New Tide Coordinator McElwain Looks Ahead
Nick Saban had put together his first Alabama football staff in reasonably quick order after being hired in early 2007. Saban has a history of assistant coach turnover, and it could be that the bigger surprise was not that Applewhite resigned to return to his alma mater, Texas, but that the young coach was the only loss from the staff. Saban did two major things regarding his on-the-field staff at the end of last season. One, he made sure that he kept the defensive staff intact. Two, he hired an experienced quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator to replace Applewhite.
Jim McElwain came to Alabama from Fresno State. Although he had been at Fresno State for just one season, he was given great credit for the turn-around in that program's offense as the Bulldogs went from a 4-8 record to a 9-4 mark. McElwain's offense averaged 419.5 points and 32.9 points per game in 2007 after having averaged 338.2 yards and 23 points the year before. Fresno State lit up Georgia Tech for 571 yards and 40 points in beating the Yellow Jackets in the Humanitarian Bowl. McElwain's Fresno State quarterback, Tom Brandstater, was ranked 23rd in the nation in passing efficiency. A year before he had ranked 89th.
The announcement that McElwain would be going to Alabama was made in an unprecedented press conference called by Fresno State Head Coach Pat Hill, who used the forum to publicly thank McElwain for the impact he had on the Bulldogs' success.
Saban doesn't allow his assistant coaches to be interviewed except in rare cases, usually once a year or so for the coordinators. Sunday was one of those days and McElwain addressed his role at Alabama. Saban has mentioned on numerous occasions that the offense isn't getting a wholesale makeover, but rather being tweaked. He has been very complimentary of McElwain's performance. The head coach also frequently has mentioned McElwain's experience as a quarterbacks coach in the NFL with the Oakland Raiders.
Specifically in the offense, McElwain is responsible for quarterback play, and that was the topic of much of the new coach's appearance before the media Sunday.
"I'll go ahead and tell you there's a pretty good chance John Parker Wilson will be our quarterback," McElwain began.
Wilson is slated to be Bama's starting quarterback for the third consecutive year. He owns many Crimson Tide passing records and is expected to have all Bama passing marks when his career ends. On the negative side, Wilson's teams have been mediocre, a 6-7 record under Coach Mike Shula in 2006 and a 6-7 record last year. Wilson will be working under his third offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in as many years (Dave Rader having been in that post under Shula).
McElwain said Wilson "has been fantastic to work with." The coach dismissed any comments on Wilson's performance prior to McElwain's arrival. "What I try to do is rip off the rear view mirror," McElwain said. "I can't answer any questions about what was. I can answer questions about what I expect to happen, and in JP's development, I have been very happy with the time he spent and the things he's done in the off-season. He is someone who really cares about Alabama football and a guy who is doing everything he can to help us win games this year. I'm very proud of him, and I look forward to working with him as our relationship grows."
McElwain acknowledged the circumstance of being Wilson's " third voice. I've been in this situation before. That is a hard thing for the quarterback because even though changes aren't big, nuances are. And in this offense we've been very fortunate in the past to put up some decent numbers and do some decent things. But at the end of the day it's all about wins and losses. If we have five yards of offense and win the game 3-0, it's the greatest game in the history of football because we won. And that's what the bottom line is, trying to win the football game. I'm not caught up in a lot of the stats. I'm not a stats guy; never will be a stats guy. Stats will fall where they do. The key is to figure out a way offensively to combine your defense, your special teams and your offense into one unit to win the ball game."
Although he wasn't specific, he said he expects other quarterbacks behind Wilson to develop, and "I feel we're going to be able to have a little bit of depth there."
McElwain said, "My mindset is that it is our responsibility to make sure that we are efficient in what we do; get the ball out of our hands; get rid of any turnovers and we put the ball in the end zone. Is that going to happen? Time will tell. I'm not necessarily looking forward to the Clemson game. We're looking forward to today's practice; looking forward to trying to win every play and every drill."
Of his reputation as "quarterback friendly" and having a "play-maker offense," he compared it to getting the ball into the hands of the best shooter in basketball. He said, "We'll do some disguised formations, some motions, some shifts to uncover a guy that needs to touch the ball. It's pretty simple when it all boils down. If you've got a playmaker or a couple of playmakers, and in some cases you are really fortunate to have multiple playmakers, (your goal is) how to figure out what they do best and then put them in situations to be successful.
"When we talk about the quarterback position, I think sometimes as coaches we force them in to systems. What's a system? It's our responsibility as coaches to find out what these players do best and put them in situations to their advantage as far as how they feel comfortable. So part of building a system is around the players you have. And so I don't know where the ‘Quarterback Friendly' term came from, but he'd better throw completions."
More than offensive strategy, it is likely that McElwain's philosophy appeals to Saban. He said, "Number one is to be physical and make sure that the team that you're playing knows that they had better bring their lunch because we're going to come after you on every play. When we hit the field, you're in for a long day. Number two is in a game of football and a game of life there are ebbs and flows. What we try to do is preach the fact that we've got to stay on a level surface. We can't get down. We can't get up. What we have to do is do is have a ‘win this play' philosophy. And what I mean by that is in the game of football, if you're lucky you get 65-70 offensive plays, that's 70 individual events that occur in the game. The key is to win the majority of hose individual events. Now you have a chance to be successful and win the ball game. So the idea is ripping off the rear view mirror--what happened on the last play--and not letting it affect your play because you've got to go out and win the next play."
McElwain told a story about his selection by Saban. He said he didn't know there was an opening at Alabama and when he got the call "I thought it was some of my buddies messing with me." He said he hung up. If so, Saban got back to him. McElwain said the offer came as a "total surprise." He noted that Saban and Hill were friends from their days of being assistant coaches with the Cleveland Browns, and Saban said that played into the decision.
Saban said, "Jim has a very good background, in terms of knowledge and experience and the people he has been with. That's always something we take into consideration when we hire anyone. He did a fantastic job as Fresno State. Pat Hill and I used to coach together with the Cleveland Browns, so we have a pretty good relationship. Sometimes, those kinds of guys that you have relationships with that you coached with before are the guys that you get the kind of recommendation from that you have faith, trust and confidence in. I think Jim has done a fantastic job since he has been here. He has an excellent personality. The players like him. I think we have more diversity on what we do offensively, without changing the whole ball of wax to make it difficult for the players. His positive energy and enthusiasm as been a real asset to the organization as well as his knowledge and experience, I think, is going to be helpful, in not only utilizing our personnel, but in how we plan and prepare for games."
Most coaches agree that football success is much about players. Does Bama have enough playmakers? McElwain said, "There are guys who have individual skills that some do some things better than others. It is still in progress. Those 15 days—it's amazing in the pro game you've got all these (open days), you're with these guys all the time. So you are able to kind of develop a little more personality of who these guys are and what they can do. So this is really an important training camp because it's an evolution of the 15 days we had. And, have those guys all come out? I'm not going to put a name on anybody because it's still a discovery stage. The thing we've got to do right now is make sure conceptually everybody understands their role - everybody understands what we're trying to accomplish. And at that time it's amazing how playmakers kind of emerge."
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