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Thursday, January 17, 2013
Offseason storylines: A changing offense

By Alex Scarborough

Editor's note: The season is over and the Alabama Crimson Tide are national champions yet again. But what happens next? TideNation examines the most pressing storylines of the offseason as the Tide gear up for another title defense.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It's not that Alabama's offense wasn't effective. It's not that it didn't have home-run capability before. But in the last year coach Nick Saban and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier have taken it to another level. The Crimson Tide, once thought of as a "three yards and a cloud of dust" operation, are finding more and more big plays in the passing game.

How? Well, if you can't beat them, join them, right?

Saban has long lamented the onslaught of spread offenses in college football, taking shots at the wide-open, peddle-to-the-metal tempo they employ. He has openly questioned whether the defense being unable to substitute players was fair and invited a national conversation about offenses averaging upward of 50 points per game.

AJ McCarron
With dynamic pass-catchers coming on board in 2013, AJ McCarron could see a bigger emphasis on the passing game.
"I just think there's got to be some sense of fairness in terms of asking, Is this how we want football to be?" Saban said.

His comments during a midseason SEC teleconference came on the heels of a lackluster performance against Ole Miss on Sept. 29, when Alabama gave up scoring drives of 13 plays and then 16 plays. When the Rebels got a first down and could force the tempo on offense, the defense was quickly thrown for a loop -- out of breath and out of position.

So, rather than fight, Saban and Nussmeier have decided to use tempo to their advantage. In the second half of the season, Alabama routinely went no-huddle to start games and at the end of quarters.

And with an experienced quarterback in AJ McCarron, a dynamic set of receivers in Kevin Norwood and Amari Cooper, and an offensive line that could handle the pressure, more often than not it worked.

"Well, you know, I think if you look at college football in general, that's a growing trend, no-huddle offense, speed, hurry-up," Nussmeier said. "As any game you play, the ability to change the tempo of the game offensively and defensively can create a competitive advantage for you, if it's useful in the game you're playing."

If there's one thing Saban is fond of, it's creating a competitive advantage. Like New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, he's constantly after a mismatch he can exploit. So when he got the tools on offense, maybe it was just a matter of time before Saban stopping lamenting the spread and decided to embrace it.

"I think AJ, we certainly have to build the team around him," Saban said. Have you ever heard the 61-year-old head coach say the team centered around one man, let alone the quarterback? After winning the national championship, he's changed his tone. "I've talked a lot about it's difficult to play quarterback when you don't have good players around you. I think we should have, God willing and everybody staying healthy, a pretty good receiver corps. We'll have to do some rebuilding in the offensive line. Regardless of what Eddie [Lacy] decides to do, we'll probably still have some pretty decent runners. But I think AJ can be a really good player, maybe the best quarterback in the country next year."

Alabama's receiving corps should allow Saban and Nussmeier to open up the offense even more. All three starters (Cooper, Norwood and Christion Jones) return, as do a talented supporting cast. Former starter DeAndrew White will be back from a knee injury that cost him most of the last season, Kenny Bell's broken leg has healed and Chris Black's shoulder is back to 100 percent. Throw in Cyrus Jones, Marvin Shinn and the No. 1 receiver in the 2013 class, Robert Foster, and McCarron will have plenty of targets to throw the ball to.

But the key to it all is Cooper. The fab freshman is on pace to break all of Julio Jones' records at Alabama, and it's with good reason. The Miami native can go up and get the football.

"One of those freakish freshmen that you get every once in a while in a class," McCarron said. "You can't say enough about Coop. He's been an outstanding player for us this year. He's helped our offense grow a lot in the passing game and be able to, I guess, spread the ball out all the way across the field. He's helped us tremendously."

If you're looking for the next step in the offense, look to the position of H-back. Granted, it's not a new position under Saban, who has used it at Alabama and with a great deal of success at LSU. But finding the right fit in Tuscaloosa has been difficult. There's been no Jacob Hester in crimson and white, a dynamic playmaker who is just as adept running the football as he is catching it, a bruiser who is both powerful and light on his feet.

In running back Jalston Fowler and 2013 signee O.J. Howard, Saban may have found the men for the job. Fowler, at 6-foot-1 and 242 pounds, fits the mold physically. He has deceptive athleticism and would have been an option at H-back had it not been lost for the year with a knee injury against Western Kentucky.

Howard, who might end up at tight end by the time he puts on more weight and his career at Alabama is finished, will likely start out H-back. The four-star prospect from Prattville has the potential to be something special. In the mold of an Aaron Hernandez or a Jimmy Graham, Howard is one of those athletes constantly described as "freakish" in nature. He's 6-foot-6 and 225 pounds, yet he has the quickness and agility of a receiver. In short, he's the kind of matchup nightmare Saban is looking for.

As McCarron enters his senior season and the number of weapons he has in the passing game increases, the question of where the offense is headed continues. While it's unlikely Alabama will ever abandon the running game -- there are too many weapons there, too -- a change in direction philosophically isn't out of the question.

Saban is touting his quarterback as the best in the country. Is he looking to put the game in his hands to prove it? Does that mean a more uptempo offense? Does it mean more four- and five-wide receiver sets? Does this mean Alabama's first 3,000-yard passer? And what does it mean for the H-back? Are we looking at the dawn of a new age at the position in Tuscaloosa? The Alabama offense has always been effective, but is now the time it takes the next step and becomes dominating?