Evolve and Thrive: How Alabama morphed from a pro-style, smashmouth team to a sleeker, faster juggernaut
T-Bob Hebert means it as a compliment when he compares the 2011 LSU offense to erosion, because what's more powerful and more inevitable that erosion? "It doesn't look like anything is happening, but slowly and surely over time, the continuous running of the ball, that pounding, does wear that defense down," says Hebert, who started at center when No. 1 LSU faced No. 2 Alabama on Nov. 5, 2011 in Tuscaloosa. "Runs that were two and three yards were suddenly four, five and even longer."
LSU gradually wore down Alabama and won this century's "Game of the Century" 9–6 in overtime, but that was the last time LSU would win in the rivalry. "It's pretty fascinating to look at how the paths diverged from that point," Hebert says. Since that loss, Alabama has gone 61–5 and beaten LSU five times in five tries—including a 21–0 win in the BCS title game to end the 2011 season. The Tide also have won three SEC titles and three national titles during that span. LSU has struggled to remain the second-best team in the SEC West. In September, after two early losses, the Tigers fired head coach Les Miles. So what happened? How did Alabama remain dominant while LSU faltered? A split-screen look at one of Alabama's 2016 games next to that first meeting with LSU in 2011 provides the answer. At times, the current Crimson Tide seem to be playing an entirely different sport than the Tide team that faced LSU that night. Alabama has evolved, and that evolution has kept the Tide winning championships.
"It all happened so fast," says 2011 Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones, who played left tackle for Alabama during the Game of the Century. When Jones played, the Tide huddled. They used a power run game to set up the play-action pass. Quarterback AJ McCarron had no run-pass option (RPO) plays that would allow him to decide after the snap whether the play would include a handoff or a throw. The defense Jones saw across from him looked completely different. How do you slow an offense that resembles erosion? With some big freaking rocks. At practice, Jones might block 319-pound defensive end Jesse Williams or 260-pound inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower. Behind them was 218-pound strong safety Mark Barron. "We were built in the past for teams like LSU," Tide coach Nick Saban says.
The season after the Game of the Century, everything changed. Hugh Freeze brought a high-tempo offense to Ole Miss. Texas A&M and first-year coach Kevin Sumlin were about to tear up SEC defenses with redshirt freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel and an offense that ran plays as quickly as humanly possible. Days after a 33–14 win against Ole Miss, Saban sounded an alarm on the SEC teleconference. "Is this what we want football to be?" he asked, rhetorically. Saban had couched his argument in a player-safety guise, but there is no proof the up-tempo offenses are more dangerous than the smashmouth scheme Alabama was running at the time. The fact of the matter was Saban's team wasn't built to handle those offenses, and he knew it. Two days before Texas A&M beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa that year, Saban warned listeners to his radio show that Alabama's personnel might not be able to contain Manziel. "He sees the writing on the wall before other people," Jones says. Even before the Tide lost that game, Saban was already recruiting the players who would help Alabama evolve.
Aware that the majority of coaches and fans were perfectly fine with the schematic direction of the game, Saban set aside his personal disdain for hurry-up spread offenses and began crafting a new team. His defense would get lighter so players could run more plays against those offenses. His offense would take advantage of the same rules everyone else was. After a loss to Ole Miss in 2015 in which Alabama ran 100 offensive plays, Saban explained on his radio show that joining them was the best way to beat them. "All these people who run spread, you can talk about it all you want, but it's very, very effective," Saban said in September 2015. "Like Ole Miss. They don't have a great offensive line. They've got really good skill players and a pretty good quarterback, but they're hard to defend because everything's on the perimeter. Everything's a run-pass option. Everything's a fake-this-play and throw-that-pass and looks like a run, but it's really a pass. Those things are very effective and they're very difficult to defend. If you don't do some of that, you're not taking advantage of the rules or the game."
Now Alabama routinely runs RPOs that give quarterback Jalen Hurts the option to throw the ball, hand it to a back or keep it himself. Hurts, a true freshman, might not have even been recruited by Alabama in 2011. Now, the 6' 2", 209-pounder is the ideal signal-caller for the offense Saban and coordinator Lane Kiffin want to run. What makes Alabama particularly difficult to stop is the fact that the Tide didn't dumb down the offense or abandon all the pro-style principles they ran back in 2011. Now, opposing defenses must prepare for both styles. Meanwhile, Jones's successors along the offensive line look across the line of scrimmage at practice and see 291-pound defensive end Jonathan Allen, 236-pound inside linebacker Reuben Foster and 203-pound defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick, whose duties toggle between those of a cornerback and those of a safety on a play-to-play basis.
Saban laughs at the notion that he has loosened up as he has aged. "I never thought I was a conservative coach to start with," he says. The schematic alterations had nothing to do with a personality shift. They simply were the means to an end. To keep winning championships, Alabama had to change. "One of coach Saban's strongest qualities as a leader is that he's not afraid to change," Jones says. "So many leaders find success and they stay that way. Then they get passed by."
Here's how it all came together:
On a second-and-14 play in the second quarter of Alabama's 49–10 win against Tennessee on Oct. 15, Hurts put the ball in the belly of tailback Joshua Jacobs. Had this been 2011—with McCarron and Trent Richardson in place of Hurts and Jacobs—McCarron would have either handed to Richardson or pulled the ball and thrown downfield. And when McCarron put the ball in Richardson's belly, both players would already have known whether the play was a run or a pass because of the call in the huddle.
