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Alabama 2018 Spring Football Preview: Quarterbacks — Two great leaders, two diverse skills sets, one ball

News out of Spring Camp has been sparse. That’s not an accident.

CFP National Championship presented by AT&T - Alabama v Georgia

This photo inspires me and breaks my heart in equal measure.

Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The All-American SEC Player of the Year vs. the National Championship comeback hero.

The mistake-averse smooth operator vs. the frenetic, up-and-down gunslinger.

The established starter vs. the crowd favorite.

Jalen Hurts vs. Tua Tagovailoa.

Yeah, about that...the much-anticipated quarterback battle of the national offseason had a great deal of cold water splashed down its back when, on the first day of Spring, upstart freshman Tua Tagovailoa broke a bone on his throwing thumb. That injury was mild, as far as bone breaks go, and Tua was quickly back to practice, going so far as to participate in the first scrimmage of the season. By all accounts, he outperformed Jalen Hurts; though, as has been the case in game-times, once Jalen settled down and settled in, he had a markedly better second-half performance. Statistics from the scrimmage were a closely-guarded state secret.

But, here’s the dirty secret: Even if Tua had not been injured, Nick Saban has clamped down on talk out of camp about the quarterbacks. His remarks instead have usually focused on individual players, injured ones not participating, and the areas of far greater concern to him: the rebuilt defense and finding the best five across the offensive line. This battle, which was expected to be a media zoo, has instead been a dud for drive-by hot take specialists and those who would stoke partisans of either camp.

And that, my friends, is the best possible news to come out of the Spring quarterback battle to-date.

How he’ll keep expectations down after the A-Day game is another story. But, for now, the way that Saban has stayed on message, while simultaneously limiting the flow of information, would make the North Korean leadership in Pyongyang green with envy.

I don’t think this is an accident either; nor do I suspect it will change when Fall rolls around. Given the public comments the staff made during the 2016 quarterback battle, I think Saban rather regrets painting himself into a corner and showing his hand -- publicly intimating that his preferred starter just wasn’t there yet.

And I don’t think he does it again.

The starter will be whoever runs out on the field to take the coin toss during the Labor Day demolition of Louisville. Both players have earned the benefit of as long a look as it requires to make up his mind. At the same, I would be stunned if the competition lasted a second longer either. Expect a move, when it comes, to be decisive.

The Departed:

Montana Murphy (RIP). I really wanted to see him get a varsity letter too. Austin Johnson (hey, walk-ons need love too.) And, depending on what story he’s telling this week, Gardner Minshew...maybe? maybe not?

The Incumbent:

This guy needs no introduction. Sophomore Jalen Hurts obliterated record books his Freshman season. But, what if I told you that statistically Hurts was even more effective as a Sophomore?

His passer rating improved 11 full points, to 150.1. His yards per attempt were up by a full yard (to 8.2) as were his yards per completion (9.3). Sure, Jalen’s completion percentage was down to just a shade over 60%, and his touchdowns were cut from 23 to 17. But, he played in one-and-a-half fewer games, had 140 fewer passes, and those freshmen boo boos in the turnover department largely went away: He threw just one interception all year, and his lost fumbles dropped from five to one. His YPC were up, to 5.6, and he still went for 855 on the ground and chipped in another 7 scores with his legs.

It all seemingly clicked late in the fourth quarter in Starkville, with the Tide’s playoff hopes on life support, trailing late to the Bulldogs:

99% of the teams in America would take that.

But, Alabama is not among the 99%, and the maddening little things about Jalen Hurts’ game we saw in his freshman season were not only present, but exacerbated: Not making a decision fast enough, not seeing second and third options wide open, not getting rid of the ball on a check-down or taking a bad sack. The cool customer had lost his cool. It largely lead to an Iron Bowl loss, perpetual third down woes, and it frustrated an under-used receiving corps.

The verdict was in, and it seemed that against the elite, though a damned good college quarterback, Hurts’ level of play just wasn’t elite enough. Twenty-nine games into a career, trailing by two scores and shutout on the scoreboard, with Alabama again in a must-pass, can’t-pass situation, the head man had seen enough.

For a half, at least. That’s when the Freshman came in.

The Upstart

There was never a doubt that Tua Tagovailoa was going to be special. How special is to be determined only by the opportunities presented to him and the occasions in which he is called upon. But if the first cal-up from the bullpen is any indication of future, he may leave the best-ever. The first chance that he had in meaningful play, he stepped on to the greatest stage in college football, stepped into the history books, and delivered a masterpiece.

But, let’s not anoint the backup the new starter just yet. Tap the brakes, as the kids say.

While your eyes may tell you one story, the numbers tell a very different one. A statistical comparison of Tua to Jalen Hurts is remarkably, almost-eerily similar.

Tagovailoa, playing largely against scrubs beaten down by Alabama’s first team, completed a few more passes (63.6%), but the YPA (8.3) and YPC (9.9), and minimal turnovers (11:2), were very similar to the stats Jalen put up. Even their rushing numbers are similar: On the ground Tua added 133 yards and two scores on 27 carries, good for a 4.9 YPC average.

But, with that promise also came the freshman yips. It is cliched to speak of a gunslinger mentality, but he truly does possess it. For every bad throw that should have been a pick, he’ll come back and throw a receiver open. For every interception that was thrown, he made just as remarkable a read for a score. For every bad sack or negative play he took, he was powerful, agile and decisive enough to pick up huge first downs with his legs.

You buy the ticket, you take the ride: and no where is that truer than with Tua’s game.

His ability to decisively read secondary targets and then quickly distribute the ball to them has resulted in bigger plays in the passing game. And, that, at its heart, is the biggest difference that shows up in any quantifiable sense, where Tagovailoa’s passer rating is a full 25 points better than Hurts’. Given Saban’s emphasis on the explosive play, that fact alone may be enough to win the job...but not in Spring, and certainly not from memories of January.

And, don’t forget the understudy

Lurking in the background of all this is a redshirt freshman that people are inexplicably not even mentioning: Mac Jones.

Jones was an Elite 11 quarterback, a 4-star player, and the No. 12 QB (9 pro-style) prospect in the nation last year. He can absolutely compete at this level, particularly if the game plan does transition back to more pro-spread and less read-option spread, as it very well looks to be doing. His body may have needed a year to get to an SEC-level, but his ability to make an accurate throw takes a back seat to no one on this roster. And, in some respects, he throws an even better ball than Hurts or Tagovailoa.

Jones may be brought along slowly, but that’s far more likely a product of future roster shuffling than any ability he has. Don’t sell Mac short.

For Alabama fans, this A-Day game is going to be one worth watching...especially if the hinted-at two-quarterback system emerges. And it very well might. But don’t expect Nick Saban to tell you anything more or less than what he’s done so far — as little as that is.