Our majordomo, Joshua Chatham, had a fantastic quote last weekend that I promised I would steal from him. That time has come. To paraphrase, Nick Saban has a difficult situation, but not a difficult choice.
Tua Tagovailoa will be your starter. If the reps this fall, and the performances in the scrimmages matter — and they do; if the confidence and versatility of the offense are improved with one player over another — and they are; if the results when it mattered most are factored in by the coaching staff — and they will be, then Tua Tagovailo will be under center.
The much-hyped quarterback battle between incumbent Jalen Hurts and his challenger, Tua Tagovailoa, has petered out the past eight months, and particularly in the Fall. We did not get a heated battle where the starter attempted to fight off a fierce challenge from a fan favorite warming the bench. Instead, we’ve seen an inexorable changing of the guard.
No announcement has been made. No announcement needs to be made. The offseason comments from his parents. Hurts’ finally and understandably dropping his good soldier brave face. He carries that defeat in his body language and in his tone. The humbling of a swaggering-but-graceful BMOC and likable superstar has been as palpable as it has been rapid.
And, in many ways, that has to be more painful to Hurts: There’s no last-minute coaching decision that one player brings something extra to the table. No, instead, it’s been watching his performance plateau while the understudy’s S-shaped curve continues on the upswing. It has been the difference between being swept out to sea and being slowly covered in sand: you’ll drown either way, but in the latter case, there’s no one instance where you can regain your balance — you grasp at a thousand divisible moments, themselves indivisible, only to watch them slip between your fingers.
That said, there is a role for all of the Alabama quarterbacks to play this season. “Dance with them what brung ya’,” goes the old Texas aphorism. Hurts has a role on this team, and his days of quarterbacking the Tide are by no means over. Nick Saban has publicly commented on the possibility of playing two quarterbacks. You do not interject that kind of uncertainty into the equation if you don’t believe both players can and will contribute.
And, count on it. There will come a moments in a game, where Alabama leans on Jalen Hurts this season and he comes up big, as he has on many occasions previously. Though it did not win, perhaps my favorite Haiku in our recent contest summed up what we’ll see this Fall: Jalen or Tua? Jalen and Tua.
The loser of this position competition will very probably transfer over the winter break. But, until then, two likeable young men will sublimate their hurt feelings into the team, support one another, and lead the Tide on another championship march.
It’s hard to believe that just 12 months ago, Jalen Hurts was a first-team All-SEC quarterback. He was the SEC’s reigning Offensive Player of the Year. He was very seriously being bandied about as a Heisman candidate, and was an All-American Freshman selection. He had gone 13 1⁄2 and 1 as a starter, guiding Alabama to a national championship runner-up.
But, in many ways, it was coming up short in that playoff run that also put pressure on Hurts in 2017 to make the leap from a raw athletic playmaker into a complete quarterback. There were some improvements in 2017: He was more careful with the ball; he began to look to secondary receivers in some instances. But, in Alabama’s biggest moments, Hurts again showed a frustrating inability to make a quick decision, to put his teammates in a position to make a play, to use the complete and formidable arsenal at his disposal. With Alabama’s offense simplified, and with Lane Kiffin gone and the passing game less reliant upon passes at or behind the line of scrimmage, elite opponents feasted upon him. Alabama made Alabama a one-dimensional team when it needed balance.
The complete statistical breakdown of Hurts’ 26-2 record is in CB’s analysis yesterday. To recap his second full year as a starter, Hurts completed 60.6% of his passes in 2017, going 154 of 254, for 2081 yards with a gaudy 17 / 1TD/INT ratio. He added a modest 8.2. yards per completion with a very respectable 150.75 QBR.
On the road and in neutral sites, Hurts’ QBR plummeted by a full 50 points, down to 125ish versus at home. In games versus ranked opponents, his QBR dropped by 20 points. Versus Power 5 programs, he went from a passer rating of 192 all the way down to 138.
In-game situations weren’t much better. The simple fact is that as much as Hurts can move the team early and well into opponent territory, his performances once there killed a lot of drives. In standard passing downs of 3rd and 7-9 yards to-go, he completed just 35.7% of his passes. In all 3rd down passing, he was just under 54%. As real estate became more valuable, the passing game would sputter too: Inside the opponents’ 39-21 yard lines, he completed 54% of his passes. Inside the redzone, it dropped to 45%.
But, it was the close games, where Alabama needed a play, that doomed him the most: Hurts actually got worse as the game went along — completing 70% of his passes in the first quarter all the way down to 54% in the fourth quarter. In games where the Tide trailed by a touchdown, Hurts completed a mere 52.6% of must-make passes.
After seeing action in 29 games, that was simply an unacceptable lack of progress.
