Lane Kiffin couldn't have found a softer landing spot when USC threw him off and then under the bus of his beloved Trojan program.
The Alabama Crimson Tide roll into 2014 with returning starters at right tackle, guard, and center. The growth and play of center Ryan Kelly down the stretch of 2013 and the increased experience in the interior suggests Bama will feature a road-grading offensive line more similar to what it boasted in its 2012 championship run.
And while stalwart quarterback AJ McCarron is gone, some stunning skill talent returns. At running back the Tide return T.J. Yeldon and the Derrick Henry, who showed terrifying potential while averaging 12.5 yards per carry in the Sugar Bowl. At the tight end and H-back positions Alabama has an embarrassment of riches in Brian Vogler, the versatile Jalston Fowler, and former No. 1 tight end recruit O.J. Howard. Add in outside receivers like former Freshman All-America Amari Cooper and track star DeAndrew White on the perimeter, and things look fairly easy for Kiffin this offseason.
Given Nick Saban's tight-fisted control over the program and the talent accumulated in Tuscaloosa, the coordinator might not matter as much as perceived. Alabama is clearly going to be a team focused on running the ball, maintaining possession, and taking safe shots with play-action to break the back of a defense. But Kiffin's influence will still matter.
Meshing Kiffin and Saban
Kiffin's résumé as an offensive coordinator includes some competent management of elite talent. He successfully managed the 2005 USC Trojan offense to a No. 1 finish in offensive S&P.
Of course, after that season Kiffin's offenses never finished in the top 10 again, but most came close. His offenses ranked 12th in 2006, 31st in 2009 as head coach at Tennessee, and then after returning to USC, 24th, 12th, 20th, and 59th. His teams often accomplished the highly sought after run/pass balance with his best offense in his recent USC term (2012) finishing 17th in rushing and 9th in passing.
The 2013 USC offense had some major struggles despite returning four starters along the offensive line and one of the game's most exciting weapons in receiver Marqise Lee. Kiffin's ability to build a reliably elite offense while the head coach of a program is clearly in doubt.
Of course, that's not the situation in Alabama. Saban's Process ensures that whatever an offensive coordinator attempts to employ will feature highly recruited athletes who are programmed to execute smashmouth tactics with precision.
Defensive coordinators-turned-head coaches (like Saban) usually follow one of two outlines for building an offense:
- They choose offenses that will protect the defenses and reinforce hard-nosed cultures. Examples here include Charlie Strong, Bret Bielema, and Mark Dantonio.
- They choose offenses that gave them trouble as defensive coordinators. Bob Stoops is the prime example here, having hired OCs to run the air raid and later the hurry-up without regard for his defenses' stats.
Either route can work, but the challenge for the defensive coach is coming to own the offensive system and philosophy as his own rather than seeing it as a mercenary branch of his army, existing to execute orders when called upon and otherwise stay out of the way of the cavalry charge. Alabama is going to run the Nick Saban offense regardless of the offensive coordinator.
Kiffin's job will be to tinker and thrive within the safe confines of Saban's program. If he's smart, he'll emulate Jimbo Fisher and Doug Nussmeier by combining his own strategies with lessons from Saban's organizational structure in a location where he can actually receive credit.
Nussmeier coordinated the nation's Nos. 4 and 10 offense in Tuscaloosa, per S&P rankings. After replacing three NFL linemen in 2013 Alabama ranked sixth nationally in yards per play and third in yards per play against ranked opponents. Yet the storyline after his departure to Michigan was one that attempted to send the blame for Alabama's (completely understandable) failure to threepeat with him to Ann Arbor.
The needed competencies for an offensive coordinator entering into the Saban structure in Tuscaloosa are different than the needed competencies to coach offense from the head coach's chair, to coordinate with an offensive mind overseeing the process, or even the competencies required to coordinate under most defensive-minded head coaches.
One key to looking like a smart offensive coordinator: get the ball to backs like Derrick Henry. Streeter Lecka, Getty
Bama's still Bama
So what will the Kiffin-Saban offense look like, and what will Kiffin be asked to do within the existing structure? An OC under Saban needs to be able to demonstrate two major traits to be effective.
He needs to be good at maximizing and deploying the well-developed talent available to accomplish Saban's aim of controlling the ball, establishing tempo, and imposing Tide will on an opponent. That means effective play-calling and gameplanning of individual opponents.
Secondly, he'll have to do a good job developing Bama's quarterbacks so that the full weight of Alabama's talent can come to bear.
As far as formations and concepts go, it's likely that Kiffin will employ Tide players in much the same way that Nussmeier did. Lane Kiffin's USC offense was largely based around many of the same schemes as the Nussmeier Alabama squad. His run game was geared around running zone-blocking plays used from a variety of different formations. In 2013, Kiffin also used a lot of double-tight end formations and H-backs to try and create different stress points in the defensive front:
Here's an instance of zone slice, in which the H-back moves back across the formation to hit the defensive end and open up a cutback lane for the runner. The design of the play is to pound the ball between the tackles with the H-back's block, with the fake reverse action serving to hold defenders outside. In this instance the execution of the blocks is horrendous, but you anticipate that being more consistent in Tuscaloosa.
