Brian Daboll is diametrically opposed to Lane Kiffin in almost every way: He doesn’t seek attention; he’s less of a play-calling sequencer; and his attacks have traditionally been rhythm based, rather than the pace-and-space style Kiffin has embraced.
Much will change under Daboll. His past – Daboll has worked exclusively in the NFL since 2000, predominantly with the New England Patriots — indicates Saban wants to shift back to gap elements in the run game, rather than the constant barrage of sweeps and jet sweeps Kiffin utilized. Saban doesn’t like going sideways.
But there’s plenty Daboll can glean from Kiffin’s 2016 outfit, particularly when it comes to getting the most out of Jalen Hurts. For all his faults, Kiffin did a marvelous job of harnessing the innate abilities of the freshman last season.
Daboll will have to keep option elements in order to get the most out of his young quarterback and the Tide’s talented backfield. And expect to see as much pre-snap movement, if not more. The jet motions will likely decrease, but we will still see ghost motions and shifts, along with heavy formations.
Jet motions are everywhere in college football. But no one has embraced them as much as Kiffin. They strike the perfect balance: making things trickier for the defense, while keeping things simplistic for the quarterback. Often, it’s window dressing that makes it complicated for defenders to find and locate the ball. Although the quarterback is reading a single defender, there’s a sense of complexity, rather than genuine difficulty.
No doubt Daboll will put his stamp on the team. And I’d be shocked if we saw as much jet motioning as in 2016. Instead, I expect to see cheat motions — small movements from receivers shuffling a yard or two – to help indicate the coverage to the quarterback pre-snap, with quick-hitch throws replacing crowded mesh points post-snap.
Daboll will also bring his rhythm passing attack to Tuscaloosa. The quick throws should help cover up Hurts’ struggles within the pocket. The QB will be asked to get the ball to certain spots, on time, based on a pre-snap read, rather than playing see-it-throw-it football like he did in 2016.
However, until Hurts can prove he can play with more rhythm and develop his accuracy down the field, Daboll should include Kiffin’s core concepts, ones that helped Alabama rank fifth in the nation in offensive S&P+ behind the true freshman.
The power read
Daboll was brought to ‘Bama to help improve the Tide’s passing attack, but the ground game will remain the foundation of the team. That includes options, which allow Hurts to do damage with his legs and keep the defense honest.
The power read is a spread-to-run concept and was a foundational frequent Kiffin-Alabama play – though the coordinator shifted week-to-week from zone-heavy to power-heavy concepts depending on the opponent.
Power reads differ from a traditional read option or zone read in that the quarterback reads a play-side defender, rather than a backside. The blocking differs, too. Zone options build a double-team inside (sometimes two) while the quarterback “blocks” a defender with a read, allowing the offense to score a numbers advantage inside. The power read pulls a guard from the backside to the play-side – like a normal power-run play – in order to overwhelm and out-leverage the perimeter.
The design has become a staple for smash-mouth spread teams for a raft of reasons:
- It’s an option play that doesn’t put the quarterback at great risk.
- It fits power teams – it’s a slightly modified version of the most basic concept.
- The QB doesn’t have to be a freakish athlete to take advantage of outnumbering a flank.
- Other power principles act as perfect complements, with minimal tweaks or pre-snap communication: counter, QB power, play-action pass, shovel option and the fake-toss option play made famous by Clemson and unleashed by Kiffin last season.
There are two variations of the concept: reading an edge defender or reading a linebacker.
Reading the edge defender
The goal when reading the end is to block the front-side linebacker and crack the most dangerous defender flanking the read end – drilling them toward the middle of the field. Ideally, the outer most receiver will seal the boundary corner before climbing up to take on a safety. The quarterback reads the unblocked end, while the backside guard pulls and takes on the MIKE linebacker. Those two in concert put the offense at a distinct numbers advantage – creating a 4-on-3 on the perimeter no matter whether the end sits or fires.
