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Why Alabama Needed a Transfer QB After 3 Straight No. 1 Recruiting Classes

Florida State quarterback Jacob Coker (14) gets off a pass as he is pressured by linebacker Telvin Smith (22) during an afternoon practice at their indoor training facility following their NCAA college football media day on Sunday, Aug. 11, 2013, in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Phil Sears)
Phil Sears/Associated Press
Luke BrietzkeContributor IIIFebruary 4, 2014

Alabama football doesn’t name starting quarterbacks.

When Nick Saban finds his starter he hires a CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

That philosophy, above all other reasons, might explain why Saban signed Florida State backup Jacob Coker.

Saban hasn’t made a career by making promises to unproven players.

The odds that Coker chose the Crimson Tide to watch someone else take snaps, however, seems highly unlikely.

At the very least, Coker—due to arrive on campus in May after he graduates from Florida State—seems to be the odds-on favorite to win the starting job this fall.

The pertinent question now revolves around how Alabama and Saban got to this point.

Perhaps an oft-told story about three-year starter AJ McCarron best illustrates Saban’s decision-making process about the quarterback position.

Butch Dill/Associated Press

“AJ was on our team for 11 days, and he thought he should be second team and we played him on third team,” Saban said during SEC media days. “He came fussing and kicking and cussing up to my office after the scrimmage because he was disappointed he didn’t play with the second team.”

Then, Saban said, the Alabama coach delivered his message.

“I said, ‘Well we were only evaluating you on one thing today and that was leadership, and you failed dramatically,’” Saban said.

Strong play doesn’t suffice for Saban.

To win the starting quarterback position, players must exhibit the leadership intangible that made McCarron—as well as Greg McElroy and John Parker Wilson before him—so valuable.

The philosophy tests through which Saban puts his quarterbacks can’t be easy on the psyches of blue-chip recruits expecting to be the next big thing at Alabama.

Saban’s propensity to stick with one quarterback can’t help build depth at the game’s most important position, either.

When McCarron beat out Phillip Sims, for instance, Sims decided to transfer after he failed to take the position during the spring.

Blake Sims, like Phillip Sims, was a 4-star quarterback from the class of 2010. He decided to hang around and spent last season as McCarron’s backup, though he has never started a game.

Because Coker can’t enroll in school until May, Blake Sims will enter spring practice as the only Alabama quarterback with a college pass to his record.

Convincing quarterbacks to come to school and sit for several years with little chance to unseat the incumbent starter makes recruiting elite talent difficult—even for top-notch coaches like Saban.

Quarterbacks Alabama Signed Since 2010
QuarterbackClassStar-RatingPosition RankCurrent Team
Phillip Sims20104-star4Winston Salem State
Blake Sims20104-star18Alabama
Phillip Ely20113-star18South Florida
Matt Sandlin2011N/AN/AAlabama
Alec Morris20123-star26Alabama
Cooper Bateman20134-star4Alabama
Parker McLeod20133-star39Alabama
David Cornwell20144-star4Alabama
247Sports

The result is simple: Alabama, while landing top-notch recruiting classes, signed one quarterback rated by 247Sports composite rankings with 4 stars or more from 2011 to 2013.

That player, Cooper Bateman, will challenge for the starting spot this spring.

247Sports rated the other three quarterbacks the Crimson Tide signed over that period—Parker McLeod, Alec Morris and Phillip Ely—as 3-star prospects.

Ely transferred to Toledo in May.

Now that McCarron vacates the starting position, Saban’s staff landed another elite signal-caller.

David Cornwell, rated by 247Sports composite rankings as the No. 4 pro-style quarterback, enrolled early to get his shot at the starting position as a true freshman.

Judging by history, Cornwell made a wise move to get a head start considering only three quarterbacks have started at Alabama during Saban’s seven seasons.

Make no mistake: That’s by design.

Just as Fortune 500 companies don’t move hastily on CEOs, Saban doesn’t settle on a starting quarterback easily.

He also doesn’t replace them until graduation—college football’s equivalent of retirement.

Loyalty to those who pass Saban’s myriad tests could explain the program’s sustained success.

It might also be the primary problem Alabama faces in landing top-notch quarterback talent while playing an entrenched veteran.

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