A college football cliché has been that everyone wants to see the back-up quarterback. That wasn’t true before at Alabama. It is now.
Interest in Crimson Tide football isn’t a sometime thing, and curiosity is piqued when there is a quarterback battle. Moreover, Coach Nick Saban ramped up the conversation last week when he hired Lane Kiffin as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, replacing Doug Nussmeier, who took the same position at Michigan.
Kiffin is recognized primarily as the petulant, dysfunctional, and not-so-successful head coach at Tennessee and USC, remembered for being fired mid-season after a disastrous start by the Trojans. There is a perception that he was entitled (or at least rewarded) because he was born into a well-known football family, son of the much-respected Monte Kiffin.
Most miss the point that Saban didn’t. Kiffin knows his football; particularly, he knows offense. That is his job at Alabama.
It is a very important job in this year without McCarron. There are quality, if unproven, candidates to be Bama’s new quarterback. One is the back-up of the past two years, Blake Sims. One is a sophomore, Alec Morris, who had a mop-up series in one game. One is a true freshman, David Cornwell, who entered The University last week and who is recovering from knee surgery. Three of them are redshirt freshmen, men who have never played in a college football game. Cooper Bateman and Parker McLeod were signed last year and entered Alabama in time to take part in spring practice.
Which brings us to Luke Del Rio. Del Rio also entered The University last January and took part in spring practice, but he came without benefit of scholarship. Saban noted on more than one occasion that Del Rio was a “recruited walk-on,” and it has been pointed out that he was recruited with scholarship offers by the likes of UCLA, Oklahoma State, Colorado State, and Oregon State.
Del Rio has a football background similar to that of Kiffin. Del Rio, too, is the son of a top NFL coach. Jack Del Rio is former head coach at Jacksonville and current defensive coordinator at Denver. There has been a presumption that Luke had the permission of his father – perhaps even the encouragement – to walk on at Alabama rather than accept scholarships elsewhere.
There are almost no opportunities to interview a freshman football player at Alabama, and the chances of a journalist talking to a walk-on are even less likely. But one of the rules of a BCS bowl game is that the locker room is open after the game, and all players are available to sportswriters.
In that atmosphere we learned that Del Rio is excited for the opportunity he has. “I came here for that reason,” he said. “I turned down scholarships for that reason, for the opportunity to compete, have the opportunity to start. But nothing is in place.
“We have to compete in the spring, compete in the fall, and then see what happens.”
Del Rio said the competition has been ongoing. “We compete every day,” he said. “We knew AJ was the guy. It’s sad to see him leave. He’s been such a role model for everybody. There’s been competition, but it was back-up this year. AJ was the starter.”
It was not lost on observers that Del Rio was a member of the Alabama travel roster each week. The freshman speculated that it was because “I worked hard every day. I don’t know specifically. You’d have to ask the coaches. I really just did the best I could when I got here last January and tried to learn the playbook and protections and tried to separate myself.”
No one would suggest that Del Rio has separated himself from the competition, but it may not be far-fetched to consider him as the front-runner to earn the Alabama quarterback job for 2014.
First of all, Saban -- in something of a surprising statement -- said in answer to a mid-season question that Del Rio was the Tide's third quarterback, behind McCarron and upcoming senior Blake Sims. He has also said that Sims is not by virtue of that back-up role the past two years (in which he has had not one meaningful snap, merely mop-up work) the leader to replace McCarron, that all candidates are equal. Almost no one sees Sims (the wildcat early in his career) as the pro-type quarterback Saban has always preferred.
Saban's comment that Del Rio was number three (even though he wasn't going to play in 2013) was reminiscent of a similarly surprising revelation by Saban late in the 2009 season, when McCarron was a true freshman in a redshirt situation. Saban announced that if McElroy went down and it was necessary to win a game that McCarron would be the man.
Now comes Kiffin and all the quarterback candidates have a clean slate. One has to believe, though, that Kiffin has made the Del Rio connection and that it will be a plus for Luke.
Del Rio, 6-2, 203, obviously, was not Alabama’s top quarterback prospect last year. But he had a solid prep career, first at Episcopal High in Jacksonville in his junior season (2,580 yards and 20 touchdowns) and then as a senior at Valor Christian in Denver (2,275 yards, 28 touchdowns, only four interceptions) and was all-state. Nationally, he was ranked 47th among quarterback prospects.
In recent days there have been unsubstantiated reports that Del Rio was considering a transfer to Oregon State. Anything is possible, but it didn’t sound like Del Rio planned to leave when he talked in the Bama dressing room in New Orleans.
He said he had some work to do on his game, including making a trip to San Diego to see his personal quarterback coach, the famed George Whitfield. He has been working with Whitfield for a year. “I saw Johnny Manziel worked with him,” Del Rio said. “Donovan McNabb, Ben Roethlisberger. A lot of those guys. I wanted to see what he could do, and I loved it.”
Before that Del Rio worked with the other top quarterback trainer, Steve Clarkson in Los Angeles.
Del Rio continued, “Off-season workouts start pretty soon, then Fourth Quarter, then spring is on you like that. In the spring break I’ll go back out to see him again. There’s not a whole lot of time, but when there is we’re going to throw with our teammates. There’s nothing mandatory. It’s just who wants to get better.”
That didn’t sound like someone planning to leave.
Think it couldn’t happen at Alabama, a walk-on beating out a handful of former four- and five-star quarterbacks? Crimson Tide fans can think back to the late 1980s. Mike Shula, who was outstanding as a quarterback if not as a head coach, had finished his Bama career and the Tide was trying to find a replacement.
David Smith had traveled a difficult, injury-filled route to the top of the Alabama competition. Not the least of his hurdles was overcoming being a walk-on. But Smith did win the job and in his final game at Bama, in the 1988 Sun Bowl against Army, Smith completed 33 of 52 passes for 412 yards (all Alabama bowl records) and was MVP in the Tide’s win.
Moreover, one has to think back to the last two Alabama first-year starters. McElroy became the starter in 2009 and led the Crimson Tide to a 14-0 record and the national championship. Two years later, McCarron became the starter and led the Tide to the 2011 national championship.
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Click HERE to read about the competition to be Tide quarterback
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