AJ McCarron's career came to a disappointing end in the Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma, handing him the first back-to-back losses of his career with no chance to redeem them.
Still, McCarron's time in Tuscaloosa is something to be celebrated. He won 36 of his first 38 games as a starter and left the program with three national championship rings on his fingers. That is the stuff of legends.
As with any legend, McCarron leaves big cleats to fill in the Alabama backfield. Whoever assumes starting duties will have the benefit of offensive weapons T.J. Yeldon, Amari Cooper, Derrick Henry and O.J. Howard—the latter two for more than one season. That's the good news.
The bad news is that with great weapons comes great responsibility. Alabama is expected to win every time it lines up, and with talent like that around him, the team's new QB will feel the pressure of every loss the Tide might incur.
But who might said quarterback be?
|Quarterbacks Projected to be on 2014 Alabama Roster|
|Blake Sims||Senior (RS)||6'0'', 202 lbs||89.53|
|Alec Morris||Sophomore (RS)||6'3'', 230 lbs||87.01|
|Luke Del Rio||Freshman (RS)||6'2'', 203 lbs||85.60|
|Cooper Bateman||Freshman (RS)||6'3'', 208 lbs||96.23|
|Park McLeod||Freshman (RS)||6'3'', 193 lbs||84.35|
|David Cornwell||Freshman||6'5'', 241 lbs||96.72|
|Source: RollTide.com / 247Sports Composite|
This was already a wide-open competition, and the departure of offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who reportedly accepted the same job at Michigan, opens it up even more. Last year's depth chart is no longer as applicable.
Walk-on Luke Del Rio, the son of former NFL head coach Jack Del Rio, surprised many by winning the No. 3 job behind McCarron and Blake Sims last season. He was never pressed into action, allowing him to keep his redshirt intact, but the loss of Nussmeier would seem to hurt him more than anyone.
Though he was offered scholarships to Oregon State, UCLA and Oklahoma State (where he briefly committed), Del Rio is viewed as an inferior physical talent to some of the other quarterbacks in camp. He was Nussmeier's "guy" among the younger crowd, but now that title is more open.
Sims might seem an early and logical favorite, if not for any reason other than experience. He's been on this team far longer than any of the other candidates, spent the most time learning under AJ McCarron and generally has the best understanding of the offense.
But how high is his ceiling in that offense? Nick Saban has never employed a shorter, running quarterback full time, which is what Sims would be. He doesn't have the height to run a pro-style offense in a pro-style way, which casts his prospects into doubt.
"Not at all," Saban said, according to Andrew Gribble of AL.com, when asked if Sims was the natural successor to McCarron. "Not at all."
Alabama fans might be rooting for David Cornwell to step in and assume the job. He's the highest-touted quarterback recruit the Tide have landed in quite some time, and at 6'5'' with a massive arm, he probably has the best physical gifts.
Still, look at the trend among the candidates above. Not a single one of them saw the field as a true freshman, instead taking a redshirt. That includes AJ McCarron as well. With Cornwell rehabbing from a knee injury that ended his senior season of high school, can he really be expected to walk in and usurp this position?
According to Ryan Aber and Jason Kersey of The Oklahoman, Cornwell expects his knee to be fully recovered by spring camp, and he expects to make a run at the starting job. "A lot of [the other] guys have experience on me," Cornwell said. "It'll all start (in the spring) and then be won in fall camp. I'll build on that and make a run during the fall camp."
That type of confidence is not uncommon for players Cornwell's age—especially ones with his physical profile, who have been shredding high school defenses for the past few seasons. But that doesn't make him ready to win the job so soon at a school like Alabama.
His time might come at some point, but it will probably be later.
The Big Three
Despite some of the qualms laid out above, I expect this to eventually become a three-horse race by the second week of fall camp. Sims will be the tentative favorite, followed closely by Del Rio and fellow redshirt freshman Cooper Bateman.
Bateman is an interesting case. He was the No. 4 pro-style quarterback in the class of 2013, and though he didn't perform poorly in practice last season, it was a bit disheartening to see Del Rio beat him out for the No. 3 job.
Still, other than Cornwell, Bateman probably has the highest ceiling of any quarterback on the roster. It's hard to project if he'll make major strides from 2013 to 2014, and if he does, he might be a threat to steal this position. For now, however, he's my guess to end up at third string.
As for the starting job, I think Del Rio and Sims will be co-starters entering the season. So was the case after Greg McElroy left in 2011, when McCarron and another Sims, Phillip, split time in the opener against Kent State.
Soon it became apparent that McCarron was the better option, and history was written from there. If I had to predict now, though it's hard to be confident, I'd say that the same thing will happen during the first couple games of 2014.
And unthinkably, once again, I think a "Sims" will be relegated to second string.
"I like Luke a lot," McCarron said of Del Rio, according to Andrew Gribble of AL.com. "He’s always around me trying to learn everything. Sometimes you’ve got to try to hide from him, get away.
"He’s a really smart kid, throws a really good ball, and I think he’s going to be a heck of a player in the future. I really do."
Take this with a grain of salt, since the season is so far away. So much can change, and I could see any of five guys stepping up to claim the job.
But if forced to choose right now, give me Del Rio in a minor upset.
Update: Del Rio threw a giant wrench in the quarterback race on Wednesday, announcing on Twitter that he will leave Alabama. So much for that prediction...
I'll give my tentative edge to Bateman over Sims, who seems better suited to a backup role, but feel free to take my guess with a grain of salt.