Last year, Kiffin favored a split-zone style – pulling an H-Back or tight end to the play-side, rather than a guard in certain formations.
The principle is the same. Though with O.J. Howard now in the NFL – a good blocker at tight end – reverting back to the traditional style makes sense.
Reading the linebacker
The linebacker option differs slightly. Instead of creating an overload 4-on-3 look, it’s a balanced 3-on-3 situation. This time, the backside guard pulls to seal off the play-side edge defender, the quarterback reads the MIKE linebacker and the play-side tackle climbs up to take on whichever non-linebacker he finds on his way up the field.
The quarterback reads the key defender before opting whether to hand the ball off to the running back along the perimeter or carry the ball straight ahead himself.
Like most option plays, there’s an emphasis on receivers blocking downfield. It’s not about effort, though, it’s about leverage. They must maintain position, without holding, and flip their hips in order to open up an alley (when reading the end) or a sidewalk along the boundary (when reading the linebacker).
Kiffin’s squad had standouts in that department: Gehrig Dieter, ArDarius Stewart and Howard were willing and superb blockers. They’re now in the NFL and will need to be replaced.
Kiffin built the 2016 Crimson Tide passing game around the play-action pass. And he went to funky lengths to make sure he gave his young signal caller as much time as possible to survey the field before hurling the ball toward a receiver. Kiffin adopted the strategy of having Hurts take deep, five- and seven-step dropbacks out of the shotgun – rather than quick catch and throws or three-step drops.
It was an unusual strategy. It meant Hurts had to throw the ball farther and it disrupted rhythm between the QB and his receivers. Plays often boiled down to Hurts dropping, reading, reading some more, taking even more time, then eventually whirling a 50-50 ball downfield or taking off with his legs – needing to make up a lot of ground after dropping so deep.
In fairness to Kiffin, it was a creative plan intended to reduce mental errors from a young player. He deserves kudos for that. But it also helped expose flaws in his quarterback.
I’d be surprised if Daboll adopted such tactics, particularly if we’re to see more rhythm in the passing game – matching up the footwork of the quarterback’s dropback with the steps of the receiver. Hurts will have to get used to hitting his back foot and letting it fly, rather than scanning across the field and flinging the ball to whomever is open.
The best way to aid, then, is to make rhythm throws as simple as possible. RPOs are simple rhythm throws: Read a linebacker, if he crashes down flip to a pre-selected receiver. Creative play-action designs have the same effect, particularly if the run game is strong. Alabama’s should be.
The power read opens creative play-action variables. First, the quarterback is reading the frontside, so he’s in a better position to reset his feet and deliver the ball. But the play itself has those two variations – reading the linebacker or edge defender – so there are different timings and nuances that can be built into each. In short, it’s tough for the defense to get a read on whether it’s a power read, a power run, or a play-action pass.
All the defenders can do is follow their keys. And if they’ve seen the same power-read concepts time and time again, the read linebacker is going to come firing downhill.
Here’s a great example from Jerry Kill’s Minnesota team, one of Godfathers of the power read:
It’s a simple pitch and catch that goes for a huge gain. The angle allows us to see how hard the Wisconsin defense bites on the play fake.
Again, they have no idea if it’s a power read, a straight power run, some kind of RPO or a called play-action pass. Three defenders – including the “fake” optioned linebacker – bit hard on the play, thundering toward the line of scrimmage.
The above design also adds in a pair of clear-out routes, morphing the coverage through play design. A bubble screen from the slot helps draw a linebacker toward the boundary, opening a void for the tight end to drive into. And a deep route from the boundary receiver helps control 1/3 of the coverage, a cornerback and deep safety. Again, the middle of the field is vacated and the quarterback is able to drop the ball into his tight end in rhythm.
The failure of any play-action design usually falls on one of two things: a dominant interior defender or the offensive line not selling the fake. The line must act as they would on the corresponding run play. But there’s a simple tweak to eliminate the line’s play-acting from the equation: Make it an RPO.
