Offensive Look

In 1971, with no one outside of Alabama's football family knowing about it, the Crimson Tide unveiled a new offense with an explosive result heard 'round the college football world. Could it happen again this year?

Alabama was coming off back-to-back five=loss seasons in 1971, and the Crimson Tide was opening the season in the Los Angeles Coliseum against number one=ranked Southern Cal. Although USC Coach John McKay would say later there had been rumors that Bama would use the wishbone, he couldn't afford to use precious pre-season practice time preparing for a rumor.

It was more than a rumor. Coach Paul Bryant's Crimson Tide came out in the wishbone, an offense with two halfbacks and a fullback and only one wide receiver, and upset the Trojans, 17-10. It was a major offensive departure for a Bama that had been in a pro-set passing attack for nearly a decade, riding the arms of such quarterbacks as Joe Namath, Steve Sloan, Kenny Stabler, and Scott Hunter.

Terry Davis, a slightly-built quarterback, was the nifty operator of the wishbone, which was designed in great part by Mal Moore, the quarterbacks coach beginning in 1971.

Alabama went on to an 11-0 regular season record before losing to powerful Nebraska in the Orange Bowl in a national championship match-up.

The Crimson Tide of Coach Mike Shula is now in game preparation mode, meaning practice is closed to all eyes, including media personnel who were allowed to watch practice through Tuesday. Are surprises in store?

One strength of the wishbone is that every defender does not have to be blocked. It takes a good center and good guards, as well as a quick quarterback, and crisp blocking halfbacks.

As in every offense, it starts with the quarterback. There is a perception that Alabama quarterback Brodie Croyle has weak knees. Doctors say nothing could be further from the truth. That Croyle had season-ending knee injuries early in his high school senior season and again last fall cannot be denied. But medical experts say those injuries are not predictors of future problems.

And anyone who has seen Croyle maneuver would attest that he is a fine runner.

Between injury luck (good, for a change) and effective recruiting, Alabama finds itself with a stable of running backs–fullbacks Tim Castille, LéRon McClain, and Vic Horn, and halfbacks Kenneth Darby, Glen Coffee, Roy Upchurch, and Jimmy Johns, not to mention Aaron Johns and walk-on Theo Townsend.

The makings of a fine wishbone backfield.

So is Alabama going to shock Middle Tennessee State by unveiling the wishbone? Or would the Tide be more likely to save that kind of surprise for later in the year?

Practices are closed now, but three scrimmages were open. Was MTSU watching?

It is very unlikely MTSU (or any other school) would violate NCAA rules and scout an opponent's football practice. Obviously, no coaches would venture away from their own knitting to do spy work.

I love to watch practices with former Alabama players. But it has been my experience that former players are only marginally more astute practice watchers than are sports writers, who can spot a zone press or zero technique. I suspect the report of a former player watching the practice of an upcoming opponent would be disregarded by any competent coaching staff.

When Alabama went to the wishbone in 1971 it was with 100 per cent commitment. With the exception of about an hour when reporters from around the Southeast were watching pre-season practice, every offensive moment -- meetings, film study, on-the-field work -- was on the wishbone. And it had to be that way. As Coach Bryant knew, the wishbone was so intricate that it could not be a part-time offense. It was all or nothing.

Until this week, not a moment of practice was held without some sportswriter in attendance. And there has been not a moment spent on any exotic offensive scheme. (By today's standards, something like four wide receivers in a two-minute offense is not exotic.)

The wishbone is a fine offense and would work as well today as it did in the 1970s. A few schools, such as service academies, still use it. What caused the decline of the wishbone? Like so many things in football, it was the NFL.

With its money invested in quarterbacks and appealing to an audience that must be entertained, pro football would never use the wishbone. And so colleges that want to use the wishbone have a difficult time recruiting offensive players. Quarterbacks want to be in a pro-type offense. Wide receivers don't want to be in a run-oriented offense. Offensive linemen want to learn pass blocking. Running backs don't want to share the carries. All in hopes of an NFL career.

Alabama will not be a wishbone team.


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