It's a system that has served the Crimson Tide well. Alabama has 12 national championships, and although at times Alabama has led with the pass, all 12 of those teams – even the offensively balanced ones – looked to the running game as its first option.
But things aren't the same in 2005. When Alabama lost starting quarterback Brodie Croyle and all three of its top tailbacks – Ray Hudson, Kenneth Darby and Tim Castille – during the 2004 season, Alabama fans got a glimpse at what the term "struggling" means when applied to offensive output. While Croyle, Darby and Castille are back for 2005, Alabama finds itself without the services of offensive linemen Wesley Britt, Evan Mathis and Danny Martz, three offensive linemen custom-built for smashmouth football.
If Alabama is to contend for a conference title in 2005, it will have to create something good on offense. After Croyle's knee injury against Western Carolina last year, Alabama mostly sputtered offensively, going back and forth between erratic passing and a running game theory that was stubborn to the point of being obtuse, vainly trying again and again to run between the tackles even though Aaron Johns was the only healthy back.
For those who watched the Tide's A-Day game, though, they must have been thinking Mike Price slipped back into town under the cover of night and designed the game plan. With the Tide's depth at receiver, the imminent return of Croyle under center, and the A-Day box score in hand, a popular theory has Alabama leaning much more heavily on its passing attack.
While a high-flying passing attack might not be the best long-term option, especially given Alabama's historical predilection for the run, it could work in the short term. Here are 10 reasons why, from the least important to the most:
10. No punting game
Gene Stallings built a seven-year juggernaut at Alabama, primarily based on a theory of running the ball, playing airtight defense, and winning the kicking battle. It didn't matter much if the Crimson Tide went three-and-out from its own 20-yard line; Alabama would simply punt it away, and stop the opposition.
But that was possible in large part because of names like Tank Williamson, Bryan Diehl, Daniel Pope and Hayden Stockton. All four men were no worse than competent on their bad days, and dominating on their good days. Punts that traveled 40 yards were followed by a gasp from the fans, and radio announcer Tom Roberts hustling to the bench to make sure the punter wasn't actually injured in some way.
The 2005 Alabama team has no such weapon. Jeremy Schatz and Jeffery Aul both looked less than stellar in the spring, although Schatz did appear to have increased his maximum kicking distance somewhat. Other punters who were in the mix, namely Patrick Eades and Joseph McPhillips, did not step up. Unless Schatz or Aul miraculously finds 10 extra yards over the summer, or one of two incoming kickers, P.J. Fitzgerald or Andrew Friedman, takes the job by the reins, Alabama's offense can't afford to stall deep in its own territory.
That leads to the question of what gives Alabama the best chance to get out of those situations – the run, or the pass. If spring was any indication, the passing game may be the way to go.
9. Taking advantage of Darby's flexibility
Running back Kenneth Darby was one of college football's most productive players in 2004, especially in light of the fact that he wasn't a starter for much of the year.
Playing in a reserve role the first third of the season, and limited by injury in the last two games, Darby still found a way to accumulate 1,062 net rushing yards on 219 attempts, a 4.8-yard-per-carry average.
But not all fans fully appreciate what Darby brings to the table. He thrives at blocking, and is a good receiver when given the opportunity. Additionally, part of his high school career was played in a passing offense.
Darby was the Tide's fifth-leading receiver in 2004, catching 15 passes for 74 yards and 1 touchdown. In an offense that spreads the ball through the air, Darby could easily double, even triple, his 2004 numbers. Spreading the field would also open some running lanes that Darby found closed in 2004.
8. Defensive depth will be better in 2005
One of the reasons Alabama's defense excelled statistically in 2004 was the amount of rest it got during games. With Alabama keeping much of its offense on the ground, the clock ran, and the defense didn't have to spend a lot of minutes chasing opposing offenses.
In 2005, the defense will clearly be Alabama's strength. One draft observer intimates that Alabama has as many as six draft picks on its defense – safeties Roman Harper and Charlie Peprah, linebackers Freddie Roach and Demeco Ryans, defensive end Mark Anderson, and yes, the much-maligned-at-times by fans, cornerback Anthony Madison – so quality among the starters isn't an issue. But Alabama also figures to add a plethora of defensive linemen, several top secondary prospects, and perhaps an immediate contributor or two at linebacker once fall practice starts.
With added depth comes added flexibility, and the pressure on the offense to eat up large sums of clock, "just because," goes down. With Alabama's depth increasing, particularly along the defensive line, the possibility exists for the offense to take more shots downfield.
7. Recruiting image
Fans, especially those who cut their teeth on Golden Flake potato chip commercials intoned by one Paul William Bryant, might turn up their noses at the idea that recruits must be coddled and catered to. But the reality is that a team's style does matter to top recruits, when the time comes for them to pick their destination for the next four or five years.