An RPO, unlike called play actions, give the offensive line no indication whether they’re blocking for a run or pass. There’s no need for acting. Each lineman exits their stance with the juice of a run play, while the quarterback reads a designated defender and opts to hand the ball off to a running back or throw it to a receiver.
One-read-and-go throws should help Hurts as he continues to morph into a complete passer. Turning the linebacker power read from a called run or play-action pass into a triple-option (handoff, QB run, pass) would follow the doctrine Kiffin laid down: Put the defense in a no-win bind, while giving Hurts one defender to read.
Kiffin’s philosophy was built around stretching defenses laterally in the first half, then attacking head-on in the second half. A sentiment he shared with AL.com during last season:
“I think the defense has been tired because of what we do early in moving the ball around and making them run sideline to sideline and then coming back more downhill later.”
Expect Daboll’s offense to come rumbling downhill early and often. ISO and weakside ISO plays will be the Tide’s bread and butter. It’s good ol’ fashioned “we’re going to line up and run the ball down your throat, because we’ve got better players than you” football.
Kiffin was partial to this, too.
The team remained a downhill attack, though it was sometimes hidden by window dressing and Kiffin’s early-game antics. The tempo, spread sets and nonstop motioning made it look aesthetically different, but the purpose was the same as it has been during the Alabama dynasty – get our gigantic backs up to their linebackers 1-on-1.
Regardless of how it’s achieved, that’s the organizational goal. Daboll will likely sprinkle in more gap elements and movement from the offensive line, but the philosophy is ultimately the same.
That philosophy is easier to dictate with an all-everything freak like Bo Scarborough lining up in the backfield. Not to mention the four other studs, all of whom would be starters at other top-25 schools.
“You can find creative ways to try to use them, and everyone will have a role if they earn that role,” Daboll told reporters at his only appearance this preseason, via AL.com.
Scarborough and Damien Harris will likely rotate as the lead back. Joshua Jacobs (a Mark Ingram clone) offers more of a zone-cut element, while freshmen Najee Harris and Brian Robinson bring additional electricity.
Scarborough is the star, however. Get him up to the point-of-attack 1-on-1 and it’s game over. He forced 40 missed tackles on 120 rushes in 2016, per ProFootballFocus.
One of Kiffin’s niftiest ISO plays came out of a bunch formation, with the power back running behind the stack. Again, Kiffin relied on the excellence of his receiving corps to block with the correct leverage – not just power – rather than his offensive line.
Although it’s power football, leverage is once more the key. Scarborough’s highlight reel run against Washington in the College Football Playoff semifinal serves as the best example:
The line kicked to its right in unison. Left tackle Cam Robinson sealed the outer edge by cracking the Washington edge defender and opening up the initial alley for Scarborough to run behind. While the offensive line drove the defensive front inwards, the receiving corps worked in the opposite direction, opening up an alley for the running back to charge into the second level untouched.
Dieter got the crucial block, flipping his defender toward the boundary. That created a neat blocking arc — Robinson cracking inside, Dieter bending to the boundary and Howard leading the way for Scarborough at the point-of-attack.
Scarborough took care of the rest.
When you recruit at Alabama’s level, it stands to reason that skill-position talent will be bigger, faster and stronger than their contemporaries. It’s usually evident in the open field, but it is decisive in the trenches.
Part of Daboll’s aim is to expand beyond Kiffin’s sideways approach and build a more incisive unit. Taking advantage of elite-level receiving weapons as blockers should be a must.
Kiffin was a flawed coach. His philosophy did not jive with Saban’s. In that regard, Daboll makes more sense. But there’s plenty he can lift into his system for 2017 and beyond that Kiffin has already installed. Blending his philosophies with Kiffin’s could lead to the best attack we’ve seen from Alabama so far.