Like Nussmeier, Kiffin has plenty of experience with creating lots of variety around base concepts like zone blocking or the main passing concepts. He'll often use two-back formations, double tight-end sets, and H-backs to get there.
Here's another example of Kiffin's run strategies:
One potential problem for two-back zone schemes is that the lead blocker will often guide the defense to the ballcarrier, unless the running back has quick enough feet and effective enough fakes to threaten multiple creases before making his zone cut and blasting through the open hole.
Here, Kiffin uses the typical backside block by the H-back to set up a cutback lane while using a fullback to lead into the playside, creating multiple cues and stress points for the defense. Washington manages to fill the main cracks created along the front but still get ripped by the back's cut behind the right tackle's seal block. It's a great challenge for a defense to get tacklers to the ball when a run can strike along so many parts of the perimeter.
It's not hard to imagine Kiffin having success pounding every part of a defensive front by moving players like Fowler, Howard, and Vogler around.
The next question revolves around whether Kiffin will be able to generate the quarterback play to get the ball to players like Cooper, where their talent can best wreak havoc. Kiffin's track record developing QBs is a bit spotty, with great successes such as Matt Barkley's 2011 and Jonathan Crompton's 2009 joining some less-impressive examples such as Max Wittek and Cody Kessler (who had a passer rating of 140.65 in five games with Kiffin, then 151.57 in nine games without him).
Since we can't know how Kiffin will fare at developing Florida State transfer quarterback Jacob Coker or any of Alabama's other passers, let's look at what he can do with the Tide's weapons.
There are some easy ways to set up the quarterback for success while utilizing explosive talent like Cooper or slot receiver Christion Jones. USC threw some bubble screens to Marqise Lee that were very similar to how Alabama ran the play last season:
They get an H-back and a wide receiver out into the flat to block with motion before the snap, then get drive blocks on defensive backs so that Lee can make something happen behind the blocks. These types of screens have already been highly effective for Alabama in setting up athletes like Julio Jones and Howard out in space and matched up vs. cornerbacks and safeties, whom they can bulldoze.
That's easy enough for a quarterback to consistently execute. Another simple way to set up a receiver like Cooper for success is to isolate him the way USC would often do:
Arizona is playing quarters coverage. The field cornerback is alone against Lee, tasked with keeping him outside on the sideline and forcing the longest throw possible. There's really only one flaw in the play of the corner, which is that he allows Lee to get separation and does nothing to disrupt the timing of the route.
Whether or not Coker or another Tide quarterback can throw a deep ball like that remains to be seen, but other than the ball flying a mile with air under it, most of the work here is done by Lee's route running and speed.
Here's a backside combo that should be simple enough for the Tide's quarterbacks to understand, although it demands some accuracy:
That's H-shoot, in air raid language. The QB reads the flat defender and sees the weakside linebacker chase the tight end, so his eyes go to the quick slant. That passing window has been opened up by the linebacker chasing the tight end. The resulting pitch-and-catch combined with Lee's open field speed means a touchdown.
For Alabama, this concept pairs very nicely with the bubble screen that asks the TE to get out and block in the flat for that weakside receiver. There's plenty in the Kiffin playbook to use the Tide's weapons to position their QB with easy reads and potentially explosive plays.
Amari Cooper could become more lethal than ever once paired with Coker and Kiffin. Kevin C. Cox, Getty
Two minutes left, down by four in Death Valley ...
The biggest fear for Tide fans is how Kiffin performs as a play-caller in crucial moments, especially after many Bama fans complained about Nussmeier's performance in 2013's two losses. In Kiffin's five games in 2013 before being canned, he made playcalls that converted 18 of 65 third downs, only a paltry 27 percent (a rate that would've ranked 124th in the country if it had lasted all season).
It's obvious that Kiffin knows how to exploit the advantage of having great athletes, but what happens when the Tide face teams with comparable talent? Barkley commented that USC's play-calling became too predictable at times, a surefire way to get into trouble against SEC defenses.
With a fresh signal-caller, the need to replace a first-round left tackle, and obvious weapons on the perimeter, perhaps the most important challenge for Kiffin will be to help his quarterback in creative ways that won't allow the defense to set traps for obvious offensive play calls.
The easiest solution is to be willing to take plenty of deep shots off double moves to prevent defensive backs from jumping short routes and constricting the easier throws in the offense. That'll require that the line successfully replaces Cyrus Kouandjio and Kiffin's run game sets up play-action opportunities.
The trickier solution is for Kiffin to fashion Coker's relatively raw talents into savvy playmaking like Aaron Murray's. A quarterback who can read defenses and involve every receiver in the passing game becomes difficult to set traps for. Helping the next quarterback develop mastery of a beat-all passing concept like shallow cross (a favored Tide play in 2013) could allow a younger signal caller to involve all of the Tide's weapons in a way that would be hard for defenses to thwart.
Or they could just run the dang ball.
Will it work?
Kiffin has already used up several of his nine lives, but he'll be less likely to get another one if he fails to leverage Saban's accumulated talent into big wins against Auburn, Texas A&M, and LSU. We all know that Saban won't catch the blame.