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Quarterback battles are settled at some schools, not so much at others

The elephant in the room.

That is how Jalen Hurts has described his much-debated battle with Tua Tagovailoa for the quarterback job at Alabama.

It doesn’t matter that Hurts started most of the last two seasons — everything changed when Tagovailoa replaced him midway through January’s national championship game and led the team to a comeback victory over Georgia.

“There have been a lot of rumors,” Hurts told reporters. “A lot of speculation about things that have gone on this summer.”

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People are bound to talk when a top-ranked program approaches the season with uncertainty at the most important position on the field. The Crimson Tide haven’t been the only topic of conversation.

Alabama quarterbacks Jalen Hurts (2) and Tua Tagovailoa (13) runs drills during practice in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
(Butch Dill / Associated Press)

More than a third of the teams in the Associated Press Top 25 began camp with quarterback competitions ranging from tepid to intense. That included No. 2 Clemson, No. 3 Georgia, No. 7 Oklahoma and No. 15 USC.

At Clemson, where established starter Kelly Bryant outpaced super freshman Trevor Lawrence, coach Dabo Swinney hinted the duel might stretch into September.

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“Regardless of how it plays out, I don’t see a situation early where we just play one guy,” Swinney said. “This is a situation that, if somebody separates, it’s probably going to take place in the games.”

The nature of the college game makes it possible for teams to rank near the top of the preseason polls without the benefit of a clear-cut leader. Players come and go. Roster churn is part of the deal.

Count the Trojans among major programs such as Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and UCLA that had star passers leave for the NFL.

The arrival of highly touted freshmen stirred the pot at other schools. Heading into camp, some teams simply weren’t sure about their best option.

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It took two weeks for No. 14 Michigan to settle on Mississippi transfer Shea Patterson. At No. 23 Texas, where sophomore Sam Ehlinger and junior Shane Buechele split time last season, coach Tom Herman has chosen Ehlinger as his starter.

Sort of.

“Barring any sort of catastrophe between now and the Maryland game, that’s the way it will be,” Herman said last week. “We’ll see as the next 12 days progress, if that merits a change.”

The key to earning the job, it seems, is something coaches and players refer to as “winning the team.” It’s a phrase that can have various meanings.

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At No. 19 Florida State, starter Deondre Francois needed to rebound from knee surgery and offseason troubles that included a domestic violence accusation and the raiding of his apartment by police on a tip he was selling marijuana. Though no arrests were made — authorities issued a citation in the latter case — Francois spent the spring trying to regain trust.

“He’s around his teammates. He’s at every workout,” coach Willie Taggart said. “He’s doing the things we asked him to do.”

The bulk of the work takes place in practice, where coaches track every snap, every throw and every misfire. In that way, Alabama center Ross Pierschbacher sees “winning the team” as quantifiable.

“It’s done on the field,” he said. “It’s not something you can talk about.”

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Quarterback duels can be beneficial in that competition at any position brings out the best in players, driving them to work harder, especially through the dog days of summer. But they can also become a distraction and coaches seldom let them linger too long.

At No. 25 Louisiana State, Ed Orgeron said “we would like it to be settled in fall camp” and he made good on that, naming graduate transfer Joe Burrow as his starter.

USC will gamble on a true freshman, JT Daniels, and Nebraska will do the same with Adrian Martinez, whose ascension on the depth chart caused redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia to leave school.

At Oklahoma, the battle stretched “a little longer than maybe even we expected,” coach Lincoln Riley said when choosing Kyler Murray to replace departed Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield.

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But what happens if nobody gains clear separation?

Clemson isn’t the only team that seems comfortable with letting quarterback questions persist.

At the beginning of the week, Georgia coach Kirby Smart was still hesitating to name Jake Fromm as his starter, though he might have been placating highly touted freshman Justin Fields. UCLA’s Chip Kelly was also waiting, saying it “has to happen organically.”

And the peculiar situation at Alabama — how many quarterbacks with a 26-2 record as a starter find themselves scrambling to say in the lineup? — showed no signs of a quick resolution.

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Players insist that neither candidate has resorted to backbiting or trash talk. Coach Nick Saban, however, grew a bit testy from all the questions during a Monday news conference.

Reporters wanted to know who will start against Louisville on Saturday. Or if both quarterbacks might play.

“None of that has been decided yet,” Saban said. “So I wish we could talk about something else.”

That doesn’t seems likely, not with the clock ticking down to this weekend’s opening kickoff. When it comes to quarterback competitions, there’s no ignoring the elephant.

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david.wharton@latimes.com

Follow @LAtimesWharton on Twitter


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