Is Julian Sayin the next great Alabama quarterback?

CARLSBAD, Calif. — The way Julian Sayin played Madden was one of the very first tells.

At an early age, Dan Sayin noticed how his youngest son utilized motions, audibles and playcalls in the video game to fool the defense. When Pop Warner entered the picture, Dan and the other coaches found it easy to have 9-year-old Julian be part of a no-huddle offense with boards on the sideline signaling one of their 15 plays.

“They’re smarter than you think,” Dan said about Julian and his older brother Aidan, who quarterbacks for Penn. “Julian has always been very pragmatic, he’s never been indecisive, he’s always just moving forward.”

This is a kid who took his development into his own hands in middle school by messaging Danny Hernandez, a private quarterback trainer who has worked with 2023 NFL No. 1 draft pick Bryce Young and USC’s Caleb Williams, on Instagram and asking if he could come train. It didn’t take long for Hernandez to see how special Sayin could be. By eighth grade, plenty of others were taking note, filling up the family mailbox with offers. And eventually, at the end of his sophomore year, so did Alabama.

“They did offer late,” Dan said, which he said made him skeptical at first. “Getting one from Nick Saban was different. We used to root against Alabama, just because they were so good. But that’s also why you’d want to go there. When you have a pragmatic decision to make, you don’t want to go with the underdog.”

At one point this season, after losing to Texas and seemingly looking lost at the quarterback position, Alabama felt like the underdog for the first time in a while. Now, as signing day arrives, its situation has changed: Jalen Milroe has turned into one of the best quarterbacks in the nation and led the Tide back to the College Football Playoff after beating Georgia in the SEC championship. While Milroe announced he will return next season, Alabama’s long-term future still remains anchored to an 18-year-old who is No. 3 in the 2024 ESPN 300 (No. 1 among quarterbacks) and hails from a sleepy beach town about as far as you can get from Tuscaloosa.

Sayin may play the part of lanky surfer kid well, but his steadfastness in wanting to play at Alabama and face SEC competition has made him the ideal player for a program that has made its name on elite recruiting and development.

In fact, Sayin isn’t just enrolling early at Alabama; he visited with the team before the season to watch the Tide install their offense. The five-star is already living there, having moved in this past weekend. He will be with the team during its practices in the lead-up to its College Football Playoff semifinal matchup against Michigan.

“He’s not trying to be Alabama’s savior,” Sayin’s high school head coach, Thadd MacNeal, said. “But he wanted to play for Coach Saban. He wanted to play in a premier conference against the best players because that’s who he wants to be.”

IN THE LAST row of the Carlsbad High School football field bleachers, a group of kids has found a standing-room-only spot to commentate on the game below. They are fellow football players — some, hopeful ones — from other local high schools or junior high schools. One of the younger ones makes the sudden declaration.

“If Julian throws a touchdown pass on this next play, I’m gonna go to Carlsbad.”

It’s a cool October night at Carlsbad High School, 35 miles north of San Diego, and only about 35 football fields east of the Pacific. A place where you can feel the ocean, so even when you can’t see it, it’s easy to relax. But on this particular night, when it feels like the entire town has turned up for the homecoming game, the crowd is getting more tense by the minute.

Sayin’s Lancers are facing rival La Costa Canyon, which is wringing everything out of the night’s star player. Even without following the ball, it’s hard not to notice the 6-foot-2 Sayin, who stands tall among his teammates and opponents.

Watch him play long enough and you get the sense that, if Carlsbad wanted to, Sayin could drop back and make some kind of throw that would remind those in attendance who the best player on the field is. Instead, MacNeal opts for a more methodical approach: a pro-style offense that is balanced until it can’t be. That’s when Sayin makes magic happen.

On the next play after the quip from the top of the stands, Sayin obliges the young fan. Facing a long third down, he finds a cutting receiver down the field and the ensuing dime doesn’t just result in a first down, but a 37-yard touchdown.

The kid can’t believe it. “Oh my God, he did it!”

Every third or fourth down feels like an opportunity for Sayin to show just why he’s a five-star prospect heading to Alabama. A couple of drives later, Sayin casually launches a 50-yard throw that feathers its way into the hands of a receiver in the end zone. After going down by four points in the fourth quarter, he doesn’t flinch. Sayin leads a game-winning drive that ends with him throwing a 7-yard laser for a touchdown, taking off his helmet and showing more emotion than he has all game long.

“I’m a kid from a surfer town in Southern California, so I’m kind of just pretty laid back,” Sayin said in his San Diego drawl. “But I also have that fire and passion for the game.”

It takes a 443-yard, six-touchdown performance for Sayin’s Lancers to outlast their opponent. Without him, the result — and the Lancers’ ensuing 10-1 season — would not be the same.

“We can do things with him we can’t do with other quarterbacks,” said MacNeal, who also coached Sayin’s older brother. “He’s a very confident kid who has complete command of our offense.”

“He’s a player that knows how to generate power in small spaces,” Hernandez said. “He knows how to create angles and how to change up speed in order to put himself in the position to make every type of throw there is.”

