TUSCALOOSA | "Gym rats."
The description sounds appropriate for a couple of young Pete Maravich acolytes in floppy socks and baggy shorts, hanging around in hopes of a pickup game at the University of Alabama Rec Center basketball court. It seems less fitting for two strong-armed quarterbacks battling it out for a starting role on a consensus top-five football team.
However, that's the way University of Alabama head coach Nick Saban looks at his two prime quarterback candidates going into the 2011 season. Sophomore AJ McCarron and redshirt freshman Phillip Sims both have flashy passing skills and huge high school reputations, but what Saban likes is the way they have tried to absorb the maximum amount of football knowledge before the Crimson Tide's first game against Kent State.
"Both guys have done a really good job of working hard and spending a lot of time trying to learn what they need to do," Saban said. "They enjoy that part of the game. They are both gym-rat kind of guys, if you want to call them that. Both of them do a good job of affecting their teammates.
"Our team does seven-on-seven all summer, two or three days a week, which coaches are not involved in and no one can supervise that. They do it completely on their own, and so the quarterbacks manage it for the entire offense, and those guys did an outstanding job of doing that. I'm pleased with both guys. It would make it a little easier to make a determination if both guys weren't doing things in a very positive way."
Neither has much experience at the college level, although McCarron did get into eight games at quarterback (technically, he played in all 13 games last season, as was the holder on special teams) as Greg McElroy's backup in 2010. Saban has said he wants to see both players in game action before deciding - if there is an eventual decision - to name a starter.
There are two other quarterbacks, or at least part-time quarterbacks, on the UA roster. Redshirt freshman Blake Sims is expected to see action as a special-situation quarterback, and true freshman Phillip Ely is expected to redshirt this season.
The main focus, though, has been on Sims and McCarron.
"Each guy has a gift, and the gift is that they have strong arms and quick releases," UA offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Jim McElwain said earlier this month.
"Both of those things add up to now being able to go ahead and maybe use more of the field in some of the passing game parts. AJ has been here a semester longer, but really the development as far as that part goes from a mental standpoint. I've been really happy with how both of them grasp the things that we ask them to do, and I wouldn't say that one has one thing more than the other. I would say they both fit really well in the system that we are putting in, and I think that one of the things that you do offensively is find the parts you have and don't exploit the weakness. Let's make sure we expand on the positive and strengths, and that goes as well with Blake Sims."
The two centers of attention themselves have tried to downplay the competition aspect of their relationship and look to the coming season in their brief preseason interview sessions.
"At Alabama, everybody wants to know who the quarterback is at all times," McCarron said. "We know what's going on, and we don't let any of that bother us. We're out every day pushing each other to get better. We're friends. It's not a rivalry at all. We're not enemies. We don't let that stuff get to us."
"People want to know," Sims said. "So you just deal with it. They ask what kind of quarterback I am. I think I'm a pretty accurate quarterback, strong arm, pocket passer. I think I fit real well in our system as a pro-style offense."
Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or at 205-722-0225.