TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban has already made it crystal clear, in vintage Saban fashion, that Alabama won’t be more of a ball-control offense under new coordinator Brian Daboll.
But that doesn’t mean the Crimson Tide won’t have a different look offensively in 2017. Saban wants to shift back to more of a pro-style base while still incorporating quarterback Jalen Hurts' talents as a runner. And most importantly, Saban wants to place a heavier emphasis on more fully developing the passing game.
“I felt like we moved further and further away from what I wanted to do last year,” Saban told ESPN this week. “I think the first two years [under Lane Kiffin] we did what the quarterback could do. It was what we needed to do from a quarterback standpoint, but we still philosophically were doing the things I wanted to do in terms of balance and utilizing all of our skill players. And last year, and this is no criticism of Lane or anybody, but having a freshman quarterback [Hurts] and trying to accommodate his skill set, we got to where we weren’t very effective passing the ball.
“Some of it was him being a freshman and us protecting him probably too much, but I wanted to get back to where we could utilize the skill guys we have on offense and still do some of the things that are difficult to defend. The point is that we had Calvin Ridley and O.J. Howard, but they had very little impact on most games.”
Daboll, most recently the New England Patriots’ tight ends coach, also had three stints in the NFL as an offensive coordinator with the Kansas City Chiefs (2012), Miami Dolphins (2011) and Cleveland Browns (2009-10). Daboll replaces Kiffin, who tutored three different first-year starting quarterbacks at Alabama in his three seasons as offensive coordinator and brought more of a spread, uptempo approach to the Tide’s offense.
Saban parted ways with Kiffin, who was juggling Florida Atlantic head-coaching duties and Alabama offensive coordinator duties, after the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl win over Washington in the College Football Playoff semifinal last season. Steve Sarkisian, who spent most of last season as an offensive analyst for the Tide, was promoted to offensive coordinator and called plays in the 35-31 loss to Clemson in the national championship game. But Sarkisian left a month later for the Atlanta Falcons’ offensive coordinator job.
Hurts, who was 13-1 as a true freshman, accounted for a school-record 36 total touchdowns (23 passing and 13 rushing) and finished second in single-season total offense with 3,734 yards (2,780 passing and 954 rushing). But Alabama’s passing game, most notably the deep passing game, was inconsistent and lacked punch in the postseason. Hurts was just 13-of-31 for 131 yards in the loss to Clemson, and much of that came on a 68-yard touchdown pass to Howard in which Howard was left wide open down the sideline.
“If you watch the film, we had guys running wide open all over the place, and we didn’t get them the ball,” Saban said. “It wasn’t just Jalen. It was a lot of things. It’s frustrating. That hurts you on third down. It hurts you in making explosive plays.”
With Hurts’ ability to create, Saban said the Crimson Tide would still use some of the spread element on offense, especially with the rules surrounding the run-pass option in college football being such a huge advantage for the offense.
“You’ve got guys blocking downfield when you throw a pass. How much better does it get for the offense?” Saban said. “You’ve got to do some of that stuff, but I also thought we needed to go back and make sure we were coaching the passing game like we needed to do it to be able to develop a quarterback so we could have more balance in what we were doing. We threw a lot of passes last year (an average of 27.8 per game), but they were the kind of passes Jalen could deal with, but really not the kind of passes that took advantage of the skill players that we had.”
Saban said it’s “still a work in progress” for Hurts, but the coach is pleased with the strides Hurts has made this spring under Daboll in adapting to the direction the Tide want to go with the offense. It also helps that Alabama is deep at running back, with the likes of Bo Scarbrough, Damien Harris, B.J. Emmons, Josh Jacobs and prized newcomer Najee Harris.
“We want our quarterback to be able to make plays with his feet, but we also don’t want to have to count on a lot of quarterback runs to make our offense go,” Saban said. “We’ve done a lot of good things on offense the last few years. Don’t get me wrong, but I think Brian’s experience in the NFL will help us get back to where we want to be.”