The quarterback competition at Alabama was one of the bigger storylines heading into the 2016 season.
Ahead of the Crimson Tide’s opener against USC, Nick Saban said the competition had been pared down to two: Cooper Bateman and Blake Barnett. Saban also mentioned he hadn’t ruled out the possibility of true freshman Jalen Hurts seeing the field.
Throughout the summer, there was a lot of hype about Hurts’ ability, but Saban said Bateman and Barnett were “the two guys we’re getting ready to play” in the USC game. Saban ended up starting Barnett against the Trojans, but Hurts was inserted for Alabama’s third series. Hurts brought a different dimension to the offense and ended up playing the majority of the game, a 52-6 win, before starting the rest of the season.
In a story with ESPN, Barnett and Bateman — who have both transferred — said they felt misled by Saban’s handling of the quarterbacks.
“Long story short, I was just as surprised as everyone else,” Bateman said. “It wasn’t really how it was told to me it was going to be.”
“According to him, I was their guy,” Barnett said. “Once Jalen went in, I was expecting it. But then he went out on the next series, the next series and the next series. I don’t know if everything was communicated correctly.”
After serving as Hurts’ backup for the next three games, Barnett decided to transfer. He landed at Arizona State and, after being granted immediate eligibility by the NCAA, is competing for the starting role with Manny Wilkins. His decision to leave mid-season didn’t sit well with Saban, who said on his radio show his dad would have “kicked him out of the house” if he came home and said he was going to “quit the team.”
Barnett anticipated Saban’s displeasure, but said he “took offense” to the public nature of Saban’s reaction:
“Obviously, I didn’t expect them to be happy in any way. Them being upset and holding a grudge — that was expected to me,” Barnett said. “The only thing I took offense to is that Saban goes out to media and tried to diminish my reputation for a decision I made that was best for my career individually. It was kind offensive that he would go out and bash a 20-year-old.”
While Barnett left, Bateman stuck it out and served as Hurts’ backup. After the season, he transferred to Utah (Bateman is from nearby Murray, Utah) where he will likely serve as the Utes’ third-string quarterback.
Hurts went on to earn SEC Offensive Player of the Year honors while leading the Tide to a national runner-up finish. He threw for 2,780 yards, 23 touchdowns and nine interceptions while rushing for 954 yards and 13 more scores. It’s pretty obvious Saban made the right decision to go with Hurts. Could he have handled things with his other quarterbacks better? Probably, but managing quarterbacks is one of the toughest things a coach has to do.
The element of surprise was also very much a factor. USC was certainly aware of him, but the Trojans couldn’t have game-planned much for Hurts. Ahead of the game, Saban lauded Hurts’ talent but wondered about his ability to do the little things. It really seemed like it may be a few weeks before Hurts saw significant action.
“Jalen’s got a tremendous future. I think he’s got great ability,” Saban said. “I think what you have to be concerned about is if a guy is ready to go out there and not just do things that he can do, but can he run the offensive team? If the back’s lined up on the wrong side, is he going to put him on the right side? Is he going to be able to point out the protection so he can pick up the blitz? These are things we want to continue to be able to develop in players so when they go out on the field they can have success.
“Jalen has tremendous ability. Hopefully we’ll be able to develop it so that at some point in time this season he’s going to be a productive player for us.”
Hurts certainly was a productive player — way earlier than most, Saban possibly included, anticipated.
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