TUSCALOOSA, Ala. - They're the invisible men, yet the centers of attention.
Shielded from reporters, the headliners of Alabama's spring practices, quarterbacks AJ McCarron and Phillip Sims, take their competition public this afternoon.
The 2 p.m. CDT A-Day Game in Bryant-Denny Stadium is the first and practically last opportunity for outsiders to sneak a peek at the future of Crimson Tide quarterbacking.
Just don't expect any resolution today.
The two hours of scrimmaging should provide a summer's worth of conjecture and debate over the battle to replace Greg McElroy. Both quarterbacks are listed with the first and second teams, meaning they will share duties with both teams this afternoon.
And don't even use the 11-letter C-word in front of Tide coach Nick Saban.
"I think you all need to change your mindset about this quarterback thing and get out of the competition world and just say we have two quarterbacks here that both have had a really good spring and both have played really well," Saban said Thursday. "Every time they have an opportunity to play, we'll see how they respond to that circumstance and situation. Just like we'll see how they play in this game.
"That's why I want both of them to play with both teams - just to see how they respond to the situation. It's part of the overall evaluation. And if they both respond well, that's a good thing."
Neither McCarron nor Sims has been made available for public comment on the matter. Teammates paint the picture of a neck-and-neck struggle.
Tight end Brad Smelley said they don't even speculate as teammates away from the practice field. The consensus, at least in the interview room, is being comfortable with either candidate. Both have displayed leadership quality and posted fairly similar numbers in the two previous scrimmages.
Sims, a redshirt freshman, had a better completion percentage but more interceptions. The native Virginian completed 39 of 64 passes for 457 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions. McCarron of Mobile went 37-for-73 with 444 yards, seven touchdowns and one interception.
Safety Will Lowery returned a Sims interception 51 yards for a touchdown in last Saturday's scrimmage.
"I'm just trying to make both of them look bad," a smiling Lowery said.
Getting serious again, Lowery said he has a hard time deciding who is the best option.
So the intangibles are considered.
"They're both being vocal guys," center William Vlachos said. "They're both comfortable and they're both learning what they need to do to be successful at that position for us. I really enjoy being a leader to both those guys. Whoever is our quarterback, or if both become our quarterback, I have full confidence in both of them."
Both? As in a two-quarterback system? That's not likely, although Saban used two in his last season at LSU.
"I'm kind of a continuity guy," Saban said last fall, "so you keep continuity with the team and the leadership and all that."
Trent Richardson shares the backfield with the two quarterbacks and likes the presence they bring in the leadership position.
"They are competitive, but not like 'I want him to have a bad throw.' Sort of like Mark [Ingram] and I were," the running back said. "We were both competitors, but we always complimented each other. AJ is trying to help Phillip every chance he gets, and Phillip is listening to AJ and trying to learn from the experience that AJ has from that year of experience he has."
McCarron played mostly mop-up duty as a redshirt freshman last season, completing 62.5 of his 48 throws for 389 yards and three touchdowns.
The only throwing Sims has done publicly in Alabama came at last season's A-Day Game, when he completed one of seven passes as an early enrollee.
Experience, Saban said last week, isn't a major factor in the decision-making process.
"What we're doing now is evaluating what they're doing right now," Saban said. "Every day in practice, they're getting a lot of similar opportunities, they're getting the same number of reps in the same kind of competitive situations. I think this is a much truer barometer for us to go on.
"Just because someone played some last year, I don't think anyone should assume that that gives them an advantage."
Who leaves Bryant-Denny Stadium this evening with the inside track at the starting job is anyone's guess at this point.
Saban said he isn't looking at it from that perspective.
"Everything is not a competition between the people on our team," Saban said Thursday. "And I know you all cannot function without a depth chart. Just can't. Can't do it. It's the only thing you have to go on is the paper - first, second, third. It's not important right now."
Contact Michael Casagrande at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6273.