Blake Sims

With first-year QB starter, Saban downplays Tide’s title chances

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In his first year as a starting quarterback in 2009, Greg McElroy helped lead Alabama to a BCS title.  In 2011, in his first year as a starting quarterback, AJ McCarron helped lead the Tide to Nick Saban‘s second of three BCS titles at UA.

With McCarron’s eligibility expired, Saban will be looking to replace that experience and production under center with yet another first-year starter.  Ahead of that, the coach is looking to tap the brakes on, well, any optimism that may be rearing its ugly, unwanted and unwarranted head.

The two main combatants in the fight to replace McCarron are fifth-year senior Blake Sims (pictured) and Florida State transfer Jacob Coker.  Entering 2014, and even with inexperience at the most important position on the field — neither Sims nor Coker have started a game at the collegiate level — the Tide is viewed as a betting favorite to claim yet another national championship.

At least for the moment, Saban is pooh-poohing and downplaying any type of favorite talk despite what’s happened the last two times he’s had a first-year starter at quarterback.

“Well I think it is a little bit unrealistic because basically what you’re talking about is two guys [who] are untested,” said Saban during an ESPN interview when asked about title expectations. “And when you have an untested player at that position, you can be pleasantly surprised with the way they develop and how they do and how the team sorta rallies around them and the impact of their leadership, decision-making, those things are critical at the quarterback position. …

“They can also go to where they turn the ball over and do some things that make it hard to overcome. Because quarterback is such a critical position to me. Football is a great team game, but then there’s the quarterback. And most successful teams have a guy that, at least in their system, is functionally successful for the other players on the team. And in our case, because we have good skill guys, it’s important that our guy can distribute the ball to those guys and make those guys effective players for us.”

(Writer’s note: the Tide QB competition is officially a two-man thing, based on Saban’s quotes.)

Entering summer camp, and even as he has yet to take a snap as a member of the Crimson Tide, Coker is viewed as the heavy favorite to win the starting job.  Consistency and lack of turnovers will be key regardless of which player actually wins out.

Whether Coker’s the way it plays out remains to be seen; what’s certain is that, with a first-year starter, Saban & Company will rely on its loaded backfield, including the three-headed monster of T.J. YeldonDerrick Henry and Kenyan Drakearrest and suspension notwithstanding — to help the starter get his feet wet, especially early on.

Hogs WR Keon Hatcher undergoes second surgery on same foot

FAYETTEVILLE, AR - SEPTEMBER 5:  Keon Harcher #4 of the Arkansas Razorbacks catches a touchdown pass over Kalon Beverly #32 of the UTEP Miners at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium on September 5, 2015 in Fayetteville, Arkansas.  (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
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An injury that wiped out most of Keon Hatcher‘s 2015 season has resurfaced.

On social media over the weekend, Hatcher posted a video which revealed his left foot encased in a post-surgery boot.  WholeHogSports.com subsequently confirmed through multiple sources that Hatcher had indeed undergone surgery recently.

The website writes “[i]t’s unclear why Hatcher required the surgery or whether he will miss any practice or playing time because of the surgery.”  The university has thus far declined to address the receiver’s status, although head coach Bret Bielema could be expected to touch on the situation during a post-spring press conference Thursday.

During Arkansas’ Week 2 upset loss to Toledo, Hatcher suffered a broken left foot that at first was expected to sideline him for a minimum of six weeks but, following surgery, ultimately cost him the remainder of the season.

At the time of the injury, Hatcher was the Razorbacks’ leader with 198 receiving yards and two touchdowns.  In 2014, he led the team with 558 yards receiving and six touchdowns.

Hatcher received a medical hardship waiver for the 2015 season, which will allow him to return as a fifth-year senior this season.

QB Nick Johns decides to transfer from Virginia

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - SEPTEMBER 25: A Virginia Cavaliers fan reacts to the Cavaliers being charged with a safety in the second quarter against the Boise State Broncos at Scott Stadium on September 25, 2015 in Charlottesville, Virginia.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Seeing the writing on Virginia’s depth chart wall, Nick Johns has decided to take his leave of Charlottesville.

As more and more kids are doing these days — especially the cool ones — Johns took to Twitter to announce that he has decided to leave the Cavaliers football program and transfer to an undetermined elsewhere.  According to the quarterback, he was given an unrestricted release from his UVa. scholarship.

Johns, who is not related to returning Cavalier starting quarterback Matt Johns, was a three-star member of UVa.’s 2015 recruiting class, rated as the No. 19 pro-style quarterback in the country and the No. 5 player at any position in the District of Columbia. As he didn’t see the field as a true freshman, Johns’ main claim to fame during his brief time with the Cavaliers was a driving while intoxicated charged he accrued last August.

With Matt Johns and Connor Brewer, a Texas/Arizona transfer, in a dead-heat for the starting job exiting the spring, and former East Carolina starter Kurt Benkert added as a graduate transfer over the weekend, Nick Johns’ decision to leave for a better shot at playing time is understandable.

