TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — University of Alabama football fans had better get used to seeing a guy with a number eight on his jersey behind center this season.
The question is, which one, No. 8 or 18?
Although the Crimson Tide team is still in the infancy of the 2016 season, with training camp having opened on Thursday and the players not even practicing in full pads yet, there’s already a pecking order developing when it comes to the high-profile quarterback competition.
Of the four on the roster who were all considered top-level recruits, it’s looking like a two-man race between junior Cooper Bateman and redshirt freshman Blake Barnett.
Even though the official line from Alabama is that it remains an open competition, those two appeared to get the most snaps during Sunday’s open practice for fan day at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Head coach Nick Saban has repeatedly said that someone has to win over the team, just like what happened in 2014 and 2015.
“You guys watching scrimmages or games, even ourselves as staff, if you took a poll at times two or three weeks before the openers the last two years it would be mixed on who was going to be the starter,” offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin said, “and there were times that a guy maybe that was 3 or 4 we thought was 1 that week—and then he’d go in and not play as well and a guy at 3 or 4 would play better.
“There’s no timetable for it because you’ve got to make sure you find the right guy. I think if we would have had a timetable we may not have found the right guy in the last two years.”
The one constant in those previous competitions was that there was a program veteran being challenged, and none were successfully toppled.
What makes this a little different is that Barnett, who has the better arm of the two, has been here for a year. That wasn’t the case in 2014 when Jake Coker, fresh after transferring from Florida State, couldn’t unseat Blake Sims—who had all spring to establish himself with teammates.
A year later, though, Coker’s experience paid off.
Now as the only quarterback on the roster to have taken snaps in a game at Alabama, Bateman is the closest thing to an incumbent—and thus the player to beat.
He was the one to take the first snaps with the first-team offense during the final scrimmage of spring. He’s the one who is leading his position group through drills at practice, and if Alabama had to play tomorrow, he’d be the starter.
But Alabama doesn’t play until Sept. 3, when it has a high-profile opener against Southern California at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, and even then there may not be a clear starter.
That’s what happened with Coker. He had the lead throughout camp, but it wasn’t until he came off the bench and tried to lead a furious comeback against Ole Miss that the job was his. He took command of the offense, and the players responded. After, Saban didn’t even bother to announce that he had the job, it was obvious.
So Saban’s hoping for something similar to occur.
“I would hope that somebody can do it in practice, especially when we have two scrimmages in the fall,” Saban said. “That’s an important piece of this.
“I’m hopeful that can happen sooner than later.”
If so, this really isn’t a four-man race. Granted, all four still have a shot, and the longer things drag out the better the chances of the challengers, but at this point it would be surprising if sophomore David Cornwell or true freshman Jalen Hurts won the job during training camp.
One is behind, and the other is very fresh.
“David Cornwell has been fighting a little bit of a foot injury, so he hasn’t been able to do everything all summer long,” Saban said on Thursday after the first practice of training camp. “He’s been kind of off and on. He had limited reps today.”
Still limited, Cornwell couldn’t do a dropback drill during Sunday’s open practice.
Meanwhile, Hurts, who may be the most dynamic of the four, is still getting the college game down. Granted, as an early enrollee he helped out the scout team during the on-campus practices for the playoffs and showed flashes during A-Day, but it’s one thing to learn the offense and another to know it.
No freshman quarterback has been able to avoid the redshirt label during Saban’s time here, although Alabama loves his potential and big-play ability.
“If you come in as a mid-year and you perform well at all, you’re going to be pretty good, because most of the guys will struggle a lot,” Kiffin said. “Very, very special skill set. Very strong kid, one of our top lifters in strength; 40s; vertical.”
Bateman, who wears No. 18, has three years on him in the program, while Barnett (No. 8) has gained some necessary weight since the spring and is physically looking more and more like an SEC quarterback. The more his decision-making improves, the less the gap between the front-runners.
The guess here is that will eventually be the deciding factor for who will start the opener.
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.
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