They’re no longer at Alabama, but former Crimson Tide quarterbacks Blake Barnett and Cooper Bateman are in familiar positions as they compete to earn the starting jobs at Arizona State and Utah, respectively. This time, however, both players hope the competitions end and, perhaps more importantly, are handled differently.
To be clear, both Barnett and Bateman have a lot of respect for Alabama coach Nick Saban as a football coach, but neither of them were happy with the communication they received last year related to their individual situations. When true freshman Jalen Hurts received the bulk of the playing time in Alabama’s season-opening 52-6 win against USC, it caught both players off guard.
“Long story short, I was just as surprised as everyone else,” Bateman said. “It wasn’t really how it was told to me it was going to be.”
Heading into the game, Barnett said he was under the impression the job was his and Bateman believed he would split time with Barnett, which is what Saban said publicly would be the case the week of the game.
That, of course, isn’t how it played out. Hurts replaced Barnett after two series against USC and didn’t give way to Barnett again until he helped guide the Tide to a 38-3 lead. Looking back, Barnett said he believes the plan was to play Hurts all along. The mop-up duty he and Bateman received did little to quell their frustration, and almost immediately both players thought about transferring.
“How things were communicated, there was a lack of communication,” Bateman said. “I knew I didn’t want to be involved with that anymore, but fortunately that was the first game of the season — 12, 13 more to go. I put my head down and battled through it. I knew after that first game that I didn’t really want to be a part of it anymore.”
Before the game, Barnett, a former five-star recruit and the No. 1-ranked quarterback in the Class of 2015, said Saban told him there would be some zone read packages for Hurts, but he shouldn’t worry about it.
“According to him, I was their guy,” Barnett said. “Once Jalen went in, I was expecting it. But then he went out on the next series, the next series and the next series. I don’t know if everything was communicated correctly.”
At first, Barnett thought he would finish the season with Alabama and then transfer. He assumed he would have to sit out the 2017 season and then have two years of eligibility remaining, but after his father did some research they learned he could be eligible a calendar year after withdrawing from classes. Leaving the team early in the season wasn’t ideal, but by doing so it would potentially maximize his eligibility at a new school. After four games, Barnett finally made the decision to leave the program.
And that decision didn’t sit well with Saban, who on his radio show voiced his displeasure with the unconventional transfer.
“It’s one of those things where I think the culture has changed a little bit,” Saban said. “I think there’s a certain pride people have in competition. There’s certain things that I was taught growing up about not quitting and seeing things through. I think if I would have come home and told my dad that I was going to quit the team, I think he would have kicked me out of the house. I don’t think I’d have a place to stay.”
That Saban was upset didn’t surprise Barnett. He knew he would be, but he didn’t expect him to be so public about it.
“Obviously, I didn’t expect them to be happy in any way. Them being upset and holding a grudge — that was expected to me,” Barnett said. “The only thing I took offense to is that Saban goes out to media and tried to diminish my reputation for a decision I made that was best for my career individually. It was kind offensive that he would go out and bash a 20-year-old.”
With Barnett out and Bateman serving as Hurts’ primary backup, Alabama finished the regular season 12-0, won the SEC and finished the national runner-up. Hurts, the first freshman to ever start at quarterback for Saban, was named the SEC Offensive Player of the Year.
At SEC media days in July, Saban offered a more diplomatic comment about Barnett’s transfer.
“On one side of it, there’s a lesson to be learned in terms of commitment,” Saban said. “But on the other side of it, there’s an understanding of a player wanting to improve his opportunities.”
Barnett won an appeal from the NCAA that will allow him to be eligible when the season starts, but remains in competition with returning starter Manny Wilkins, who Arizona State coach Todd Graham said should be considered the starter until he gets beat out.
Bateman, it appears, has fallen behind Troy Williams and Tyler Huntley in the competition at Utah. Coach Kyle Whittingham told reporters Monday that Williams and Huntley are getting a higher percentage of the reps.
“Troy Williams is the returning starter and coming off a great season,” said Bateman, who walked on at his hometown school. “They had high expectations for him this year, so I knew I wasn’t going into a good situation [to win the starting job]. All I asked for was an opportunity to have a shot at it, and I got that.”