In that regard, teams that run milquetoast offenses tend to chase off the best players – unless you happen to be the Texas Longhorns, who seem to attract a top five recruiting class every year despite being as exciting offensively as it is to watch grass grow. Perhaps head coach Mack Brown is the Pied Piper of Prepdom.
Alabama – particularly in light of the resurgence of programs at Auburn, Georgia and Florida – can't afford to be left behind. An offense that spreads the ball, puts points on the board and creates some buzz could go miles when February rolls around.
6. Nick Walker
It sounds odd to place so much emphasis on a redshirt freshman who was primarily a split end in high school, and whose entire collegiate contribution at tight end so far came in a spring intrasquad game, but Walker demands a closer look.
Walker's soft hands and good speed make him a downfield threat from the tight end position. Much like former Tider Lamonde Russell, Walker will likely never be a dominant blocker, but he can cause some major mismatch problems for other teams used to covering a blocking-first tight end.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Walker is that he may be Alabama's third option right now. Trent Davidson, a bulldozer of a blocker, figures to be the starter. Senior Greg McLain is versatile enough to play tight end, fullback or H-back, and his experience means he'll probably be on the field a lot in 2005. But it is Walker's long-term potential that has the offensive coaches licking their chops, and it's easy to see how Walker could fit into an offensive scheme that places heavy emphasis on the passing game.
5. Keeping the running backs healthy
In the same vein of getting Kenneth Darby more involved in the passing game, is the hope of keeping him alive and in one piece throughout the 2005 season.
Perhaps no player played with more guts and stick-to-itiveness than did Darby, particularly from the Tennessee game forward. By the time Alabama got to the Music City Bowl, Darby was barely able to walk, much less run. Yet, he contributed.
But Tim Castille also paid a heavy price for playing college football in 2004, tearing his knee to shreds on a swing pass against the Volunteers. Ray Hudson was lost earlier in the season, after a nasty freak accident against Kentucky.
Hudson has graduated, and while Castille and Darby are available, both are rehabbing their 2004 injuries at the moment. Aaron Johns and walk-ons Theo Townsend, Mookie Chaney and Rashad Johnson are also available, but Johns and Johnson were both hurt, albeit it not seriously, at A-Day. It was, however, enough to point out the importance of keeping the Tide's running backs as healthy as possible.
While Castille did indeed get injured on a pass play, the pass he caught was not perfectly thrown, forcing Castille's body into an awkward position just before he was hit. It's a safe bet that an offense that features more passing would ratchet down a few notches the amount of stress Castille, Darby and fullback Le'Ron McClain will have to absorb.
While Alabama signed four running backs in recruiting, three of them – Ali Sharrief, Mike Ford and Roy Upchurch – will be close on qualifying. Only Glen Coffee figures to qualify easily. Alabama, therefore, can't bet on an automatic infusion of talent come August.
4. Several SEC secondaries won't be as strong in 2005
Almost as important as the Tide's depth at the offensive skill positions is the relative lack of strength in several of its opponents' defensive backfields.
Alabama's chief competition in the SEC West figures to come from Auburn, LSU and perhaps Arkansas. At Auburn, Alabama will face a secondary that as a whole in 2004, was fairly overrated. On top of that, Auburn no longer has the services of top-flight cornerback Carlos Rogers, or safety Junior Rosegreen. Unless David Irons has recovered completely from ACL surgery, the Tigers' top defensive back will be safety Will Herring, who is not known for being able to cover a receiver like a blanket.
LSU had a fine secondary in 2004, but has lost Corey Webster, Ronnie Prude and Travis Daniels to graduation. On top of that, new head coach Les Miles' defenses have a reputation for being a little softer than the ones coached by former head coach Nick Saban. As for Arkansas, the Razorbacks were ranked only 65th in pass defense in 2004. Arkansas returns all its secondary players, but improvement is needed before the Razorback defensive backfield can consider itself a strength.
Among Alabama's opponents from the SEC East, Tennessee struggled with pass defense for much of the season, and Florida was mid-pack in Division-IA. South Carolina, like Auburn and LSU, lost many of its top playmakers.
In other words, installing a passing offense might be the smart way to attack the 2005 schedule.
3. Alabama has depth at wide receiver
Alabama's depth at wide receiver has perhaps been undersold. Most are familiar with the Tide's top five of Matt Caddell, Tyrone Prothro, and the three true freshmen contributors from the 2004 recruiting class: Keith Brown, D.J. Hall and Ezekial Knight. But Alabama has perhaps another five receivers on the bench that are able contributors in the SEC.
