TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Junior wide receiver Calvin Ridley compares it to being on “a straightaway train,” one that’s already building momentum, and set on a fixed course off the horizon.
All aboard the Brian Daboll Express, which has made the run from New England to Alabama. It has Atlanta as the next destination, with two more possible visits beyond that on the Crimson Tide’s hopeful itinerary.
But those eventual stops with championships on the line are still a long way away, and must be earned. Alabama broke training camp Tuesday on the eve to the start of fall classes, and is still more than a week away from its season opener against No. 3 Florida State at new Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sept. 2.
The starting lineup hasn’t been set yet, and the players are still getting used to their new offensive coordinator.
“It’s not going to happen in the blink of an eye,” sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts said.
But there is potential. Oh boy, is there potential. Just a glance at the preseason honors confirms what most experts expect out of the Alabama offense in 2017.
On Tuesday morning, junior running back Bo Scarbrough, sophomore left tackle Jonah Williams and junior wide receiver Calvin Ridley were named second-team All-Americans by The Associated Press. Last month, seven offensive players were named to All-SEC teams during media days, not including the running back who topped 1,000 rushing yards last season (Damien Harris).
“I think there’s a lot of excitement because we have so much talent,” Williams said.
“There’s definitely that energy that if we all do our job and all do it right, it’s going to be a big play and we’re going to be successful as a unit. It’s a good situation to be in. We’re not worried about getting manhandled, we’re not worried about getting beat. It’s how good can we possibly be; how close can we get to our ceiling. I think that’s kind of the vibe that I’ve gotten so far.”
One thing that won’t change under Daboll is the offense’s overall philosophy of being geared to fit the skills of the players as much as a possible. That’s a major reason why Alabama looked like it nearly ran three completely different offenses under his predecessor Lane Kiffin, with Blake Sims, Jake Coker and Hurts the starting quarterbacks.
Although Sims was a dual-threat, he set the Alabama single-season passing record with 3,487 yards, and 3,837 yards of total offense. Wide receiver Amari Cooper won the program’s first Biletnikoff Award after catching an SEC-record 124 passes for 1,727 receiving yards.
Year 2, running back Derrick Henry rushed for 2,219 yards en route to the Heisman Trophy.
Last season, Hurts was the SEC Offensive Player of the Year as a freshman, and he would have been the first quarterback in Crimson Tide history to rush for 1,000 yards if sacks didn’t count against rushing statistics at the college level.
So when wondering how different the Alabama offense will be under Daboll, the examination must first begin with the Crimson Tide roster — not what he did with the New England Patriots. It’s why you’ll hear players like senior center Bradley Bozeman say “The offense hasn’t really changed greatly. It’s definitely made some shifts.”
At quarterback, Alabama has a returning starter for the first time since AJ McCarron (2011-13), so the offseason was geared toward Hurts’ development.
At the playmaker spots, Nick Saban has simply stacked the roster. There are five running backs who will likely see action this season, there are extremely talented young wide receivers who are already working their way into playing time, and Alabama even has some depth at tight end.
“It gives us a ton of flexibility,” junior tight end Hale Hentges said. “We can switch out personnel. We can have one tight end in the game, or we can have three tight ends in the game or we could have all wide receivers.
“Having that versatility really helps us go to a new level.”
On the offensive line, the only questions are the tackle spots. Williams has switched from right to left tackle, and his successor has yet to be named. Sophomore Matt Womack has been there the most through the spring and fall camp, but freshman Jedrick Wills is making a late charge.
“A guy with huge potential,” junior left guard Ross Pierschbacher said about Wills. “Even if he’s not taking the right footwork, he’ll still blow a guy off the ball. It’s stuff you can’t teach that he has. He’s got a very bright future and a guy like him being a young freshman who didn’t even come early, just trying to work with him and have him learn as much as soon as possible.”
Wills is listed as 6-foot-5, 314 pounds. Womack is 6-7, 324. The other top candidate, freshman Alex Leatherwood, is 6-6, 322. Regardless of who gets the job, Alabama will have a very large right tackle lining up alongside four veteran players.
“It’s exciting because, A, if we do our jobs we know it’s going to be a big play and, B, if somebody messes up a little bit, it might still be a big play,” Williams said.
So the Crimson Tide have size, strength and speed, but they’re still not the Patriots. It’s not the same combination as Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Brandin Cooks, Dion Lewis and so on.
“It’d be foolish to just take one offense that you’re accustomed to running and try to adapt it to another team,” Daboll said. “Some of the plays suit, some of the plays don’t suit. So, your job is to go ahead and mix and match and really find the best results for the guys that you’re working with for that particular year.”
Moreover, even though Daboll has been an offensive coordinator in the NFL, he never called plays for Bill Belichick.
Yet there are things that he brings from the Patriots, including a strong emphasis on both matchup and progressions, getting the ball to more players and maybe more rub routes.
Consequently, you’ll see some plays that take a little more time to develop, more intermediate and short throws designed to get players the ball in space, including crossing routes, and a more unpredictable offense. There’s already been a lot of talk about the tight ends being more involved in the passing game, and the same is true of the running backs.
“Being a dual-threat back and somebody that can run the ball is definitely going to help not only you as a player but help the team as well,” Harris said. “That’s something that we’ve been working on all offseason, becoming not only better receivers out of the backfield but being better at protections, being more well-rounded backs.”
But those things will be just as reflective of Hurts and the players around him, as anything. Senior wide receiver Robert Foster establishing himself as a deep threat will take pressure off the running backs. Having 6-5 senior wide receiver Cam Sims in the slot will be a tough matchup for any defense. Will defenses double-cover Ridley? Can they afford not to?
The final product will be more of a collage of all these different elements, with numerous other coaches throwing in their ideas. The result should be less reliance on the hot hand, but an increase in making the other side wonder what’s next.
It’s not like Alabama won’t ever run a jet sweep again. It will. Hurts still will take off with the ball, but the coaches are trying to get him to be more confident in his reads and take off only when it’s the best option. The Crimson Tide still will wear down defenses and pound away with the running game when it has the upper hand.
It’ll be an offense with more elements, more big-play possibilities and, here’s the kicker, more ways to attack anywhere it wants downfield.
“It’s definitely a complicated offense, but that’s a good thing,” Hentges said. “You don’t want your offense to be overly simplified, and he’s definitely brought in an explosive, intricate offense that is tough to learn but at the same time is going to be really good.”
It also will evolve over the course of the season, as Alabama hones in on what it does best, makes adjustments and players improve. There will be changes in personnel, injuries to be dealt with and tough games to be played, but Ridley didn’t hesitate to declare the offense’s prospective future.
“We could be very dangerous,” Ridley said.