But the 2016 play was an RPO. Hurts had choices McCarron never would have. Hurts didn't have to decide whether to hand the ball to Jacobs until he and Jacobs were meshed together. After deciding to pull the ball, Hurts had the option to keep it or throw a bubble screen to wide receiver Calvin Ridley near the left sideline. Hurts kept the ball and raced down the right sideline for a 45-yard touchdown.
The Tide began adding these plays when Saban hired Kiffin to run the offense in 2014. When senior Blake Sims—a better runner than he was a thrower—won the quarterback job, Kiffin designed an offense that used many of the same concepts up-tempo teams used. The huddle went away, and Sims wound up leading an offense that broke the school records for total offense, passing yardage, most plays run, rushing touchdowns and passing touchdowns. Kiffin kept those concepts in the offense in 2015 but adjusted for quarterback Jake Coker, who was a better thrower than he was a runner. Hurts combines the best attributes of Sims and Coker, making him the ideal quarterback for the new Alabama offense.
The Skill Players
One thing that hasn't changed since 2011 is that Alabama still has excellent running backs. Last year, Derrick Henry won a Heisman Trophy and helped the Tide to a national title. This season, the combo of Damien Harris, Joshua Jacobs and Bo Scarbrough is averaging 7.2 yards a carry. The difference between then and now is that defenses also must account for the possibility that Hurts may run the ball. They also must keep track of a diverse group of pass-catchers that stretch them farther vertically and horizontally than the Alabama offense of 2011.
Ridley can beat cornerbacks deep or catch a bubble screen behind the line of scrimmage and shimmy through a defense. ArDarius Stewart excels on jet sweeps borrowed from Urban Meyer's Ohio State playbook as well as intermediate routes that can turn into long gains thanks to Stewart's breakaway speed. Meanwhile, 6' 6", 242-pound tight end O.J. Howard gives the Tide more options than they had in 2011 with Michael Williams. Howard, an excellent blocker, can line up in a three-point stance next to a tackle and either maul a linebacker or run a route. He also could line up behind the line of scrimmage and serve as a lead blocker. Unfortunately for opponents, Howard is fast enough to split out wide and beat a safety on a vertical route. This allows Alabama to essentially swap personnel groups without ever substituting. And when a team has stopped huddling, that means it can snap the ball quickly and saddle the defense with a mismatch it can't overcome.
The Front Seven
Jones, who blocked Alabama's front seven players at practice from 2008–12, wonders what Williams would have done in Alabama's 2011 defense. "I'm trying to think of where he would have played," says Jones of the player Pro Football Focus called the nation's most efficient pass rusher in 2015. Lightning fast and 252 pounds, Jones might have been an ideal candidate to be a standup linebacker who stayed on the second level. Courtney Upshaw (265 pounds) was the linebacker (mostly in name only) who usually served as Alabama's fourth rusher. Williams's speed made have made him an excellent complement to the 260-pound Hightower, who was tasked with crushing tailbacks who dared run between the tackles.
After Cam Newton-led Auburn in 2010 and even before Manziel-led Texas A&M in 2012 left the Tide's biggest defenders panting, Saban realized he needed a lighter front seven that got to the quarterback more quickly and had the stamina to handle an increased workload. Those recruiting classes have borne fruit, and the result is a ferocious group that can still stuff the run—opponents average 2.2 yards a carry against Alabama—and also leads the nation in sacks per game (4.0).
In 2016, Williams and Allen—Alabama runs a base 3–4, so Allen would be more analogous to a three-technique defensive tackle in a 4–3—get pressure from the outside and the inside. Reuben Foster, who dropped weight this offseason to reach his current 236 pounds, lines up where Hightower used to, but today's offenses force him to play a role more similar to the one weakside linebacker C.J. Mosley played for the 2011 Tide.
Perhaps the most important play for the Alabama defense in 2015 was LSU's first offensive snap when the teams met in Tuscaloosa. Tailback Leonard Fournette was the presumed favorite for the Heisman Trophy, and this was the new Alabama defense's first exposure to a true power run game. On that play, 194-pound cornerback-turned-safety Eddie Jackson dropped Fournette after a 2-yard gain. Saban's experiment—using five players recruited as cornerbacks as the secondary in most situations—would work even against a team that played an old-school offense.
The members of the 2011 Alabama secondary had more rigidly defined roles in the Tide's base defense. Cornerbacks Dre Kirkpatrick and DeQuan Menzie covered the best receivers. Barron might have picked up a slot receiver or tight end in coverage, but he always needed to be ready to come downhill and thump a tailback. Free safety Robert Lester played center field.
"Base" in 2016, if there even is such a thing, is more likely to be a nickel package with five defensive backs whose responsibilities shift from play to play. Ideally, all five would look and play like 6' 1", 203-pound Fitzpatrick, who until last week played the hybrid Star position. With Jackson lost for the season with a broken leg suffered against Texas A&M, Fitzpatrick might replace Jackson at safety. He's equipped. Fitzpatrick is the ideal DB for 2016; he's a long-limbed, loose-hipped burner who can cover a receiver one-on-one or fly into the box to tackle a tailback.