Nick Saban, you sly devil. As the Alabama head coach prepares his team for Clemson this week, Saban said that he’s going to use former Bama players to prepare his defense for Tigers quarterback Deshaun Watson.
Asked if he'll use any former players on the scout team this week to help prepare for Deshaun Watson, Saban answered, "Yep"— Matt Zenitz (@mzenitz) January 5, 2017
It’s unclear just who exactly he’ll utilize for this, but Saban has done this before throughout the season.
During the telecast of the Alabama-LSU game, you might’ve heard CBS’s Gary Danielson talk about Alabama’s scout team.
Danielson discussed how former Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson and former running back Trent Richardson practiced with the Tide during the run-up to the LSU game. Wilson impersonated LSU’s Danny Etling, and Richardson was Leonard Fournette’s doppelganger.
You might’ve thought he was joking. I mean, how in the world can Alabama deploy former players during practice?
Well, pretty easily.
Former QB Blake Sims was a stand-in for Texas A&M’s Trevor Knight a few weeks ago, as well.
The NCAA mandates that in order to practice, a student-athlete must be enrolled “in a minimum full-time program of studies,” which makes perfect sense. To practice on a team, you have to be a student ... duh.
But Alabama used an exception to the practice rules that was adopted in 2011. NCAA bylaw 220.127.116.11 reads:
A former student at the certifying institution (e.g., former student-athlete) may participate in an organized practice session on an occasional basis, provided the institution does not publicize the participation of the former student at any time before the practice session.
Essentially, as long as each player’s participation is “occasional” and Bama doesn’t blast information to the public beforehand on alumni at practice, everything’s good. Any team could do this kind of thing.
With the regime the way it is, leaks aren’t exactly easy to come by in Tuscaloosa. Do you think Saban was gonna be flippant enough to make sure this wasn’t absolutely above board before it happened? He told the media during Alabama’s bye week that everything was a-OK, or they wouldn’t have done it.
"We try to stay on top of the rules," Saban said. "We have people in our administration who do a good job of letting us know what we can and can't do and we would never do something like that unless we got it approved by the SEC office, which we did, and the NCAA."
What we also have here is also mutually beneficial relationship.
It could be reasonably assumed that Richardson and Sims of them are trying to get back onto a pro team. Richardson’s most recent sniff with the NFL was cut short by a knee injury. Last we heard from Sims, he was getting a workout with the Falcons, but nothing came of it. (Wilson hasn’t been on an NFL roster since 2013.)
"Well, you know, Blake just got released," Saban said. "So he was looking for some place to work so that he had a chance to get better. And based on our situation at quarterback and the kind of guy that we were playing against it was really convenient to have him here to help us last week."
But is Alabama paying these former players?
SB Nation spoke to someone in NCAA compliance at an FBS school, who doubts it.
“Occasional practice by a former student-athlete of the institution is permissible,” they said. “But I've never heard of someone paying a former SA. Not sure that would be permissible.”
And in the off chance that one of the players were to get injured?
Bama should be clear, as long as the players signed a waiver.
“They should be completing a release of liability before being allowed to [practice],” the compliance staffer said.
The Tide players are getting good work, too. CB Marlon Humphrey said tackling Richardson as faux Fournette still isn’t exactly a day at the beach.
“I think Trent gave a pretty good look, and John Parker, too,” Humphrey said. “Tackling Trent last week, man, that’s a big guy, man. I think it’s also pretty cool just going against those guys knowing what they’ve done with the program. I have a lot of respect for those guys.”
Scout team impersonation is nothing new. The way Bama’s doing it, though, is unique.
Usually, you use backups that are on the team for this.
Bama’s had a recent history of getting creative here. In the prep for the 2016 National Championship, Bama had Jalen Hurts (who had just arrived on campus as an early enrollee) wear No. 4 and become the scout team Deshaun Watson.
The use of alums is yet another example of Alabama using something to eek out an advantage. In the same title game, the Tide had an onside kick cooked up to swing the game at a pivotal point.
But this isn’t poring over game tape with a fine-tooth comb. It’s using former players who are familiar with the way Alabama practices to do what Alabama does best: gain an edge in any way.