Wyoming basketball player gives up hoops to play football

BOISE, ID - OCTOBER 24: Head coach Craig Bohl of the Wyoming Cowboys rallies his team at the start of the fourth quarter of the game against the Boise State Broncos on October 24, 2015 at Albertsons Stadium in Boise, Idaho. Boise State won the game 34-14. (Photo by Loren Orr/Getty Images)
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At the expense of its basketball team, Wyoming’s football team has made an early-May addition to its roster.

Austin Conway, a Cowboys basketball player, expressed a desire to play football earlier this year and was given clearance by both head coaches involved, Craig Bohl on the football side, Allen Edwards on the basketball side, to participate in spring practice.  With the 15 spring sessions now in the books, Conway has made his decision and will give up basketball in order to concentrate on football.

Conway, a Colorado high school quarterback, will play wide receiver at the collegiate level as well as return kicks for the Cowboys.

“I had nice long talks with Coach Bohl and Coach Edwards at the end of spring football,” said Conway in quotes distributed by the school. “Both coaches were very supportive. The biggest thing was I just had to follow my heart. I felt really comfortable being back out on the football field this spring. It felt like I was at home back on the field.”

Conway, who took a redshirt for the Cowboys basketball team as a true freshman in the 2015-16 season, will be eligible to play immediately in 2016 and will have four years of eligibility remaining.  The press release stated that the player’s “scholarship will be shifted from the basketball team to the football team beginning in the summer of 2016.”

As for his football credentials, here is the pertinent 411 from the release:

Conway was an outstanding football and basketball player at Overland High School in Aurora, Colo. He was named to The Denver Post’s All-Colorado team for all classifications as a dual-threat quarterback his senior season of 2014. During his senior season, he passed for 1,341 yards and 13 touchdowns and added 509 rushing yards and five rushing TDs. His junior season, Conway accumulated 1,847 passing yards and 1,130 rushing yards for 2,977 yards of total offense. He had a combined 31 touchdowns, 19 through the air and 12 on the ground. 

“Austin showed us during spring football that he has a passion for the game of football and that he had the skills to benefit our team moving forward,” said Bohl. “We were aware of Austin’s football accomplishments in high school. The fact that he has only been away from the game for a year we believe will make his transition a smooth one. He certainly benefitted from going through spring practice with us and will benefit from having a full summer to work with our strength and conditioning staff. We are excited to have Austin as a part of our team.

“Coach Edwards and I have been working together through this process to try and help Austin decide what is best for him. I want to thank Allen (Edwards) for his willingness to help Austin find the path that he feels is best for his future.

Kirby Smart, on competing against Nick Saban on recruiting trail: ‘I don’t look forward to that’

GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 11:  Head coach Nick Saban and Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart of the Alabama Crimson Tide look on from the field during the 2016 College Football Playoff National Championship Game against the Clemson Tigers at University of Phoenix Stadium on January 11, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
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And, in related news, I don’t look forward to getting kicked in the testicles.

One of the more fascinating storylines leading up to National Signing Day was Nick Saban and his former right-hand man.  After nine years with Saban at Alabama, including the last eight as defensive coordinator, Kirby Smart struck out on his own to become the head coach at his alma mater Georgia.

As both are part of the SEC, their paths crossed more than a couple of times on the recruiting trail in the two months between Smart’s hiring between the hedges and signing day.  As al.com explained…

Alabama and Georgia went up against each other for multiple recruits in the final weeks of the 2016 recruiting cycle. Alabama signed Ben Davis and Lyndell Wilson — two major UGA targets — while the Bulldogs flipped receiver Tyler Simmons away from the Crimson Tide. In the class of 2017, Smart flipped four-star quarterback Jake Fromm from Alabama and landed a commitment from one-time Alabama offensive line commit Netori Johnson.

… both the mentor and the protegé scored wins on the recruiting front.

It’ll be fun,” Smart said upon his hiring in early December when asked about going up against the recruiting juggernaut that is his former boss; two months later, after Saban had pulled in yet another top-ranked class — UGA was seventh in 247Sports.com‘s composite rankings — a couple of months ago, Smart has tweaked his tune.

“I said it would be fun? Oh man, I hope I didn’t say it would be fun,” Smart said on the SEC coaches teleconference earlier today. “I don’t look forward to that because I know Nick does a great job in recruiting. He’s very relentless; he does a really good job, and they have a great product to sell.”

Of course, 2016 wasn’t a one-off battle between the boss and the former employee, with work on the Class of 2017 in full swing.  At the moment, both the Bulldogs and Tide have nine commits each to next year’s class, with UGA, at No. 6, three spots behind UA.

Given the fact that the next signing day is still nine months away, Smart will have plenty of time to close that gap — or his boss will have plenty of time to widen it.