Senior Matt Miller and junior Marcus McKnight have both put together two consecutive strong A-Day performances. Miller, a former walk-on and converted quarterback, isn't a breakaway threat. But he is a good athlete, he's a legitimate 6'3" and big, and has great hands. McKnight has above average speed and his hands are improving steadily. He needs to be more physical in the running game, however.
That's seven players. Two more scholarshipped receivers, Will Oakley and Brandon Brooks, are also available for duty. Brooks is perhaps the fastest player on the squad. And while his 5'5" frame limits the number of things he can do, he's still capable of flying by most cornerbacks on his way to catching a deep bomb. He's also adept at making things happen on bubble screens and other isolation plays. Had Mike Price been retained as head coach, Brooks would likely be one of the first players off the bench, given how involved he was in the 2003 spring offense.
Oakley redshirted in 2004 while recovering from injury and illness, but showed flashes in fall practice. He got hurt again in spring 2005, but again showed some ability.
If Alabama needs any other players at this position, walk-ons Patrick Gordon, Jake Collins and David Steakley have all shown reasonable ability in practices. Another walk-on, J.D. Dailey, is a speedster. This group has more than enough quality and depth to allow Alabama to be very active with its passing routes.
2. A young and (probably) struggling offensive line
Perhaps the most telling sign of what's to come for Alabama was the play selection at the A-Day game, which led the game to being more of a passing scrimmage than anything the Tide put on the field in 2004.
When Mike Price brought Bob Connelly to Alabama as offensive line coach from Washington State, a major shift started away from the bull-rushing technique taught by Jim Bob Helduser under former head coach Dennis Franchione. Connelly's scheme isn't the best for building a power running game, despite Alabama's success at times running the football in 2004. But it is a good base for a passing offense.
The stark reality for Alabama at the moment is that the 2004 offensive line, even with NFLers Evan Mathis and Wesley Britt manning the left side, couldn't always run the ball when it needed to. At the end of spring 2005, Alabama's starting offensive line was Chris Capps at left tackle, Antoine Caldwell at left guard, J.B. Closner at center, Mark Sanders at right guard and Kyle Tatum at right tackle. B.J. Stabler may or may not replace Sanders once fall practice starts. Of those players, only Closner and Tatum have any significant playing experience. There's little chance of this young squad becoming overpowering by the start of fall practice.
What the line can do, however, is give Alabama quarterbacks reasonable time to throw the football, if spring was a good indication. Capps was signed late by Mike Price because of his pass blocking ability. Caldwell looked adept at pass blocking in the spring, and if Kyle Tatum can correct his propensity to get flagged for holding, the idea makes sense for him, as well. The key will be how well Closner and Sanders adapt to it, or how quickly Stabler can return from injury and push Sanders for the job.
No scheme is going to make Alabama's offensive line dominant in 2005. The talent simply isn't there at some positions, and youth is conspiring at other positions to hold down the effectiveness. But certain schemes and playcalling strategies might create time for Alabama's quarterbacks by keeping the opposing defense off balance.
1. Get the ball into the hands of Alabama's best player, Brodie Croyle
One of the ultimate truisms in football is to get the ball into the hands of the people that can best make plays. It is no secret that Alabama's chances at victory go up substantially when quarterback Brodie Croyle is producing.
Croyle's first three games in 2004 gave Tide fans hope that big things were in store for the season. Croyle had completed 44-of-66 passes for 534 yards, 6 touchdowns and 0 interceptions, but blew out a knee against Western Carolina and was sidelined for the remainder of the year. Croyle still has holes in his game – he doesn't look off primary receivers enough, and he still needs at least 20 pounds of bulk to withstand the punishment he'll take on Saturdays – but he also possesses a howitzer on his right shoulder, and can make plays with his legs as well as his arm.
Coupled with the outstanding depth and quality at wide receiver, Croyle should have no problem finding open receivers in 2005. And now that his receivers have experience, they should be more adept at making plays.
With a healthy Kenneth Darby behind him, opposing defenses will have to respect Croyle's passing ability like never before. It all leads to the ultimate question: Is Alabama better off running the ball 50 times a game behind a vulnerable offensive line, or throwing it 30-35 times a game to proven receivers?
Obviously, the answer is not as simple as dumping the I-formation for a three-or-four-wide, one-back spread. Whatever Alabama chooses to do, the offensive line must block for it. The quarterbacks must stay healthy, as must the running backs. The defense will have to play well above average in order to contain the opposition, and give the Alabama offense plenty of chances to do damage.
But this much is clear: Alabama isn't going to win many games just by running the ball into the line 50 times a game, and waiting on Darby to break five or six long runs. With gobs of talent at wideout, and Brodie Croyle waiting to finish his career on a strong note, can Air Bama be far behind?