in the fall. Alabama started on Monday, March 26 and will work straight through until the A-Day game.
Coaches approach spring practice in very different ways. Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant conducted extremely hard practices not worried about injuries so much. Coach Bobby Dodd conducted lighter practices being more interested in teaching than in who will survive the gauntlet. Coach Ralph “Shug” Jordan developed a really novel approach to spring. For years he dressed out his starters, who were not seniors from the year before, in sweat shirts and sweat pants. They were assigned to varies jobs of teaching their positions to the younger players.
Coach Nick Saban conducts a tough physical spring along with a lot of teaching from position coaches. The top quarterbacks wear a distinctive jersey and are off limits as far as contact. Injured players coming into spring are treated the same way until they are cleared for contact drills. Coach Gus Malzahn directs a physical practice but, with the quarterbacks and injured players in different jersies than the rest. There is no contact with the top quarterbacks normally.
No matter how spring practice is conducted, it is an important part of college football. Young players and older players who have not won starting positions have the chance to move up and get in position to contribute to the team in the fall. Also the coaches are not burdened with working on a game plan and strategizing a way to implement that plan. So, they can devote all of their attention to the players on hand and try to build depth for the coming fall. It is not such a hectic pace for the coaches. It can be a fun time for the coaches, not so much for the players. However, there are players who just love practice. A high school teammate of mine at Robert E. Lee, was one of those guys, Billy Dupree. He was a favorite of Coach Bryant, and it was looking like he would play at linebacker in the fall of 1959. Some of the other players from Montgomery decided that they had enough college football. They told Dupree of their plans and that their ride to Montgomery would be leaving around noon. Dupree said, “Y’all gonna´ leave before practice? ‘they said of course we are’.” Dupree said, “Well if y’all are gonna´ quit, I think I will too. But I’m goin´ to practice. I’ll get a ride home somehow.” And he did.
Some football fans get very excited about spring practice. The anticipation of the coming football season reaches an off season high with the coming of spring training football. Their excitement is generally centered around the quarterback position. They are not concerned about the right guard, the center or the nose tackle. They may be slightly interested in the linebacker core. But, quarterback takes center stage. They will not just let the coaches worry about those positions. They are going to worry about the quarterback until the coaches make their decisions. Then they will worry about those decisions. So, it is my intent in the following paragraphs to give them my thoughts on the quarterbacks at Auburn and Alabama based on performance last year and performance this spring.
Alabama is in a tenuous position with their quarterbacks. It is not a bad situation. In fact it is very good. Coach Saban must choose between a junior, Jalen Hurts and a sophomore, Tua Tagovailoa. Hurts has won 26 games for Alabama and lost only two. One of those two losses occurred in the national championship game with Clemson, culmination the 2016 season. The other was to Auburn last year, which allowed the Tigers to win the Western Division title. This was probably worse than losing the national championship to many Tide fans. The Western Division title has been reserved for Tide fans since Alabama lost it to Auburn in 2013 in Gus Malzahns first year. Auburn seems to be the only obstacle in the way of Alabama totally dominating college football. Well Auburn has to be famous for something under the fluctuations of successes and failures of the Malzahn era. Time will determine the fate of all coaches. So, let it be with Malzahn.
Jalen Hurts is a 6’-2”, 220 lb. quarterback with amazing presence on the field. He never seems to get rattled no mater what the circumstances are. He is an average passer, but when he has to make a throw to win the game, he can do it. His running skills are in the class of Archie Manning of Ole Miss in the sixties. His instincts are uncanny. It will be extremely difficult to relegate Hurts to back up quarterback. Hurts is not a pro-prospect at quarterback. He may be one at another position. At this juncture, we don’t really know who the third quarterback will be. So until that is determined, Hurts must remain at quarterback. If it is feasible, depending on the third quarterback, Jalen Hurts would be an excellent tight end. By putting on 20 lbs. he could develop into a pro-prospect. He may be the best athlete on the team. Do you want your best athlete on the bench?
Tua Tagovailoa is a rare find. Saban had to go all the way to Hawaii to find this guy. From the moment he hit the campus last spring you knew he was different. His sling shot delivery from the left side gets out as quick as I have ever seen. He has utmost confidence that he can throw a football through a bicycle tire from the pocket or on the run from 30 yards. This proved to be over confidence last spring as he was prone to throw interceptions. The 6’-1”, 210 lb. sophomore has matured as his pass selection has improved. He can now make better choices and use his snake like delivery to throw receivers open, as well as throwing in an open hole in the defense. I think it is fair that he be credited with the win in the championship game against Georgia. Coach Kirby Smart had scouted Hurts well and would not let his defense give Hurts lanes to throw in. Tua “Tag” was not in Smart’s defensive plan. Therefore he was able to unleash that whip like arm and that natural confidence in himself. He decimated the Georgia defense that had stymied Hurts in the first half. He threw for three touchdowns, the last one to win the game. Tua has the ability to see the field and throw receivers open. This is what many NFL quarterbacks have a hard time doing. Tua is no slouch when he is forced to run. He has good speed and power. If a coach wanted to order a perfect talent for your quarterback position from Sears and Roebuck, Tua would be what you would get. It will be difficult to make Tua the back up quarterback again this year. He is too good. Saban has a good problem to deal with. It would be smart for him to play both. This would cause defensive coaches nightmares in 2018.
At Auburn, Coach Gus Malzahn has an easy decision to make as to who the starting quarterback should be. Jarrett Stidham definitely has earned that role with a stellar performance last year. Not only did he lead the Southeastern Conference in passing, he made key runs that helped Auburn win last year. The 6’-2”, 205 lb. junior started his career at Baylor. To Malzahn’s credit he was able to bring Stidham to Auburn, where he was immediately eligible because the junior college he transferred to from Baylor did not field a football team. He was sought after by many colleges but he chose Auburn. He has all the tools to be a good drop back passer. He is smart, He is tough. He reads defenses well. He has an NFL arm. All he needs is a supporting cast that can
protect him in the pocket and a strong running game to take the pressure off the passing game.
Auburn is not so fortunate when it comes to a back up quarterback. Malik Willis was the back up last year. He really was not called on to win any games, so his inexperience is important when deciding if he is the best choice this year. He is an excellent runner in the Nick Marshall mode. He is Marshall’s same size, ‘6-1”, 200 lbs. plus. He may have more power than Marshall but without comparable moves. His speed is excellent. The problem with Willis is that his skill sets are much different from Stidham’s. Willis is an option quarterback playing in a drop back passing offense. So far, defenses have not been threatened with his passing. He does provide a change of pace from Stidham. Malzahn can use him as a weapon if he so chooses.
Joey Gatewood from Jacksonville, Florida, is an early enrollee that is participating in Auburn’s spring practice. Gatewood is 6’-4”, 230 lbs. and has drop back passing skills that will give him the opportunity to battle Willis for the back up job. He will be a true freshman this fall. He really should be preparing for the junior-senior prom. The quarterback position is better at Auburn than any year since Gus Malzahn took over in 2013.
Auburn will open with the University of Washington and Alabama opens with Louisville. The Tide should have little problem with Louisville, but Auburn will have its hands full with Washington. We will have more on the schedules of Alabama, Auburn and the rest of the SEC teams at a later date.
For the most rabid Auburn and Alabama fans, be assured the quarterback position will be handled very well without the consternation of any of us.
War Eagle and Roll Tide!