Alabama has a chance to win its second straight national championship Monday night, and will do so with Jalen Hurts, the best true freshman quarterback of all time, taking the snaps.
The soap-opera drama behind who is going to call plays for the Crimson Tide has dominated the coverage leading up to the national championship rematch with Clemson, but there is another storyline that Alabama very much does not want to play out.
What happens if Hurts, uh, gets hurt?
Who’s up next? Well, that’s a big problem for Alabama. The Crimson Tide don’t have a backup quarterback.
When the 2015 season began, the Crimson Tide had five scholarship quarterbacks on the roster. One was senior starter Jake Coker. Three of the four behind him on the depth chart were blue-chip prospects, top-100 players in their respective recruiting classes according to the 247Sports composite rankings. All were underclassmen.
When Alabama lines up against Clemson on Monday, none of those four quarterbacks will be on the sideline. All four of them — Blake Barnett, David Cornwell, Cooper Bateman and Alec Morris — have decided to transfer out of the program. Morris did before the postseason last year, then Barnett, Cornwell and Bateman all left during this season after Hurts settled in and they realized he wasn’t giving up the job anytime soon.
There are a few teams in the Big Ten who are going to try to avoid similar defections in the coming seasons. Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State all either have a quarterback room full of blue-chip passers, or are on the verge of it.
Elite quarterbacks want to play, but there isn’t always going to be playing time. Alabama is an extreme example, but other schools have dealt with the same thing. Memphis and Pittsburgh both went to bowl games this season with ex-Tennessee quarterbacks leading the way. Riley Ferguson and Nate Peterman lost out on the Vols’ starting gig to Josh Dobbs a few years ago and found a new place to call home.
LSU and Florida both started Purdue transfers this season, when Danny Etling and Austin Appleby got bypassed on the Boilermakers depth chart by the younger, more highly touted David Blough.
It’s a delicate balancing act for coaching staffs. They have to play the quarterback who gives them the best chance to win, but playing a younger guy — like Hurts at Alabama, or Blough at Purdue — could cause older players to leave. Or an older guy sticking around could cause a younger player to get impatient and start to consider other options.
Here are a few Big Ten schools that are going to navigate similar situations in the coming seasons, and hope that they don’t end up with one scholarship quarterback on the roster like Alabama has right now.
|J.T. Barrett, Sr.||Joe Burrow, RS Jr.||Joe Burrow, RS Sr.|
|Joe Burrow, RS Soph.||Dwayne Haskins, RS Soph.||Dwayne Haskins, RS Jr.|
|Dwayne Haskins, RS Fr.||Tate Martell, RS Fr./Soph.||Tate Martell, RS Soph./Jr.|
|Tate Martell, Fr.||Emory Jones, Fr.||Emory Jones, RS Fr./Soph.|
|Stephen Collier, RS Jr.||Stephen Collier, RS Sr.|
There was plenty of speculation that J.T. Barrett might leave for the NFL, but he didn’t have a very good second half of the season and that doesn’t look like an option now. If no one leaves this offseason, the Buckeyes will begin next season with three 4-star recruits sitting on the bench.
That sounds a lot like where Alabama was during the 2016 season, with Barnett (a 5-star recruit), Bateman and Cornwell (both former 4-star prospects) watching Hurts. One big difference is Barrett definitely won’t be back at Ohio State the following season, while Hurts has at least two more years in Tuscaloosa.
The Buckeyes are adding Tate Martell, the No. 2 dual-threat quarterback in the Class of 2017, and have a commitment from Emory Jones, the No. 1 dual-threat passer in the Class of 2018. Keeping those two happy, plus former 4-star recruits Joe Burrow and Dwayne Haskins, will be a challenge.
|Wilton Speight, RS Jr.||Wilton Speight, RS Sr.||Brandon Peters, RS Jr.|
|John O’Korn, RS Sr.||Brandon Peters, RS Soph.||Dylan McCaffrey, RS Soph./Jr.|
|Brandon Peters, RS Fr.||Dylan McCaffrey, RS Fr./Soph.||Alex Malzone, RS Sr.|
|Dylan McCaffrey, Fr.||Alex Malzone, RS Jr.|
|Alex Malzone, RS Soph.|
The Wolverines have already lost one former blue-chip quarterback. Shane Morris, the No. 3 pro-style prospect in 2013, announced he would transfer after this season. He’s thrown five passes in the past two seasons.
Michigan will begin next season with Brandon Peters, the No. 6 pro-style prospect in 2016 and Dylan McCaffrey, the No. 4 pro-style passer in 2017, likely waiting behind Wilton Speight. He has two years of eligibility left.
Will both wait for their chance, or could one of them claim the starting role before then? There will almost certainly be another blue-chip quarterback added during the 2018 recruiting cycle as well.
|Trace McSorley, RS Jr.||Trace McSorley, RS Sr.||Tommy Stevens, RS Sr.|
|Tommy Stevens, RS Soph.||Tommy Stevens, RS Jr.||Jake Zembiec, RS Jr.|
|Jake Zembiec, RS Fr.||Jake Zembiec, RS Soph.||Sean Clifford, RS Soph./Jr.|
|Sean Clifford, Fr.||Sean Clifford, RS Fr./Soph.||Justin Fields, RS Fr./Soph.|
|Justin Fields, Fr.|
Trace McSorley began the 2016 season in a quarterback competition with Tommy Stevens and Jake Zembiec, and finished it with school records for passing yards, total yards and touchdown passes. He was arguably the best passer in the Big Ten. Like Speight, he also has two years of eligibility left.
Sean Clifford, a 4-star prospect from Cincinnati, will become Penn State’s highest-rated quarterback signee since Christian Hackenberg in 2013. Justin Fields, also a 4-star prospect, is ranked even higher in the Class of 2018.
Penn State won a Big Ten title in 2016, and will be a contender again in 2017. The Nittany Lions are recruiting well, and a byproduct of that is going to be high-profile prospects either wedging their way into the lineup or being forced to patiently wait their turns.
Teams can recruit lots of 4- and 5-star talents at other positions, and find playing time for them. There’s only one quarterback who can play, unless the coach is trying to finesse his way through a timeshare that almost never works out in the long term.
That doesn’t stop schools from adding as many blue-chip quarterbacks as they can. And it doesn’t stop those quarterbacks from believing they will win the job, regardless of the situation.
Just look at Alabama, for instance. The current depth problem will likely be solved by this time next month. Tua Tagovailoa, the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in the Class of 2017, and Mac Jones, the No. 14 pro-style prospect and also a 4-star recruit in the class, are both committed to join the Crimson Tide next season.
And another round of trying to keep a room full of talented quarterbacks happy will begin.