There’s no greater testament to the revolutionary influence of run/pass option plays on college football than in the pivot by Nick Saban’s Alabama over the last three years.
In 2014, former spread critic Saban hired Lane Kiffin to update Alabama’s offense and include more spread sets, RPOs, and up-tempo pacing.
The message was clear: if the Tide couldn’t forever shut opponents down, Bama would be just as happy to outscore them. Years ago, Saban began to remake the roster and evolve the strategy.
Initially, that meant more spread formations, with quick routes and bubble screens attached to Alabama’s runs. That was meant to prevent opponents from getting extra defenders into the box against the run. If you loaded the box to stop Derrick Henry, your corners had better be pretty good at covering Amari Cooper in man coverage outside.
But in 2016, Saban found himself without an established QB, one already trusted to make the pass-options and normal dropback passing game an adequate constraint for their run game. He was also without an established, veteran running back.
He also found that freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts — who, a few days after enrolling, was impersonating Clemson’s Deshaun Watson during National Championship prep — was practicing with a lot of poise and bringing a totally new dimension to the offense.
So, Saban pivoted further as Hurts seized control of the starting job in September.
There’s a lot to be said for the tremendous football talent that is Hurts.
The former four-star has major, undeveloped upside as a QB, which we will behold with awe and horror over the next few years.
His best comparison is probably a fellow 6’2, 210-pound Texan, Trevone Boykin, who combined similar explosive athleticism on the move with a strong arm and clear head when throwing the ball either from the pocket or on the scramble. Both are capable of powerful first steps in any direction, and both have 4.7-type speed to take advantage of creases in the defense.
Like the young version of Boykin, who began his TCU career in a spread-option system, Hurts is more comfortable making decisions post-snap in the running game than he is reading defenses and throwing the ball.
Alabama is keeping things simple for him at this stage, in terms of post-snap decisions. Kiffin doesn’t call as much of the traditional dropback stuff, and RPOs are no longer the only way Alabama protects its run game when it’s in the spread. Hurts’ passes are often tunnel screens, play-action rollouts, or simple “check deep, then check down” reads.
There’s clear potential within Hurts in those concepts, but Alabama has configured its offense to allow the freshman to grow without holding the team back.
Saban’s Tide have gotten back to being run-centric, and done it by becoming more wide-open.
After running as few as 35 times a game in 2013 (97th in the country), the Tide are back up to a more Saban-esque 42.6.
And the Tide rank No. 5 in yards per carry and No. 3 in Rushing S&P+ after slipping to No. 46 and No. 20 in those stats last year.
Alabama has been all about the H-back for a long time now, using the position regularly to run zone slice or counter runs, with that blocker cutting back against the flow to either kick out a defensive end or lead block a linebacker.
It requires some size and blocking acumen in order to handle SEC DEs and inside LBs, but the ability to move a guy around in a two-back set to create new gaps has served Alabama well, with two Heisman RBs as evidence.
With Hurts, though, it’s a totally different ballgame.
For instance, here’s a taste of everything that Alabama can now do with Saban’s favorite play, inside zone.
1. They can still run zone slice, with quick pass routes or screens on the perimeter to constrain defenses from bringing DBs into the box:
If Hurts sees the receivers are well-covered, he can hand off. Otherwise, he can throw the quick out.
2. They can also run zone bluff, in which the H-back heads towards the unblocked DE but arcs around to be a lead blocker on the perimeter for the QB. Watch No. 87, Miller Forristall, run past a big lineman in order to focus on a more agile threat:
Defenses have to worry about the H-back either kicking out the DE or looping around him, and the hesitation that can cause is lethal.
3. That said, where the Tide have really been able to do special things with Hurts is by inverting that play.
They have the RB take the outside path behind the H-back and send Hurts on the normal inside zone path.
Now if the DE plays to take away the inside run by the QB, Damien Harris has a lead blocker:
If the DE is more intentional about containing the ball inside, Hurts is big and strong enough to run behind double teams by the massive Alabama OL:
If you’re an opposing DC, there aren’t any formational tells that can guide you in determining which of the QB or the RB will take which path. Whether your goal is to make Hurts run or to stop Hurts from running, there isn’t a consistent way to play this that allows you to guarantee which Alabama back will get the ball on which path.
Your choices are: do you want a freak athlete handling the ball in space behind a lead blocker, or up the gut behind double teams?
4. Hurts’ ability to run inside zone like a RB also allows Alabama to mix in QB zone slice, a devastating concept that J.T. Barrett has used for years to make third-and-short an easy down for the Buckeyes. Here, Hurts bounces it outside:
The only difference between all of those concepts is the H-back (No. 88, O.J. Howard here), who’s either trap blocking a DE or arcing out to pick off a linebacker or safety and the run paths by the QB and RB. The offensive line does basically the same thing each time, which helps guarantee the blockers are as proficient as ever.
It’s a nightmare for defenders who are trying to fit these runs properly. Hurts and his RBs can pounce on any mistake. And oh yeah, the Tide can do similar things with power and counter runs, as well ...
So by empowering Hurts, Alabama has made a perennially terrifying running game into a hellscape.
Do opponents still have to worry about Bama’s other weapons? Of course they do, because Alabama isn’t fair.
One way Alabama makes sure former blue-chip WRs like Calvin Ridley stay involved and invested is by adding sweeps and reverses to this run game. Ardarius Stewart demonstrates:
They’re also still a phenomenal tunnel screen team, as they have been for years and will be as long as they have athletes like Cam Robinson playing tackle.
They also still mix in play-action and other dropback passes:
Hurts has a strong arm and has done a good job avoiding interceptions, with just three in 178 attempts.
Hurts isn’t going to become a worse runner, barring injuries, and his strong arm, comfort throwing on the move, and poise are going to make him an increasingly frightening passer.
So, in all likelihood, the Alabama offense will get incrementally better over 2016 and could leap in 2017 or 2018 as the Tide continue to evolve alongside their young QB.
Oh, and the defense is still really good, too.
Have fun, everybody else.