The Alabama Crimson Tide did what it was supposed to do on Saturday afternoon with a win over Western Kentucky, but don't tell Nick Saban that. The coach wasn't very pleased with the offense and the late portion of the game, something that wasn't hard to dissect.
Beyond that, there were some telling things at Bryant-Denny Stadium within all three phases of the game with recent UA nemesis Ole Miss next up.
So Much Shotgun
We detailed UA running many things anew with both Jalen Hurts and Blake Barnett at the helm to kick off the season and the most obvious tweak to the offense is the amount of shotgun snaps. Even though Bradley Bozeman had some up and downs in each game, it appears that scenario is where the offense will be more times than not. On Saturday it was more of the same, as we were able to count under-center snaps on our hands, nearly one hand. The goal-line lended itself to some form of flashback football, as the power running game at least looked like it was still apart of the offense. Bo Scarbrough powered one in with the help of freshman linebacker Lyndell Wilson leading the way before fellow frosh B.J. Emmons capped the scoring with one of several nice-looking runs on a day where UA only totaled 124 yards on the ground.
Other than that, it was shotgun city with Hurts taking the vast majority of the snaps. Both he and Barnett, not only hand-picked by offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin in what is a frosh vs. redshirt frosh situation, worked in similar offensive styles in high school. It's evident in the new offensive look, something that maximizes the stellar wide receiver group (more on that later) but also masks one of the early weaknesses of the team -- run blocking. Aside from a pair of Damien Harris totes in Dallas last week, the big-gainer hasn't really existed. The unit, no matter the center and right guard combination, hasn't been able to make a considerable push. And that was against undermanned USC and under-talented WKU.
On the other hand, the group has been rock solid in protecting either passer. The only clear sack pinned on the group should have been tabbed to Ross Pierschbacher and it was the last drive he saw with the unit as he gave way to once suspended 2015 starter Alphonse Taylor. Another WKU triumph was on Hurts, by my view, as he held the football much too long after it was apparent the Hulltopper secondary was in position from sideline to sideline. Aside from the pair of blunders, the pockets were clean and it allowed for 350-plus combined passing yards. Each QB was aggressive, often ignoring easy checkdowns, going for gold. Hurts missed Ardarius Stewart on an early scoring chance down the field before Gehrig Dieter dropped a sure one later on. Hurts then overthrew the Bowling Green transfer up the seam. There was also a coin-flip of blame between Hurts and O.J. Howard in the corner of the end zone in the second half but the truw freshman's two best passes in the win were connections with the dynamic tight end. But the ability to be aggressive, with a clean pocket, created the one-on-one scenarios in which this Crimson Tide team should continue to attempt to exploit.
For the backs, it also creates a scenario in which familiarity should help. Scarbrough, Harris and Emmons each spent a lot of time at the prep level next to a signal-caller as opposed to behind. It makes vision and decisiveness more important on running plays. The linemen don't have to "drive" during blocks as long and it can open up the edge. The latter was utilized by Kiffin by using the wide receivers on running plays and of course by giving the quarterbacks the option to run as well.
Pruitt Flexes vs. Pass
Against USC, we had our collective jaws dropped as the Tide got pressure on the QB with simply the front four. It didn't need to blitz much that day but Jeremy Pruitt dialed up a few more this time around. He was creative with the calls, too, it wasn't just sending this linebacker or bringing that guy in. One time, Reuben Foster stunted across the formation with Rashaan Evans and it confused the offensive line enough for Foster to break through and rush the passer into a third-down incompletion. On another, it had the second-level blitzer make his presence known to the line before the snap. Post-snap, the line stunted and Dalvin Tomlinson was able to end the drive and WKU QB Mike White's afternoon as well. We also saw defensive backs in on the blitzing, in a sample of the aggression needed in the SEC against similar offenses, including the one UA will see next week in Oxford.
What again enables the flexibility of the front-seven, the most versatile in the Saban era, is the secondary. We have long known about Marlon Humphrey's talent but it continues to progress. He is impacting just about every passing play, making physical plays on the ball when he is thrown at. The safeties, who each snagged an interception Saturday, remain locked in and move everywhere sophomore Minkah Fitzpatrick can play man-to-man or roam in his path to havoc. The only unproven link, as we recapped last week, was Anthony Averett. He was targeted early and often vs. USC and WKU went after him on the game's first play. He was again in position, but this time didn't lose the football. White again went after him in the red zone and he again was up to task. HIs continued comfort will be key against Chad Kelly next week in what will again be built as a "Super Bowl" type matchup from the Rebel perspective.
