LITTLE ROCK — Interpreting the turnover in Tuscaloosa, the why takes precedent over the who.
From afar, Nick Saban’s decision to replace Doug Nussmeier with Lane Kiffin says the Alabama coach wants to tweak an offense that, for years, has been pretty much a tailback-oriented power running game with the quarterback under center. In the past three years, did A.J. McCarron ever run the ball on a designed play other than a quarterback sneak?
Can it be that Saban wants more shotgun formation, more quarterback involvement, and more tempo? If so, does he believe Lane Kiffin will be more adept at expanding the offense than Nussmeier?
If a change in philosophy is in the works, recent on-field happenings provided some of the impetus and concern about the future contributed.
The 2012 national championship team lost only to Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel. The 2013 team finished the year with consecutive losses to shotgun quarterbacks Nick Marshall and Trevor Knight of Auburn and Oklahoma. The offensive emphasis of each team varies, but up-tempo is a common thread.
The ripple effect from the Auburn victory is that Saban must recruit against Gus Malzahn who has a sexier offense to sell to skill players who perceive Auburn’s style to offer more big-play opportunities.
To me, it seems that Saban’s hiring of Kiffin is an unspoken concession that it is very difficult to beat the Auburns and other talented go-go teams by scoring 17 to 21 points and relying on defense to do the rest. The Alabama defense is predicated on making changes once the offense comes to the line of scrimmage and there’s no time for that vs. the hurry-up.
Based on the profiles of the quarterbacks on campus, it does not appear that Alabama has recruited a dual threat. Redshirt freshman Cooper Bateman is typical — 185 yards rushing in two years in high school and 3,500 yards passing. A couple of others are described as "pro-style" quarterbacks which means hand off to the tailback and throw from the pocket.
Although Arkansas coach Bret Bielema has not said a word about expanding the role of his quarterback, redshirt freshman Damon Mitchell ran for 1,000 yards and threw for 2,000 his senior year and incoming freshman Rafe Peavey ran for 53 touchdowns and passed for 54 TDs in high school.
Weekly, whether in college or the NFL, a big play results from a quarterback’s mobility. If not for two Alabama defenders abandoning Sammie Coates to corral quarterback Marshall, Chris Davis would not have had the opportunity to return a missed field goal 109 yards.
Although Nussmeier is going to get a raise of $150,000 or so at Michigan, I believe Saban was okay with the move, whether it was initiated by him or Nussmeier.
Kiffin has a reputation as an excellent play caller, but he cannot escape the trail of debris from his work as a head coach with the Oakland Raiders, Tennessee, and USC, all before the age of 40. Still, as coordinator at Alabama, he won’t be available to the media more than a couple of times per year.
Incoporated in the announcement of Kiffin’s hiring were several sentences from Saban, most of them pretty standard — similar to what Bielema said when he hired Rory Segrest to coach Arkansas’ defensive line. But, Saban got my attention with his description of Kiffin as a "creative offensive coach." To me, that says change.
If Alabama does speed up, Saban’s October 2012 comments about the no-huddle being a threat to player safety will be re-examined. Later, he said his remarks had been misinterpreted.
"I don’t mind playing against no-huddle," he told the Houston Chronicle. "I just asked the question, ‘Is this what we want the game to become?’ That’s for you to answer."
Kiffin on the sideline signaling go-faster would be the definitive answer.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau.