The most memorable mess was the Josh Booty-Rohan Davey-Craig Nall debacle in 1999, a Gerry DiNardo blunder which Nick Saban fixed the next season. Although Saban did juggle Davey and Booty throughout the season, he handled the situation in the most delicate of ways and came out smelling like a rose. Davey had a breakout game in the Peach Bowl to end the season virtually assuring himself the starting job a year later.
As successful as Saban was in dealing with Davey and Booty in 2000, he dropped the ball in the mess that became the 2004 season, in which Marcus Randall, JaMarcus Russell and Matt Flynn were all battling for the same job. He remained loyal to Randall while everyone knew Russell was the most talented. Flynn spent most of the season on the outside looking in as Randall and Russell flip-flopped literally from week to week.
Although new head coach Les Miles had other fish to fry last season in his last year at Oklahoma State, the first year coach has undoubtedly been briefed on how to handle the Russell-Flynn (and soon to the be Ryan Perrilloux) situation he faced this spring and soon to be August camp.
While Miles is pretty tight-lipped as it is, the Bo Schembechler protégé has grown even more vague when assessing the two quarterbacks in the wake of spring practice.
"I don't think we will name a starter or designate who will be the starting quarterback for some time," Miles said. "The competition is really too close to call at this time."
In the Tigers final spring scrimmage, Russell spent most of the day running with the first team offense. Looking very much like the front-runner (despite Miles' assessment), Russell completed 17 of 30 passes for 223 yards and four touchdowns. Flynn threw for more yards (234) and a better completion percentage (17 of 29), but threw no touchdowns and tossed a pair of interceptions.
"I think it is just snaps," Miles said of Russell. "I think there were times where you could see that he needed to throw the football away. There were a couple of times where he should have scrambled, using the clock. I mean, it is just experience. It is just giving him the ball and letting him the quarterback for extended numbers of snaps. The same is true for Matt Flynn."
One thing Miles said Russell did well was his ability to improvise on the spot. Standing 6-5 and 248 pounds, Russell is more agile and athletic than people think his sizeable frame would allow.
"I think he has improved," Miles said. "He understands formats. I think Jimbo has done a really good job cueing him in and allowing him to play within the system.
"I think he ad-libs well and when he does, I think he ad-libs with more limited options. In other words, those guys who ad-lib with everything in the playbook, they don't necessarily make great decision whereas when you are able to put a criteria on scramble with one play, throw away on another, the opportunity to get a first down, scramble and throw, you cut down on the possibility of making a bad play worse by forcing something. If he can ad-lib under certain criteria, which he is showing me that he can, it will in no doubt benefit us."
Russell said he was pleased with his performance in the scrimmage, but gave a great deal of credit to his teammates around him.
"I thought I did a good job today," Russell said. "There were some things we threw in there like a day or two ago and I think we picked up on them rather quick. I thought everyone played well good, the linemen, the running backs. I think we had a great day today."
"I think I improved in the fact I know more about what's going on," Russell said. "I am much more aware of the offense more than last year. Getting that experience last year really helped me a lot and then what I got this spring and this summer, it will help me even more."
"Things are coming to me a lot simpler now since I have now been here two years and with this spring under my belt. It (the offense) is like a second nature for me now."
Flynn, who saw his most extensive
amount of playing time during last season's CapitalOne Bowl game against
"I think that I have come a long way this spring with my decision making progress under the gun," Flynn said. "The scrimmage that we had today has helped us, putting stepping stones down sharpening our decision making skills – both me and JaMarcus."
Flynn added that his and the offense's ability to rebound from mistakes was one of the positive things about this spring.
"I think one of the things I liked is that after mistakes we made, both as a unit and myself personally, we came back and made some plays," Flynn said. "I think we both did a good job on check downs and getting the ball down the field, spreading it around to receivers.
"I think I improved significantly both physically and mentally, but more mentally than anything making reads, check downs, making checks on runs, things like that. I have really worked on trying not to make the same mistake I did the day before."
The coaching staff has changed dramatically since the last time either one of these players took the field. Aside from retaining the services of offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher and offensive line coach Stacey Searles, the entire staff, including a new head coach, has arrived. Flynn said the transition hasn't been too dramatic.
"The coaching staff has kept all of the terminology basically the same so I don't think it is a different system," Flynn said. "He (Fisher) is calling the same plays and the same formations as he would last year so it really hasn't changed all that much. We have tried to open it up a little more this spring. We have tried to run every play we have so we can have something to build and work on this summer so we can have it on the books, have it on film, so we can watch it."
Russell said one of the most distinct differences is that Miles is affiliated more with the offense whereas Saban was a fixture on the defensive side of the ball.
"Coach Saban was a defensive guy," Russell said. "He is a great coach. Coach Miles is an offensive guy. He has an offensive mentality so he is over there a lot more. He is a little more laid back."
"He kind of oversees the whole offense," Flynn said. "If it is a play where you have to do something different, he will come up to you and talk to you. He is a real personal, one on one, type of guys who will look you in the eye when you talk to him and tell you what you have to do and what you did wrong."