Last season was a big one in the evolution of Nick Saban’s Alabama. The Crimson Tide embraced the spread-option run game to turn loose a true freshman quarterback, which went quite well, and they saw one of the most talented and modern defenses fall just short against a spread passing attack from Clemson.
So far, 2017 is on track to feature big changes. The drama of Lane Kiffin’s ouster before the national title game, followed by his replacement leaving the job after one game, seemed to disrupt the Tide’s natural succession plan.
When Steve Sarkisian left Bama’s coordinator job to take the same one with the Atlanta Falcons, the Tide promoted former New Mexico and Maryland coach Mike Locksley to co-offensive coordinator and receivers coach. And in a bigger move, they hired New England Patriots tight ends coach Brian Daboll as their coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
Spring practice is underway in Tuscaloosa, and everyone’s buzzing about what Daboll’s Alabama offense will look like. Saban is swatting away speculation like he’s King Kong atop the Empire State Building. After one practice, a reporter asked Saban about the Tide’s new “ball-control offense,” and the coach went on a long rant, but didn’t reveal how his offense would actually look.
Since expectations will include a run at another SEC title and a Playoff berth, how Bama plays offense is a big question across the landscape.
Daboll and Locksley bring different experiences.
Daboll has had an extensive career already in the NFL that included some coordinating at weaker teams and coaching TEs for a few years at New England.
The time at New England, where Daboll earned five Super Bowl rings, is most interesting. The Patriots’ offense with Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, and company is both legendary and a lot different than anything Saban has run at Alabama.
Most teams are only truly great at running the ball or passing it, and limited practice time makes this point especially true in college. If you want to be great at both, you probably need to focus on running the ball and building your passing game off the run with run-pass options, screens, and play-action. That’s typically what Alabama has done under Saban, and with dual-threat freshman Jalen Hurts at the helm last year, it was even more run-centric than usual. Hurts will keep running a lot.
The Patriots, on the other hand, are built around inside receiver option routes. For years and years they’ve plugged in fresh faces in the slot, who have learned to mind-meld with Tom Brady and control the ball with quick tosses against overmatched linebackers and safeties. Even as a TE coach, Daboll would have been responsible for training guys like Gronk or Martellus Bennett to execute that system, in addition to teaching them their blocking assignments in the Pats’ gap-oriented run game.
Daboll will move back to coaching QBs a role he once filled with the New York Jets. Joe Pannunzio, who once taught future NFL TEs like Greg Olsen and Jimmy Graham at Miami, will handle the Alabama TEs.
Locksley is best-known for his recruiting acumen, but he’s also headed up some college offenses, most recently at Maryland, where he was the OC and then interim head coach. His offenses used spread-option concepts like the power-read or QB counter:
Between Daboll and Locksley, you have a wealth of knowledge and experience on operating gap run plays, QB option ball, and spread passing schemes.
That’s all fairly impressive, but it’ll be interesting to see how it comes together. Alabama has predominantly been a zone blocking team that uses the throw only to open up the running game. It might be different now.
Alabama has the players to run some Patriots-like schemes.
The offensive line’s ability sets the parameters for what an offense can do, while the quarterback’s skill set determines the team’s identity. Alabama has a lot returning in that regard but some major questions still to answer.
Left tackle Cam Robinson has paced the Bama line for the last few years. Robinson’s gone now and will probably come off the board early in the NFL draft. But while Robinson was a featured blocker, Alabama does return the inside tandem of left guard Ross Pierschbacher and center Bradley Bozeman. The Tide could slide rising sophomore right tackle Jonah Williams to replace Robinson on the left side.
It’s hard to foresee the Tide not being effective in the trenches in 2017, particularly in the run game. The bigger question marks are around Hurts’ skill set as a passer in his second year as a starter. Freshman Hurts ran for over 1,000 yards at 6.2 per carry and was an adept maestro of a spread-option offense. However, Hurts also went 20-of-45 in the Playoff with 188 yards (4.2 per attempt) and a sole passing TD.
Hurts was effective last year and showed promise as a passer, but he’s not exactly on the verge of being a master of drop-back passing. Where he’s currently elite is in running the ball between the tackles. There aren’t many at his position who can compare to Hurts in that realm. That’ll be a continued advantage.
The Tide wide receiver corps is loaded as always, but what’s intriguing about this Alabama roster is the preponderance of talented tight ends. Last year, the Tide had O.J. Howard, who should be another first-rounder in the upcoming draft. But between Hurts’ limitations as a passer and the abundance of other targets on the team, he didn’t get a ton of action. That might be different for this year’s tight ends.
The Tide still have Miller Forristall, who played frequently as a freshman. They still have big blocker Hale Hentges and freshmen Irvin Smith and Major Tennison. They also have a walk-on and former baseball player in Cam Stewart at the position. He’s a 6’8, 251-pound sophomore who should provide some intrigue.
Common practice in the NFL is to flood the field with TEs and then use formational tricks to create good matchups for the better receiving TEs. That’s a trick Jim Harbaugh has brought to Michigan in recent seasons, too. With Daboll and Pannunzio on this staff and all of these talented young TEs on the roster, Alabama might look to adopt some of these tactics itself in upcoming seasons.
The challenge of doing this at the college level is that it’s hard to teach the route tree to a young TE and simultaneously teach and develop him to block DEs in the run game. However, if the Tide can develop Hurts as a drop-back passer, they can mitigate that issue for their young targets at TE in two ways. The first is in using the spread-option to lighten the load for their TEs in the blocking game.
For instance, if a tight end is either releasing to lead-block a linebacker or safety on the edge or running a route, he’ll face a lighter practice burden than learning to kick out a DE or execute a combo block. It’s a choice between two simpler things.
Here’s a double-TE set featuring the option run game, but the TEs are simply stalking DBs out in space. That doesn’t require years of training and development to master.
Another way is in using guys like Hentges or perhaps Stewart to carry the blocking load while Forristall or Tennison flex out wide and focus on running routes.
But ultimately, the more TEs Alabama can develop to be worth seeing the field, the more it opens the playbook to creating NFL-style matchup dilemmas for their opponents in dealing either with 6’5 Forristall and Tennison or speedy receivers like Calvin Ridley or Robert Foster.
Here’s a Patriots favorite that would be tricky for college defenses to handle, yet relatively simple for Hurts to learn if he could develop enough chemistry with at least one key target:
It’s a double-TE formation, which ensures that the defense matches with base or nickel personnel. But then Alabama gets into an empty set with the TEs and RB flexed out wide. The TEs (H and F in this diagram) run up the seams to occupy the safeties, while the RB and outside WR run hitch routes and occupy cornerbacks. That leaves the other receiver (Z) isolated over the middle against one of the defense’s worst coverage defenders, and he’s running an option route, essentially just finding open grass.
Get Robert Foster or Calvin Ridley running that option route and in sync with Hurts, and you have a recipe for the sort of brutal, modern passing attack that Alabama couldn’t stop in the 2017 title game.
It may take a while to master all of this, but Alabama’s got a lot of ingredients.
The potential for combining the hybrid tight end passing game with the QB running game exists within the Tide’s offensive staff and current roster. It figures that modern spread passing tactics could be the next evolution point in Saban’s process.