On Tuesday around 3:30 p.m. CT, you’ll see a series of breathless posts come across your social media timelines from reporters as they leave the first practice of the spring at the University of Alabama.
That’s right, it’s finally time for the next step in Alabama’s quarterback competition. Hurts, a junior who went 25-2 as a starter before being benched at halftime of the national championship game, will fight to keep the starting job from Tagovailoa, the sophomore who replaced him and orchestrated a comeback for the ages, complete with a game-winning touchdown pass in overtime.
But before this runaway train gets too far down the tracks, let’s all take a deep breath. Remember that almost nothing that happens in the coming weeks means much of anything, starting with reports of who might or might not have taken the first-team reps in practice on Tuesday. That’s only an artificial starting point.
Sorry, but answers just will not come quickly or easily out of Tuscaloosa. Nick Saban isn’t about to let it play out like that. He never has.
Whether it’s AJ McCarron, Blake Sims, Jake Coker or Hurts, Saban has never deviated from the wait-and-see approach in terms of naming a starting quarterback. McCarron and Phillip Sims swapped snaps early in the season in 2011; Sims and Coker did the same in 2014, and Coker and Cooper Bateman in 2015. Hurts didn’t start the season-opener against USC in 2016, it was Blake Barnett.
Hurts will get every opportunity to keep his job this season, and Tagovailoa will be given every opportunity to supplant him. That means waiting all spring, summer and, possibly, fall. It would take an epic face plant or a season-ending injury to one of the quarterbacks to fast-forward the timeline before, say, SEC media days in June.
In fact, you can expect more of the same refrain Saban delivered the morning after the national championship. With Tagovailoa seated beside him, Saban told reporters, “Look, we have two good quarterbacks on our team, no doubt. I think that we haven’t really made a decision about that, and it’s not imperative we make one right now.”
If anything, it’s imperative Saban slow-plays the competition as best he can, since a quick decision in the spring could lead to one of the quarterbacks transferring. The reported commitment of former East Carolina QB Gardner Minshew -- a grad transfer — represents a safe-guarding against that possibility.
But more than the roster management issues involved, it’s hard to see this being anything other than an excruciating decision for Saban that will come down to a question of trust versus pure talent.
Saban and Hurts have formed a strong relationship over two years that has included weekly one-on-one film sessions during the season. Hurts has described Saban as a father figure, and he has been nothing if not a trustworthy scion, throwing only 10 interceptions in two full seasons.
Saban, in turn, has praised Hurts at every opportunity. Hurts’ intelligence and leadership are self-evident. His ability to make plays, especially running the ball, gives Alabama a wrinkle offensively that’s difficult to defend.
Tagovailoa, on the other hand, is a wild card. He’s a gunslinger who isn’t afraid to throw into traffic. He’s fearless -- and with good reason. His arm strength and accuracy are on another level from those of Hurts.
But the lefty was prone to turnovers and other mistakes as a freshman last season. It has been all but lost to history already, but you'll recall that he threw one terrible interception in that national championship game and took a horrific sack that set up the now-famous second-and-26 touchdown pass. Saban might be enamored by Tagovailoa's potential as a passer, but his boom-or-bust mentality might take a few years off the 66-year-old coach’s life.
Think about it: Saban seems like the last coach in the world to employ a gun-slinging quarterback. If anything, his quarterbacks have always been given the backhanded compliment of being so-called “game managers” who are simply facilitators of the offense, rather than playmakers themselves. To suddenly deviate from that would represent a seismic shift in Saban’s thinking.
Then again, for the longest time, no one thought Saban would give up his pro-style, ball-control offense, and then he brought in Lane Kiffin as offensive coordinator -- again. No one would have thought that, either, as Kiffin changed everything to incorporate spread and no-huddle concepts. So, really, anything is possible.
A number of questions present themselves in the Hurts-Tagovailoa debate: How do you design an offense with two quarterbacks who are totally different stylistically? Or do you run two different offenses altogether? Or -- and here’s the big one -- do you dare try to run a two-quarterback system, rotating Hurts and Tagovailoa?
The latter seems unlikely, but who knows? Nothing is off the table right now. Nor should it be. It’s spring, not fall camp or the start of the regular season. It's a time for experimentation. When Saban spoke to ESPN’s Chris Low earlier this month, he told him that “if both guys can play winning football, it's not out of the question that we'll find a role for both guys in fairness to both guys.”
With a new offensive coordinator (Mike Locksley) and a new quarterbacks coach (Dan Enos), Saban can try any number of things.
So, again, patience is the key here.
If Hurts seems like he’s taking the first-team reps during practice on Tuesday, that’s not necessarily a sign of things to come. If anything, it’s probably a nod to his seniority.
Tagovailoa will get every opportunity to win the job. His talent dictates that he be given that chance.
But what happened in Atlanta during the national championship game was only the first step. Now comes the rest of what could be a long journey.