Pruitt did use the natural talent at times, rushing just the front four for UA's first sack, which was paired well with the coverage. Jonathan Allen is facing minimal resistance right now and it is allowing the less-lauded Tomlinson, Dakota Ball and others to make plays from the interior of the line while Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson continue to pressure tackles and tight ends on the edge. The defense is becoming a pick your poison unit against the pass and remains a nightmare to run on. The only big Hilltoppper play against the first-team defense (the second unit got beat for the first score of the season in a failed cover-2 look) was the result of a flea-flicker. White sold it well and Jackson was two steps late in coverage. It happens. But UA adjusted, and the next WKU trick play was the Harrison pick.
Receivers Runnin' Things
Back to the offense. Before the season, when asked one of the thousand times about the QB competition and what could aid either passer, I was quick to point to the pass-catchers. Ridley, Stewart, Dieter, Foster, Howard and so on. It was as balanced and complete as any corps in America. This was going to help Hurts and Barnett no matter what and I think it's a big part of the equation in why the offense looks more spread by the day. You need those guys on the field and we see Kiffin using a lot of different looks with those five and others. Stewart got the bulk of targets vs. USC and this time he gave way, but only a little, to RIdley. But each returning star showed a lot as runners on designed plays but perhaps most importantly, after the catch. Ridley uses head-fakes and acceleration to shed defenders while Stewart uses raw speed and power combined with what looks like a desire to bang with opponents. Again, this is only enhancing Hurts and Barnett in the confidence department and certainly on the stat sheet.
This also aids the running game, two-fold. UA can soften a front-seven with down-the-field looks and it tried against the Toppers. The wideouts running the ball literally helps while the short passing game should be looked at as running. Ridley, Stewart and Foster each caught quick screens, or hitches, while the others as well as Hale Hentges provided decent blocking to move the ball. Doing it from the gun as opposed to from under center minimizes the clutter on the path to completing those extensions of the running game.
Diggs does it All
Late in the game, Trevon Diggs caught a Hurts pass and was seen on the sideline getting some additional pointers from Ridley, who flashed a big smile. But it''s the Alabama fan who should be smiling. Diggs, the frosh and younger brother of Minnesota Viking wide receiver Stefon Diggs, played in every phase for the Tide on this day. After the snag, he saw considerable time at safety, coming up and making a big hit to prevent a first down before contesting what would be the only Topper score on the afternoon. In between, he served as the primary kick and punt returner for Saban's squad.
At 6-foot-2, 190-or-so pounds, he has the skillset to make a big impact at either position. And do so sooner rather than later. Fellow freshmen defensive backs Shyheim Carter and Aaron Robinson also saw late snaps, but Diggs truly did it all. He can be an NFL defensive back while using his length and quickness as a return man and wide receiver in between. Saban has been documented in his evloution with his offensive philosophy and defensive recruiting, and now he has a first-year performer who is literally playing all over the footbal field. For the No. 1 program in America. Not bad for a kid who surprised us when he made a UA pledge during the half of a game last November.
BONUS: Smokescreen vs. Development
I should have mentioned above that I wasn't going to get into the Hurts-Barnett debate much longer (play distribution should tell you it's Hurts more than I can dig into), but it wasn't the only telling takeaway from the not-so-dominating win.
For one, we've seen two different game plans. Against USC, Alabama was a run-heavy team easing two rookie quarterbacks into the game and their own careers. Saturday, UA was the complete opposite, looking to outshine the pass-happy spread team with a wide open look of its own. Hurts was in complete control, even if he missed some long tosses. He was decisive, didn't force one throw and most importantly didn't turn the ball over. What's scary about him is how well he does the little things. Hurts tried to help runners as a blocker, used the sideline to avoid taking more hits and even calculated his landings as he fell when he was hit (yes, this is a thing QBs work on now-a-days, there is a right way to fall). He still didn't show much emotion except for when he had to burn a timeout because of the personnel grouping near the goal line and when he watched UA give the ball away from the sideline. Expect more of that look, from that guy, against Ole Miss.
The running game won't soon go away or be less important, however. We talked about how Alabama supplements it with multiple ball carriers and even the short passing game, and it will likely continue. But despite each running back having his own moments, there is still no clear guy. Harris seems to be the most trusted option from the coaches perspective, both with the ball and more importantly in pass-protection. These notions were developed most between game one and game two though the offensive line and consistent penalties pointed to a regression offensively.
On defense, I think the game two look may have been a smokescreen. Pruitt knows he has the horses to mix up the pressures and all, but with SEC play approaching I actually expect more reliance on the front-four. The pass-catcher groups UA will face, even against not-so-modern LSU, are well above the level of WKU. They're more on par with USC, actually. That makes me think Alabama will allow its talent to make plays at each level as opposed to forcing the issue.