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Imagining a Jalen Hurts-Alabama offense

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NCAA Football: Alabama Spring Game Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

There are increasing rumblings coming out of Tuscaloosa that the Alabama coaching staff might do the unthinkable and start a true freshman quarterback in 2016.

Per Terry, it would seem that early enrollee Jalen Hurts has a legitimate chance to actually win the job over three other contestants. If he’s not starting against USC in the opener there’s a chance he’ll be starting in the postseason.

Alabama under Nick Saban has long been known for slow, grudging acceptance of the newer trends in modern college football. They fought tempo, long eschewed the spread, and always played trustworthy veterans at the quarterback position that Saban could trust not to ruin their chances at winning with defense and the run game through risky passing.

It’s been a rewarding process for the Tide, yielding four SEC titles and four national championships. But as I’ve been chronicling over the last two years, the process has been adapting.

Inserting a true freshman into the starting lineup at the ultimate decision-making position would be the ultimate pivot for Nick Saban. Here’s a glimpse at the kind of quarterback play that Alabama has been known for in the Saban-era to this point:

Saban has never started a quarterback at Alabama that wasn’t at least in his third year in the program. What’s more, his quarterbacks have always shown a clear preference for taking sacks over throwing interceptions as evidenced by nine years of excellent INT rates combined with sack rates that have rarely been impressive.

The proto-typical example of this pattern would be the 2010 Rose Bowl where Saban secured his first title at Alabama with a win over Texas. Greg McElroy dropped back to pass 16 times in that game, five of those occasions ended in sacks, six ended in completions that went for 58 yards (5.3 ypa), and none resulted in turnovers. Meanwhile, Mark Ingram and Richardson combined to run the ball 41 times for 225 yards (5.5 yards per carry) and four touchdowns.

That used to be the plan in Alabama, avoid turning the ball over and let the process do its thing. However, that has always left Alabama just partially vulnerable to teams that could also play defense and one-up the Tide with explosive, dynamic offenses led by more aggressive quarterbacks. Nick Saban ultimately determined he needed an ace up his sleeve to trump opponents that could score on his vaunted defense and he began targeting dual-threat Texas signal callers like Hurts.

Now with reports out of camp that the more veteran QBs on campus can’t pull ahead, it appears Saban may be ready to go ahead and upgrade to Alabama 3.0 and install the Hurts program. Here’s a glimpse into how this transformation could play out:

Alabama 2.0, featuring Blake Sims

Before Lane Kiffin took over the Tide offense in 2014 they were basically a “pound the ball with inside zone, take shots with play-action, occasionally drop back” kind of team. Lane Kiffin changed that by de-emphasizing their double tight end sets, utilizing a third receiver more, installing Sims at QB, and integrating run/pass options (RPOs).

Handling Alabama’s increasingly terrifying speed at receiver while simultaneously needing to get defenders into the box to stop their always terrifying backs was difficult for their opponents. Kiffin’s use RPOs and spread sets made that a regular challenge for their opponents.

Just adding a bubble screen on the outside to their normal inside zone running game presents major challenges to opponents. Here’s Florida trying to use their middle linebacker to address the threat of both the inside run and the bubble. Naturally, he can’t handle that conflict:

Alabama has three on two to the bubble and it goes predictably well for them despite iffy blocking from the receivers.

Here they are mixing in a bubble on the weak side to hold Ohio State defenders while also utilizing Blake Sims’ running ability on a power-read play:

Now safeties are having to make tackles as close to the line of scrimmage as possible, which can lead to breaks in discipline and play-action opportunities down the line.

In 2015 Alabama lost the ability to mix in QB runs with Jake Coker at the helm but were still able to use the threat of quick throws and bubble screens on the outside to create space for Henry to do work. A Heisman trophy followed and when aggressive teams in the playoffs dared Alabama to beat them with those quick throws they were able to oblige.

The ability to accurately read the defense to know where the numerical advantages are is the most important part of this style of offense. After that comes the added dimension of the QB running game.

