Spring practice began in earnest for the Alabama Crimson Tide on Tuesday and the National Title runner-up are looking for the juice to make a fourth straight CFB Playoff appearance.
Following their loss to the Clemson Tigers, the Tide had a major overhaul to their offensive staff. Not only was 2016 offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin relieved of his duties between the semi-finals and title game, but presumed 2017 OC Steve Sarkisian, who coached in the Clemson game, left to take the same job with fellow bridesmaids the Atlanta Falcons.
With Mario Cristobal and Billy Napier bolting for better jobs with Oregon and Arizona State, respectively, that left Saban lifer Burton Burns and second-year offensive line coach Brent Key as the only two assistant coaches on the offensive side of the ball.
Saban first promoted analyst Mike Locksley to the receivers coach and co-OC position, but it was the hiring of former Patriots’ tight ends coach Brian Daboll to replace Sarkisian that left a few people scratching their heads.
Daboll is pretty much a Bill Belichick/Patriots lifer save for three different stints as a coordinator with the Browns, Dolphins and Chiefs. None of them lasted more than two seasons and most came at the end of head coaches’ tenures. So on paper this looked like a pretty underwhelming hire for Saban.
One must take off their California-tinted glasses, though, and see exactly what the situation is: Another offensive coordinator carrying out the directives of an exacting head coach.
Nick Saban won national championships with four different offensive coordinators. Jimbo Fisher at LSU and Jim McElwain, Doug Nussmeier and Lane Kiffin at Alabama. And all of them were won based off the wants and needs of the man in charge.
The best example of this is obviously the three seasons with Kiffin. Fisher, McElwain and Nussmeier to a certain extent were all executing offenses predicated upon the “Run first, protect the ball” style of play that we assume Saban continues to pine for.
The assumption that Kiffin was bringing this completely new-fangled offense from Los Angeles to Tuscaloosa is off-base. Saban and Nussmeier had already outscored Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M in College Station 49-42 in 2013.
How’s Florida’s offense under Nussmeier doing, right now?
No, Saban knew what he wanted when Nussmeier left for the same position at Michigan in Brady Hoke’s final year with the Wolverines. Whoever he hired, they were going to be the guy who brought ‘Bama’s offense out of the Stone Age and into the era of the HUNH.
Kiffin, who had consulted for Alabama prior to Nussmeier’s exit, just happened to be the guy to do it. Kiffin didn’t have any experience running the “no huddle” at any of his previous stops. And he definitely wasn’t used to calling plays as a coordinator from the sideline. That was Saban’s command due to Blake Sims’ experience or lack thereof as a quarterback. Kiffin had to adapt.
What Kiffin was specialized in was pinpointing the strengths of his offense and using them. Over and over again. It was Amari Cooper in 2014, Derrick Henry in 2015 and Jalen Hurts this past season, which brings us to our point: Jalen Hurts, the quarterback.
In 2016, Hurts, as a true freshman, threw for 2,780 yards, 23 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. A fairly remarkable stat line when you consider the youth factor. What Hurts also did was rush for 954 yards and 13 touchdowns on 191 carries.
The Tide’s most prolific running back in 2016, Damien Harris, ran the ball 145 times for 1,040 yards and two touchdowns.
Saban’s first press conference of the spring on Tuesday got off to a fiery start when he responded to a question about Alabama’s offense in the post-Kiffin era. The basis was that Alabama lost in the title game because they quit running the ball.
Never mind the fact that the very next play after running back Bo Scarbrough went out with a leg injury, Hurts found an open O.J. Howard (classic Bama-Clemson) down the sideline for a touchdown. Never mind the fact that the play that set up Bama’s final touchdown of the night was a reverse pass from receiver ArDarius Stewart to Howard.
Yes, the Tide ran fewer offensive plays than Clemson and had one of their worst yardage outputs of the season. Clemson did end up running 98 plays in that game, well above the 82 they were hoping for to wear down the Tide’s defense. By the fourth quarter, the writing was on the wall.
Saban’s main point was that poor execution from Alabama’s offense led to the results on the field. Also, in the Clemson game, Deshaun Watson passed for 420 yards on 57 attempts while Hurts passed for an underwhelming 155 yards on 32 attempts. That’s 4.8 yards per completed pass to Watson’s 7.3.
The problem was not the lack of rushes, which exceeded the Tide’s number of passes, but the paltry passing game which was supposed to open up the run.
This brings us back to Jalen Hurts. Hurts did exceptionally well for a true freshman. He took over games when Bama needed it most and, once again, Saban and his staff adapted to his team’s strengths.
This time it was the zone read offense, particularly successful at Auburn under Gus Malzahn, where instead of relying upon a freshman quarterback to do too much in the passing game, utilized the gifts of its dual threat in the running game. Hurts’ 954 yards and 13 touchdowns bear that out.
Still, you just knew Saban was cringing a little bit every time Hurts pulled the ball and ran. The very idea of the read option is to make the most of your talented running back and your talented quarterback. Make the defense commit to one thing and then do the opposite.
Once again, for a freshman, Hurts made very good reads and he ended up pulling the ball numerous times. And if it were my guess, there will be much less of this in 2017.
Saban and Daboll will continue to bring along Hurts as a pocket passer who runs when things break down. That’s what Deshaun Watson was at Clemson. He was a dynamic passer with the speed to take off when the pocket collapsed. Saban saw this up close and personal two years in a row.
That’s the dream for Saban and what he will ask of his new offensive coordinator. Minimize the number of times Hurts has to take hits up the field and harness his raw skills as a passer. With the talent and experience returning at running back, there is no reason for Hurts to become the statistic leader on the team in rushes per game again.
This will be the challenge.