The Nick Saban aversion to the fast-paced, no-huddle offense is a matter of record, but anyone watching Alabama has seen the evolution of the Crimson Tide to more of a hurry-up style on offense.
It was obvious in Alabama’s 49-10 win over Tennessee in Knoxville Saturday that the Bama pace took its toll on a Volunteers team that was depleted to some extent by injuries as the Tide rolled up 594 yards of offense, including 438 yards rushing.
Bama is averaging a healthy 265.7 yards per game rushing and 239 yards per game passing for 504.7 yards per game total offense, and averaging 45.4 points per game.
So, the question was asked of Saban Monday, does he enjoy playing a little more fastball?
Saban doesn’t smile often in his press briefings, but he cracked one as he answered, “Yeah, I like playing fastball...when we have the ball.
“Like in basketball you like playing the fast break when you’ve got the ball. You don’t like it when they’ve got you 3 on 2 and you’re the guy backing up trying to defend it.”
The Saban switch didn’t just begin this year, although it has been aided by a true dual-threat quarterback in freshman Jalen Hurts, who is second on the team in rushing (74 carries for 428 yards, 5.8 yards per carry, and a team-leading 8 rushing touchdowns, and who has completed 113 of 178 passes (63.5 per cent) for 1,385 yards and 9 TDs.
Saban said, “This is sort of the direction we wanted to go that we started with Blake Sims (in 2014). Jake (Coker, quarterback last year) was a little different type guy. He did what he did very well.
“But now, we're sort of back even beyond what we did with Blake Sims, which I think has made us the most effective offensive based on the skill sets that we have. But we sill want to have elements of pro-style in what we do so that we can control the game when we need to by being able to run the ball and throw it in the pocket if we need to.”
Saban discounted any problems Hurts may have had in Alabama’s transition from the pro-style game to a read-option offense.
“Jalen's done a good job in making those reads,” Saban said. “I think he's very comfortable doing those things. I don't think the plays that we run are that much more different than we've run before. I just think that he adds an extra element to it that makes the defense have to account for him, which makes them in some cases a little softer on some of the other things that we do.
“I think all those things complement each other to help our offensive team.
“I still think we need to make some improvements in the overall passing game, whether it's protection, route running, reading, getting the ball out of ours hands -- especially when you play aginst a team like [Texas A&M, this week’s Bama opponent] who can rush and the speed of the game is going to speed up.
“There's plenty for us to work on and continue to build on the things that we've done well. But we've got lots of things to work on, to improve on.”
Alabama started a little earlier in adjusting to the fast-pace offenses of opponents when the Tide began recruiting more athletic – “quick twitch guys” Saban calls them – defensive players.
He said, “I think that defensively we probably are a little more athletic and have a little more speed on the field. I think that helps us a little bit in loose-play situations, which when you play these spread-type teams, that’s the kind of plays that they run. “Offensively, we've always tried to do what our quarterback can do. I think Lane (Offensive Coordinator and Quarterbacks Coach Lane Kiffin) has done a really good job of adapting that.”
Alabama, ranked first in the nation with a 7-0 record and 4-0 record in the Southeastern Conference, hosts Texas A&M, ranked sixth in the nation at 6-0 overall, 4-0 in the SEC, at 2:30 p.m. CDT Saturday. CBS will televise the game.
Saban said Bama’s prformance at Tennessee “probably approached playing the most complete game that we played all year. There're obviously many things that we can improve on. I think the question is do you rest on your laurels or do you stay hungry to try to improve, build on the things that you did correctly and fix the ones that you didn't.
“So you can either build on it or rest on it. That's one game. We've got to move on to the next game, which is a very, very challenging team. Texas A&M probably presents as many issues as any team that we've played all year.
“They are very well coached. Kevin Sumlin's done a really good job there -- offense, defense and special teams. They're highly ranked in a lot of categories, whether it's turnover ratio, scoring defense. Their ability to run the ball. Very high-powered, balanced offense.
“Trevor Knight has done a really good job at quarterback for them implementing their offense. Trayvon Williams, who is a freshman, has been a very dynamic running back, probably the best we've seen all year. They have a talented receiving corps. Really have some dominating players on defense in Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall, the two defensive ends that create a lot of problems in terms of being great edge rushers. They're very opportunistic on defense in terms of getting turnovers. A lot of things important for us to do very well in this game, and it's going to take all phases going well to have a chance to be successful.”
Knight is in his first year as quarterback at Texas A&M, a graduate transfer from Oklahoma. Alabama has seen him before, at the end of the 2013 season. Knight had his best career game in the Sugar Bowl against Alabama, leading the Sooners to a 45-31 win by completing 32 of 44 passes for 348 yards and 4 touchdowns. He suffered one interception and was sacked only once.
Saban said, “He's an outstanding athlete and very capable of running the ball. They have a lot of quarterback runs where he has made a lot of explosive plays, whether it's the quarterback draws or zone-read slipper plays, where he keeps the ball and has a blocker in front of him.
“He's improved. He passed the ball well when we played against him before, but that (lack of passing success)was supposed to be the issue and he has done that extremely well this year.
“He's an outstanding player from a production standpoint; he's as productive as anybody we've played against all year.”
Alabama, though, will not go back to the Sugar Bowl tape in preparation for this game.
“We don’t plan to do that,” Saban said. “We’ve got enough issues trying to defend what they’ve got to worry about what Oklahoma did three years ago. We know what kind of player he is. It’s very obvious in the film. I think a lot of the things he did then are the same kind of things that he’s doing now.”