Wildcat Fad Comes To Alabama

Football historians refer to Alabama's use of "the varsity two-step" to confound opponents around the turn of the century. Not this last turn, but the one that came in 1900. In the 1970s, the Crimson Tide joined the likes of Texas and Oklahoma in the offensive craze, the wishbone.

In the 1990s, wide receiver David Palmer would sometimes be under center as quarterback, but that was tooling the offense to Palmer's unique talents, not changing the alignment.

This year's Hula Hoop of offenses is the wildcat, a formation in which a non-traditional quarterback--something of a throwback to the tailback/left halfback in the Notre Dame box or Single Wing--takes the snap from center. If the quarterback is in the game (Greg McElroy was for Alabama), he is split out as a wide receiver.

The wildcat for Alabama against Virginia Tech was tailback Mark Ingram. Although he was Southeastern Conference Offensive Player of the Week, he did most of his damage from normal formation. That damage was substantial to the Hokies. Ingram ran 26 times for a career-high 150 yards and one touchdown and had three pass receptions for 35 yards and another touchdown.

It was a bit of a surprise when Alabama used the formation on the first play of its first possession against Virginia Tech in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta last Saturday night. The direct results of the ploy were negligible, but who knows how much the use of the wildcat loosened up the Hokies. Alabama's 34 points in the 34-24 win over Virginia Tech came out of plays from Alabama's more traditional pro set.

The formation will certainly give future opponents something to worry about. That next opponent probably already had enough worries on its plate. Although Florida International is improving and may be a decent team this year, the Panthers would reasonably be expected to be out-manned by Alabama, which was ranked fifth in the nation before its convincing win over seventh-ranked Virginia Tech.

Alabama Coach Nick Saban was probably influenced by at least two factors in working the new formation into the Crimson Tide repertoire. Last spring and in the pre-season he mentioned the formation as one that a lot of teams are going to and said that it presents problems for the defense. Then, as he noted Monday, "We saw it in the NFL last year."

Some teams have adopted a personalized the offense, like a teenager calling her car "Sally." So is Alabama the "Wild Pachyderm" or the "Rogue Elephant" or somesuch?

"Wildcat," said Saban. Alabama didn't invent the concept. Alabama is using it, at least to some extent. Alabama, of course, has its own terminology for the plays that come out of the alignment.

Saban looked at it from a coach's standpoint as difficult to defend "because you create another gap on defense. The quarterback is no longer the quarterback. If we play man-to-man (pass coverage), nobody has the quarterback. Now you put him out as a receiver and put a tailback in there, you have created another gap to defend on defense to run the same plays that you normally run. By using the motion gaps or speed sweeps, at least keeps the people on the perimeter honest.

"Everybody is developing ways to try to defend this, but I also think people are expanding what they do in this, more and more, that if you're not defending the middle of the field properly, they are going to have some things they can do to take advantage of that. Ole Miss has always been able to do that. They could do it at Arkansas."

Saban mused that "Defenses may catch up to it."

Saban said Alabama did not work on the offense until fall camp started. "We thought it was an easy adaptation for certain things we do," he said. "We're not as far along as we want to be to make it as effective as it could be. We'll continue to work on it. It also gives the (opposing) defense something more to prepare for. I think we have some players it will enhance their abilities. But we have a lot of work to do on improving it."

Saban didn't say who besides Ingram (if anyone) might be used in the position.

Ingram was understandably pleased with the formtion. "I was pretty excited," he said. "It's a way for us to get the ball to some of our more explosive playmakers, put them in different formations and give them a different look. I was pretty excited about it."

Ingram was mum on what might be expected from the position. "We practice a lot of things and then the coach decides which ones we use," he said.

Are there others who could play the position. "It depends," he said.

One Alabama defensive player likes Bama using the wildcat on offense.

"We know how hard it is to defend," said linebacker Cory Reamer. "I didn't expect to see it on the first play. It's a different look for us. I think it's going to help our defense to have an offense that can run it since we're going to see it down the road."

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