Alabama Football Preview 2011: AJ McCarron or Phillip Sims?

Sims and McCarron battle for the starting quarterback position at Alabama. Photo by UA Media Relations.

Part 2: The Quarterback Battle is the big question mark, but Alabama has other talent and other question issues

The 2011 Alabama football team will win or lose as a team. However, who plays quarterback is the most important question mark going into the season—at least for many fans. Will it be A.J. McCarron or Phillip Sims? The quarterbacks enter the 2011 season with limited or no college experience. McCarron saw limited action in 2010 for the Alabama Crimson Tide. McCarron threw for 389 yards and three touchdowns last season for the Crimson Tide. McCarron is 6’4”, 190 lbs. from Mobile, Alabama. McCarron was a sparkling 6 of 6 for 51 yards in the bowl victory over Michigan State. Sims is 6’2”, 217 lbs. from Chesapeake, Virginia. Sims saw no action last season for the football team as he was on the bench with a redshirt.

So, it would seem like A.J. McCarron is ahead of Phillip Sims. But that is not the case. At the end of Spring Practice, both quarterbacks were close.

“We obviously have two quarterbacks that both played well this spring,” Alabama Crimson Tide coach Saban said in his Spring Teleconference. “That will continue to be a competition.”

Saban indicated a decision on who plays quarterback might not be made until the season is underway.

“The key to it is going to be how these guys play when the fur flies and that is when the games come,” Saban said.

Saban went on and said a two quarterback system would be a possibility.

“Until somebody separates, I have no problem doing (playing two quarterbacks),” Saban said. “I really don’t. I like both guys. I have confidence in both guys. We have confidence in both guys and I think our players do.”

What does this all mean? This is nothing more than speculation, but with both quarterbacks so close together and with McCarron already a year further along in the Alabama system and with some playing time, it is inconceivable that the race would be this close. That means Sims is the likely choice to get the bulk of playing time in 2011 for the Alabama Crimson Tide. That’s right. I’m predicting Sims will be Alabama’s starting quarterback by the meat of the schedule. This is based on nothing more than a gut feeling that Sims is about even with McCarron now, and has shown substantial leadership qualities in his limited opportunities like the A-Day Game. This is not a negative about McCarron, but simply a reflection of how good Sims could be.

In this year’s A-Day Game, McCarron and Sims split time with both Crimson and White teams. According to the official University statistics release: “McCarron was 13-of-19 for 129 yards and one touchdown with one interception with the Crimson team and was 8-of-19 for 93 yards for the White team. Sims completed 11 of 20 for 138 yards without a touchdown or interception for the Crimson team and was 8 of 18 for 91 yards without a touchdown or interception for the White team.”

Of course, the Alabama football team is a team. And much of the offensive production will focus on one of the best running backs in the country—Trent Richardson. Since Richardson arrived at the Capstone, he has impressed. With dramatic runs bouncing off tacklers to fast sprints through the open field, Richardson can do it all. In this year’s A-Day Game, Richardson was the leading receiver with 85 yards on seven catches with one touchdown.

But Alabama fans should not quickly forget Mark Ingram. The Heisman Trophy winner was a hard worker on and off the field. Plus, the dynamic backfield tandem that Alabama possessed is no longer there. With the two backs Alabama possessed in 2009 and 2010, it provided tremendous depth. Now Alabama is presented with less depth in the backfield. While Richardson is an amazing worker on and off the field, Ingram was special.

The type of stats Richardson posts will largely depend on Alabama’s offensive line. This should be a strength for the 2011 Alabama football team, but one area of particular concern will be left tackle. The Crimson Tide had penciled in Barrett Jones at the position, but this moves Jones from his previous spot at right guard. There have been past troubles when moving players around—can anyone remember the Sugar Bowl against Utah? Of course, there was considerably less time to prepare for that move. It is rarely the best choice to put a true freshman into the spot at left tackle, but it will be interesting to see how Cyrus Kouandjio performs during Fall Camp. It would be nice for Alabama if the coaches could have Jones in his previous position and have a more settled look with four players in their regular spots. You could see a real difference in last year’s offensive line when players like D.J. Fluker were healthy and playing. Offensive lines are at the best when they have consistency and experience.

Another wildcard in the offensive line situation is the new offensive line coach. After last season Joe Pendry retired and now Jeff Stoutland is on the job.

“This is a great opportunity to come to the University of Alabama and coach the offensive line,” Stoutland said. “I’m leaving behind a great group of young men at Miami, but this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up…When Coach Saban called me and asked if I would be interested, I was excited. The first thing I thought of was winning. I think anybody that follows college football realizes Coach Saban’s record of success, what he’s been able to accomplish in college football, and I’m all about that.”

Much of Saban’s success was fueled by strong fronts on offense and defense. For the 2011 Alabama team to have success it must execute at the offensive line. This makes Richardson’s success possible, but is also of critical importance with young quarterbacks. Both the potential starters need as much time as possible in the passing game. Strong line play can alleviate some of the pressure on the quarterbacks. The line can do it two ways. First, the line must open good lanes for the running backs; this was what made the 2008 and 2009 teams so special—the team could always run when it needed to do so. Second, the line must minimize its own mistakes in penalties. If the team can stay in manageable situations then the quarterbacks can face favorable down and distance. This is always a statement of the obvious, but for young quarterbacks it is even more important to keeping mistakes at a minimum.

The receiver situation also is a big question mark. Can anyone be as dynamic as Julio Jones. Jones was a once in a lifetime receiver. You simply cannot expect to fill that role. Nevertheless, there are options for Alabama’s passing game. Getting Duron Carter on campus is a big boost for the passing game. He will pair nicely with Marquis Maze. Maze is worth watching. He has 80 receptions for 1,217 yards entering his senior season.

The Alabama offense can be very good in 2011, but there are many question marks to answer entering Fall Camp. Who plays quarterback? Who plays left tackle? These two are the most obvious and lingering questions. Who do you think starts in these two positions? Share your thoughts below.

Also, read Part 1 of our preview that focuses on Alabama Crimson Tide Coach Nick Saban.