- From Lane Kiffin to Steve Sarkisian to Brian Daboll, Alabama has had a different offensive coordinator for each of its playoff meetings with Clemson. But the Tide know the man signaling in the plays (and the QB running them) isn't nearly as important as the decisions after the snap.
NEW ORLEANS — Alabama offensive coordinator Brian Daboll sat down Thursday in front of a nest of cameras. “Tone down that light a little bit. I just shaved this morning,” Daboll cracked, running a hand over a freshly shorn scalp.
The spotlight always shines brightest on Alabama’s coordinators at this time of year. Other than one preseason interview, they don’t speak publicly. So College Football Playoff-mandated interview sessions are the first chance to ask them about the season. In the case of Daboll, who came to Alabama in February from the New England Patriots, there were a lot of similar questions regarding one burning topic. Some tiptoed around the issue. Some were more direct. The gist was the same. Why didn’t Alabama’s backs get the ball more in the Iron Bowl, and will that change when the Crimson Tide play Clemson on Monday in a CFP semifinal in the Sugar Bowl?
Daboll used that as an opportunity to show off what he learned from his old boss. Daboll was more open when asked about his adjustment to the college game from the pro game. “I had Gronk,” he joked when asked about the difference between coaching 19-year-olds and grown men. But he resisted any query that would have required him to delve into scheme. He was more polite than Bill Belichick*, who might have dropped into “It is what it is” mode within the first two minutes. But Daboll made it clear through the use of various clichés and generalities that he wasn’t going to publicly relive the loss at Auburn or give Clemson anything to work with by discussing potential schematic changes in the aftermath of that loss. Here are two sample answers from Daboll.
• “There’s one ball. You have a lot of playmakers on your team, but each play you can distribute the ball to one person. We do what we think is best, and they’re very unselfish.”
• “We always want to be a tough, smart, competitive, selfless team that performs well under pressure. That’s kind of what we like to do. Each week, you go into a game trying to do those things.”
This is probably wise on Daboll’s part. There is nothing to be gained for Daboll or Alabama from publicly opening wounds from a 26–14 loss in which the Tide converted only three of 11 third downs and averaged only 4.5 yards a pass attempt.
*People think Belichick and Alabama coach Nick Saban—a former Belichick assistant—are identical when it comes to their interview answer styles. This is untrue. Saban is always going to say something interesting. It may have nothing to do with the question and is probably a message to the team that Saban has chosen to deliver through the media, but it will move the meter. Belichick isn’t coaching college students and therefore doesn’t have to waste his breath on such messages. Both men, however, will deliver great answers if a question hits them just right. The quickest way to generate a fascinating monologue is to ask about something like the evaluation of long snappers.
But the criticism of Alabama’s playcalling and of Jalen Hurts as a quarterback make for intriguing topics because they speak to how much the game has changed in a decade. The general issue is that Alabama’s backs combined for only 18 carries against Auburn. On those 18 carries, Alabama averaged 6.8 yards. So the logical question asked since that game is this: Why don’t they just call more plays where Hurts hands the ball to a back?
Heck, even one recent former Alabama lineman asked that after the game.
That question would have been perfectly appropriate in 2005. And the answer would have been obvious. But things are more complicated in 2017.
Alabama’s current offense is loaded with run-pass option plays, more commonly known as RPOs. The key letter there is O. On many plays, Hurts has the choice to hand off, to keep the ball and run or to throw the ball. In his two seasons as Alabama’s starter, Hurts has proven quite capable of making those decisions. He always knows which defender to read, and he almost always makes the correct read. So most of the times he handed off to a back against Auburn, he did it because his read told him that was the best of the three options. So, logically, that means that when he chose not to hand off to the back, he made that choice because the hole wasn’t there. In that way, the yards per carry became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Hurts handed off when the backs were already in position to succeed. If they weren’t, he kept the ball.
Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele used Hurts’s propensity to make the correct read against the Tide. Knowing Hurts would not set up his backs to fail, Auburn offered looks that encouraged Hurts to keep the ball. For most defenses, this would be a huge mistake. Most defenses aren’t athletic enough to keep Hurts hemmed in. Against most teams, a Hurts keep or a Hurts scramble can result in a first down or a touchdown. But Auburn’s front seven was athletic enough to keep Hurts close to the line of scrimmage. And when Hurts did choose to throw, Jeff Holland and company were fast enough and disciplined enough to make Hurts stay in the pocket and attempt passes rather than occasionally leaking out for a long scramble. It was the first time a team has been able to contain Hurts in that way since Hurts became Alabama’s starter last season. But that game unleashed as much criticism for Hurts as it did for Daboll.
The criticism of Hurts mystifies Alabama left tackle Jonah Williams. Given the critiques of the playcalling that don’t take into account how the plays actually work, it’s fair to assume many critiques of Hurts don’t account for what he is asked to do within the offense. “I’m not one to sit here and critique him, and I’m a guy who understands the offense better than 99.999999% of the people are watching this,” Williams said. “So I don’t know how you sit there and critique people when you don’t understand what they’re doing. And most people don’t.”
Still, Alabama’s offensive performance against Auburn should produce legitimate concern. Even though Daboll and Hurts don’t want to rehash the loss publicly, they have studied it thoroughly in private to assess what went wrong. Because Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables likely will also try to use Hurts’s tendency to make the correct choice against him. Clemson’s defense is constructed quite differently from Auburn’s, but these Tigers might be the only group more athletic up front than those Tigers. Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins are quick and tough to budge inside. Austin Bryant and Clelin Ferrell will feel like having a version of Auburn’s Holland on both sides.
On a day of cliches, Alabama’s Williams broke ranks and said something that didn’t give away any schematic secrets but did cut to the heart of the issues the Tide must correct if they want to win the playoff rubber match between the two programs that have split the past two national title games. For all the talk about the playcalling and Hurts and the backs, the only way Alabama has a chance is if it can beat Clemson up front. “You have to still dominate the line of scrimmage,” Williams said. “There’s read options and there’s finesse, but at the end of the day you still have to move the down men and cover everyone up and you still have to climb to the linebacker. You can’t read 11 guys. You still have to dominate everyone else.”
We can search for hidden clues among the other boilerplate answers all we want, but that will be the essence of Monday’s Sugar Bowl. If Williams and his linemates can dominate their assignments, Daboll will be a playcalling wizard and Hurts will post huge numbers. If they can’t, the playcalling will stink and the quarterback will get ripped for an entire offseason.
It doesn’t matter how creatively we ask about the playcalling, the truth is that on Monday, the low man will win and the game will be won in the trenches. See? Daboll isn’t the only one who can communicate in clichés.
But most of the time, the clichés became clichés because they’re true.