TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Even through it may be the biggest question University of Alabama football fans have going into Saturday’s A-Day game, junior wide receiver Calvin Ridley doesn’t have an easy way to describe how the offense had changed under new coordinator Brian Daboll.
“It’s just a little different, you know,” he said Tuesday afternoon. “Lots of little differences — but not too much — I don’t know. I really don’t want to say too much, but not much different.”
That’s pretty much been par for the course this spring as the players have been getting used to Daboll and not having Lane Kiffin or Steve Sarkisian around.
Meanwhile, there have been numerous assumptions made about the direction of the offense.
One is that Daboll is bringing the New England Patriots offense with him, and to a certain point that’s true. Certain elements will be incorporated into the Alabama scheme, but it’s still an NFL offense is geared toward what Tom Brady and Co. can do, not necessarily the Crimson Tide. A total conversion wouldn’t work.
“It’s not going to be night and day,” former Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson said about potential differences. “I don’t think we can go from what we did, to what the New England Patriots did, overnight. Maybe that’s something we’ll work to over two or three or five years. But right now you have to take what you have and kind of adapt — what we have, what he wants and make it work.”
ESPN analyst Greg McElroy, another former Crimson Tide quarterback, agrees. Sophomore Jalen Hurts is the reigning SEC Offensive Player of the Year, but to suddenly expect him to run an offense that’s designed for someone else isn’t realistic.
Neither is the notion of Alabama going back to what it ran when McElroy was the quarterback in 2009-10.
“People think that because Daboll is coming in, he’s a pro-style guy and all of sudden he’s going to revert back to the roots of what Alabama’s been in yesteryear,” McElroy said. “But with a quarterback with a skill set like Jalen’s, to try and put him into a pro-style system I think you take away some of his capabilities. He’s best suited, I think, in an offense that gives him space.”
Consequently, fans probably won’t see too much that’s different during A-Day, especially since the play-calling will be vanilla on both sides of the ball. Coaches will be focused on evaluating players while trying to minimize injury risk, so chances are this year’s game will feature a lot of passing.
Hurts will be looking to show fans that his decision making and downfield accuracy have improved, while early enrollees Tua Tagovailoa and Mac Jones need all the reps they can get as they’re the only reserve quarterbacks on the roster.
In general, the primary aim of the spring has been to add to what Hurts and the offense already did well, and avoid any sort of regression in his development. For Alabama to go back to what it did before Kiffin arrived in 2014, and basically run three different offenses depending on the quarterback, would be a step back for the whole team.
“With what the rules currently allow and the direction that offenses have gone I don’t think there’s really that much opportunity for change,” McElroy added. “The language will stay the same, you’re going to continue to see some no-huddle principles, and if you look to Jalen’s background that’s who he’s been.”
One of the things that really opened McElroy’s eyes to how much college game has changed since he graduated occurred during the recent South Carolina spring game he was working. ESPN had a microphone on the offensive coordinator and one of the play calls was just two words.
That might have just set the formation when McElroy was a quarterback, and most football teams would do things like huddle.
Meanwhile, two words that have been noticeably absent so far this spring are “jet sweep.” That doesn’t mean Alabama won’t run them this season, but it’ll likely rely more on other devices to spread defenses out and free up the run game.
Among the nuances that fans might notice is that Ridley said he’s running more vertical routes than last year, and he’s also been doing more rub/pick routes like what the Patriots do.
“We’re going to try to hold the football a little bit longer,” senior center Bradley Bozeman said. “We’re going to try to move the ball down the field.”
Additionally, the passing game likely will be more diverse under Daboll, and not just because of explosive players Alabama has on the roster. Going back to the Patriots, wide receiver Julian Edelman had the most catches for New England last season with 98 receptions for 1,106 yards, but 5 of the team’s top 9 receivers were either tight ends or running backs.
Due to injury issues, tight end Rob Gronkowski was sixth on that list (25 for 510 yards), while Martellus Bennett was third (55, 701) and running back James White was second (60 for 551).
“You grow up playing tight end in high school, so of course you watch Gronk and you watch Tony Gonzalez and those guys,” Alabama sophomore tight end Miller Forristall said. “But now it’s like, ‘His coach is here!’ That’s pretty cool. We have all their film. We get to watch it. That’s a lot of stuff to study.”
Hurts also gushed earlier this spring about how Daboll could pick up the phone and have him talk to Brady.
“It’s going to be pretty awesome for him to be able to pick his brain,” Wilson said about Daboll.
Nevertheless, it should be noted that while Daboll worked on the New England offense for years and knew it as well as anyone, he’s never called the plays for the Patriots. He’s been an analyst on both sides of the ball and coached the wide receivers and tight ends. Daboll was the offensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns (2009-10), Miami Dolphins (2011) and Kansas City Chiefs (2012) in between stints with New England.
All of those offenses had some similar traits, but catered to fit the personnel of each team.
Alabama will be no different.
It won’t be running the Patriots’ offense, but the Crimson Tide offense with some new tweaks — which during the Saban era is nothing new.