MacNeal not only recognized Sayin’s potential but created an environment in which he could grow and flourish. That meant giving Sayin freedom within the offensive system, holding weekly film sessions and preparing him for the next stage of his career by trusting him with more than most.

“I know this offense pretty well now, and Coach Mac trusts me with being able to change plays and get us in the right situations and adjust on the fly,” said Sayin, who has started since his sophomore season. “I know to succeed at the next level, that’s what you have to do.”

As Hernandez explained, Sayin’s football IQ, spatial awareness and fluidity were already part of his résumé. MacNeal provided the system catered to feature Sayin’s skills while Hernandez continued to refine his fundamentals. Those traits, alongside miles of room to grow in his decision-making and athleticism, piqued then-Alabama offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien’s interest.

“Those guys say they love what we do [with our offense] because there’s a lot of crossover, even if it isn’t at the same volume,” MacNeal said. “If you watch [Sayin] on tape, he’s under center, he’s shotgun, we’re in RPO, we do play-action, we power run, we screen. They love that he moves around, that he goes through his progressions well. I’m lucky because I can do a lot with him.”

O’Brien took the lead on Sayin’s recruitment, explaining how Alabama’s offense thrived under Bryce Young and how Sayin would be utilized in a similar way. While O’Brien isn’t around to see it happen after taking the New England Patriots offensive coordinator job in 2022, it was Saban who delivered the lasting impression on Sayin and the rest of his inner circle.

“Saban really did his homework,” Hernandez said. “He was really able to point out a lot of details that he felt that Julian had in his game and how he fit and what they do there.”

“The whole pitch is, ‘You want to come here, we’d love to have you, but nobody’s gonna kiss your ass. You’re gonna work your ass off. You’re gonna play against the best and no place will prepare you better for the next level than Alabama. And if you want it, we’re here,'” Dan said of the recruiting experience with Alabama.

A COUPLE OF days after his impressive win over La Costa Canyon, Sayin is parked in front of the television at his home in Carlsbad. It’s Sunday and the Philadelphia Eagles are facing the Miami Dolphins, which means Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts are squaring off. The two former Alabama quarterbacks who were both part of the 2017 title-winning team are now two of the best quarterbacks at the highest level of the sport.

Sayin envisions himself there among players who share a college experience having been part of the program with the most first-round draft picks (41) since the turn of the century.

“What they do just translates to the NFL,” Sayin said. “I trust that surrounding me with the best players will give me the best opportunity to go make plays.”

There was a point during Sayin’s recruitment when his final destination was up in the air. According to Dan and MacNeal, Notre Dame was a close contestant. But once QB prospect C.J. Carr (the grandson of former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr) committed to the Irish, Sayin focused on his preference to play in the SEC.

“He narrowed it down to Georgia, Bama and LSU,” Dan said. “If you want to go play against the best corners every week in practice and be protected by the best offensive linemen on Saturdays, those are three spots where you go.”

Alabama’s pitch appealed to Sayin. It wasn’t handing him a neatly packaged future with guaranteed starts or any delusions of grandeur. It was football-focused, while alluding to its national brand and the NIL potential that could come with success. Most importantly for Sayin, it offered him an opportunity to compete from the moment he stepped foot on campus. And hearing it from Saban — who Sayin and his father said is “the greatest coach in college football history” — made all the difference.

“It’s pretty cool, he’s kind of just like on TV,” Julian said of being recruited by Saban. “He’s not gonna tell you how much he needs you at Alabama or how much he wants you to go there. He’ll say we’ll definitely have you and give you the opportunity to go compete. But nothing’s gonna be given to you.”

Julian is all too familiar with the concept. From backyard games at an early age, he was always battling against Aidan, nipping at his heels in every competitive arena.

“He’s so comfortable in his own skin,” Hernandez said. “When he makes mistakes, he will always correct it on the next play, so he’s never really rattled. He’s a very confident kid who loves competition and knows he has to earn it, but feels like he can.”

As a result, Sayin has gone from a kid who didn’t play for a Southern California powerhouse to not flinching at the prospect of being the player Alabama wants as its future quarterback. Of course, the nature of college football makes nothing a guarantee, but Julian’s self-assuredness and attitude make him well-suited for whatever may come.

“I wanted to go to a place where nothing was really given to me,” Julian said. “I gotta go earn my spot.”

Mistakes and growing pains will surely arrive. Dan said Alabama has already pointed out that its nutritionists will help Julian bulk up in preparation to face SEC defenses. MacNeal, meanwhile, knows that while some concepts may be similar, the speed at which things happen at Division I could be a culture shock. For Sayin, however, the struggle will be part of the experience, one that will be far different from anything he has seen bouncing between beach towns in San Diego County. It’s what he signed up for once he said yes to the Tide.

“It’ll definitely be different from what I’m used to,” Sayin said of moving across the country. “But I’m also excited to go be somewhere where it’s all football, all the time.”

With no more waves for Sayin to catch, Tuscaloosa awaits.


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