Far and away, Jalen does his most damage early in the possession, on early downs, early in the game, on play-action. It is a limited repertoire to be sure, but it is here that we will most likely see Jalen contribute in 2018 as a passer. That is why you shouldn’t discount Saban’s (threats? promises?) hints that he may play both quarterbacks. Hurts could very well see action early in most games. And, why not? When you have a person who has closed in on two thousand yards rushing and chipped in 19 rushing TDs — someone who completes an otherworldy 70% of his first-quarter passes — why on earth wouldn’t you play them? Also, don’t discount a few option packages where you have three or more backs in a goal line or a pistol set. Hell, I’d even be for some Notre Dame box looks with all of the talent back there.
But, as Detective Harry Callahan once said:
Those limitations are clear: Jalen is a good kid and is a natural leader, but also one who lost the confidence of the team and, at times, seems to have lost faith in himself. Jalen is an exceptional athlete and a good college quarterback, but he is also a gifted athlete that has just not been able to make the development leap to be an elite quarterback at this level.
He’s thrown just 77 passes, but already Tua Tagovailoa has stepped into college football history and eternal Alabama lore with his second half heroics versus Georgia. We’ll not recap that too much here.
Okay, yeah, we will...just because it still feels so good:
And, if you loved the look on Aaron Murray’s face, do we have something to tickle your schadenfreude:
Now, that glee aside, Tua does have some work cut out for him, and plenty of it remains to develop into the player most think he can be. While you don’t get the sense that the moment or the game ever get too big for him, his alternating confidence and conservatism can get him into trouble. Matt Wyatt did a fantastic job breaking down all 77 of those attempts: warts, wrinkles, excitement, mistakes, amazement and all.
In 2017, Tagovailoa completed a Jalen-like 63.6% of his passes for 636 yards with 11 scores and two picks. His yards per completion were similar to Hurts as well (8.3 vs. 8.2 YPC.) He added almost 5 YPC on the ground and chipped in two rushing scores — again, similar in YPC and rushing scores-per-touch. He may not look like the imposing specimen that Hurts is, but they’re roughly the same size, and he’s got more than enough power and speed to be a legitimate threat on the ground. Still, his eyes are always looking upfield. His greatest strength — which also was a limitation as a freshman — may be his decisiveness. Tua decides early in the look where he’s going with the ball. He will often make the first read at the line and then take what the defense gives him, forgoing the big play. But, at heart, he is the prototypical gunslinger: he’ll take chances with the ball. When things break down, that’s when he takes his shots. And, as we saw against Vanderbilt and Georgia — that also may be when he’s at his best.
After one season, he is a contradiction in terms: a confident gambler, a conservative first-read thrower, a mobile quarterback that wants to stay in the pocket, a pocket passer that sometimes bails on his blocking too quickly. The real Tagovailoa will likely take a full year to round into form.
Don’t Forget Mac
We love Mac Jones. Jones could start for half the teams in the SEC right now and be very competitive. It took a full year of hitting the weights and playbooks, of engaging the practice squad, to really get used to the speed and physicality of the game. All offseason, we have said to not discount the possibility that Jones could win the backup job. His performance in the A-Day game showed why: though he did make some mistakes, he was very efficient and decisive with the ball, displaying nice zip on his intermediate throws, plus a willingness and ability to stretch the field vertically.
Jones will almost certainly see action in the Tide’s 2018 season in mop-up duty. Forbid a spate of injuries, he is physically capable of playing at this level and seems to have a mastery of the offense. Every snap he plays this year is an investment in the future. He will compete next season and decidedly be in the mix for the starter role in two years.
Freshman Braxton Baker (Spain Park HS) will almost certainly redshirt. The walk-on has an exceptionally famous father, and had other offers. But, he chose to dynasty his way onto the Tide as a walk-on.
His classmante, Freshman Layne Hatcher (Pulaski Academy) very well may not redshirt at all. Saban likes to keep four active on the roster. Of the two, Hatcher is the far interesting prospect (and that is meant as no disrespect to Braxton or Jay.) Hatcher is a dual-threat quarterback from the wide-open powerhouse at Pulaski Academy. As a high-schooler, the three-star threw for literally three miles and 185 touchdowns. He had plenty of offers to be sure, and had committed to attend Arkansas State, where he would certainly be in consideration for a quarterback competition. But, he picked up a late offer from Alabama and that is simply tough to turn down, no matter the talent in front of or behind you. Not this season, and maybe not next, keep an eye on Hatcher going forward: there is a ton of raw potential there.
Kyle Edwards, like Barker, was a preferred walk-on for the Tide. In last year’s preseason, Edwards had a phenomenal fall camp. The battle for the fourth spot on the active roster is likely his to lose. But, we fully concede that Hatcher likely has more natural talent. Edwards’ roster positioning may very well come down to whether he has mastered the playbook or not. He’s an incredibly accurate thrower, although — in a worst-case scenario — his arm strength limits the offense more than Hatcher’s does.
A Stab At The Two Deep:
QB1: Tua Tagovailo
QB1A: Jalen Hurts
Backup: Mac Jones
4th Active QB: Kyle Edwards
Redshirts: Braxton Barker, Layne Hatcher