This is only a part of the Alabama offense, which still features some traditional run game, traditional play-action, and plenty of dropback passing game. However, it’s a lethal component that has helped take the Tide offense to another level.

Alabama 3.0, featuring Jalen Hurts

The world got its first glimpse of Hurts in the Alabama offensive system at the 2016 spring game when he took a lot of snaps. There were times when he closely resembled many of the quarterbacks that had gone before him, making the safe play and occasionally taking sacks to avoid risky throws:

In fairness to Hurts, he probably gets away from your average pass-rusher there but Rashaan Evans is a special kind of talent. Evans plagued Hurts with his pass-rushing and coverage range most of the day, in fact. You might keep an eye for that linebacker as a breakout performer in 2016.

Mastering certain concepts in the dropback passing game will be important for Hurts in winning the job, for instance Alabama loves to use the “smash” combo (featuring the seven route) to get after quarters coverage.

Hurts still needs a bit of growth here as the placement on that ball isn’t excellent, although again most weakside linebackers don’t get into that passing window like Evans does here. The read and timing is all pretty good, the Alabama defense just isn’t much fun to practice against if your accuracy isn’t NFL-level.

Presumably Hurts has made strides over the offseason to be in position to play in 2016. His major obstacle to starting will be mastering the above concepts and throwing with accuracy both on dropback passes and RPOs so that his speedy receivers can turn upfield easily after the catch. When those skills are complete, then his legs can really become a factor.

The most obvious way he can add another dimension to the Tide offense is with the scramble:

Hurts has real acceleration of the kind that can really burn an opponent on third and long when they thought they had everything covered up. Alabama’s rollout play-action game also comes alive when the quarterback is comfortable on the move and can tuck and run if the defenders all play off.

When you add his running ability to the RPO game though things can really take off.

One way in which Alabama’s RPO attack becomes more deadly is when they can add a zone-read element to punish teams for covering down on the bubble screens and quick passes outside.

Normally teams would block that field side end but with Hurts threatening to pull the ball on a zone read the Tide could instead double team both defensive tackles and potentially climb a guard up to that strong safety if he dropped down to help out. Even in the SEC there aren’t too many safeties that like to try and beat blocks by advancing guards.

The middle linebacker is in a great deal of conflict here even if he chooses to stay wide to try and deny the bubble route because he could then be asked to make a tackle on Hurts in space.

Back in the Sims, Alabama 2.0 days they used to really burn single-deep safety teams by mixing in some zone-read elements to their RPO game.

Another nasty side effect of Hurts’ running ability is how it could free up explosive tight end O.J. Howard to do more route running and less blocking. Last year the Tide often used Howard to execute trap blocks on defensive ends to open up cutback lanes for Henry between the tackles.

Howard didn’t excel in this role, although clearly he did more than well enough to allow Henry to devastate opponents with this concept. However with Hurts around to help control that DE via the option, Alabama could afford to send Howard out on routes more often to complement their inside zone and power runs rather than just using him as a blocker.

On this play for instance, few things are better for forcing a safety to play tentatively then threatening to run a seam route past him for six points if he comes downhill too aggressively. The Tide could even set it up by having Howard block him the first few times before giving him the slip when Kiffin felt he was getting too nosy.

No doubt there are also some Wildcat-style, single-wing runs that Kiffin might utilize in the red zone or on third and short. Just by running Hurt (who’s already 210 pounds) 5-10 times a game on designed runs the Tide could completely change how opponents defend them.

In addition to his strong arm and scrambling abilities, Jalen Hurts opens up a wide world of possibilities for Alabama’s offense if he can master the normal “avoid interceptions” routine while adding in some running ability.

This Tide offense captained by a dual-threat quarterback that has to be accounted for in the game plan on top of their numerous explosive receivers and typically devastating traditional run game is a nightmarish hellscape for the rest of college football. No doubt that is partly why Nick Saban seems willing to break tradition and get the party started early.