TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — When University of Alabama junior tight end Hale Hentges found out that the guy who had been coaching Rob Gronkowski was about to become his new offensive coordinator, well, let’s just say no one may have been happier.
“I was majorly excited,” said Hentges, and with good reason. Not only was Brian Daboll billed as being tight end-friendly, he had helped the New England Patriots win five Super Bowl titles (Super Bowl 36, 38, 39, 49 and 51).
“You can tell that he has an affinity towards tight ends because it was his position at New England,” Hentges continued. “I think he enjoys working with us, because I know he knows the challenges that tight ends have.
“You have to be able to run, you have to be able to block, you have to be able to catch passes. So, I know that he knows it’s a tough position and I think he wants to explore that and help us out as much as he can.”
But that doesn’t mean that Alabama is suddenly going to become a tight end haven, or suddenly go in a new direction offensively. Actually, fans probably won’t see much of a difference on A-Day on April 22 or in the fall.
Since Daboll was hired in February, the biggest speculation surrounding the Crimson Tide has been on how the offense will change without Lane Kiffin (or Steve Sarkisian) calling plays. It’s already a point of frustration with Nick Saban, who has always maintained that his offensive coordinators work within his system.
Alabama still runs a pro-style offense, which means it’ll use a variety of different looks, everything from the I-formation to the shotgun, and ideally do so efficiently and effectively without necessarily switching personnel.
Generally speaking, that means using tight ends more than most spread or option offenses, both as blockers and receivers.
Overall, Saban wants to be balanced, executing a mix of passing and running, while using a power running game and being complex in versatility.
A team’s identity, though, comes from what it does best out of that scheme, like wearing down the defense and then pounding away with Derrick Henry — the formula that helped lead to the 2015 national championship. It’s predicated by the talent and ability of the players, and takes time to develop.
So when asked if he thought Alabama would use more two tight end sets this season, Hentges responded: “that’s something that we’re still trying to figure out as we kind of progress into spring ball, and obviously all of our offense isn’t totally put in yet.”
Regardless, Daboll is going to have fun with this offense if for no other reason than the numerous options at his disposal.
At running back, Damien Harris is coming off a 1,000-yard season and Bo Scarbrough had a jaw-dropping postseason before suffering a leg fracture. Not only will those two be behind a big offensive line with a lot of potential (although for now it’s a work in progress) but Alabama also has Josh Jacobs, B.J. Emmons, Najee Harris and Brian Robinson.
“We’ll be at practice and I kind of look back and it’s like, ‘We’ve got this many guys?’” Harris said about the running backs. “There’s a lot of talented guys, a lot of guys that are ready to work hard.”
Daboll should have similar options at wide receiver with another 1,000-yard performer in Calvin Ridley, Robert Foster looking to rebound, Cam Sims, Trevon Diggs and others. There’s also a mega-prospect in Jerry Jeudy, plus Devonta Smith and Henry Ruggs III will arrive over the summer.
The more they work with Jalen Hurts, the reigning SEC Offensive Player of the Year, the better the passing game should be, especially attacking downfield. Plus, the quarterback is still just a sophomore.
Daboll has never really run an offense with a dual-threat quarterback like Hurts before, but what’s being ignored is his incredibly diverse resume otherwise. He started out on the defensive side, but he’s coached quarterbacks and wide receivers and developed highly proficient running games.
In addition to his work with the Patriots, he’s been the offensive coordinator for three NFL teams (Browns, Chiefs and Dolphins).
Daboll is really the first offensive coordinator Alabama has had directly out of the Saban-Bill Belichick coaching tree, plus is the first with a reputation for being tight end-friendly since Jim McElwain (2008-11). Granted, O.J. Howard was a factor in the passing game with 45 catches for 595 yards and 3 touchdowns last season, but he’s now being highly touted as a first-round draft pick next month.
“He says, ‘Okay guys, this is what we’re going to do. Alabama has always been about defense but we want to start making it more about offense. We want Alabama to be known for great offense,’” said Hentges, who also called Daboll “extremely hands-on.”
“That’s something I’ve responded to really positively.”
Hentges has been working with the first unit along with Miller Forristall (Hentges more at the Y spot, Forristall the H), with Irv Smith and Major Tennison also in the mix, and after two Achilles injuries as a running back, Ronnie Clark has moved over.
So at this point, the question regarding the offense shouldn’t be about what’ll be different, but rather what sort of limitations might it have when the regular season starts because of the multiple possibilities?
There may not be many, but that’s still months away.
“We just want to be better,” Hentges said. “We want to execute better, we want to play better, we want to be a more dominant offense, whether it’s the run game, the pass game.
“We want to be better on all cylinders.”