Changes Will Make the 2014 Tide One to Watch!
By: Larry Burton
I love to talk to fans, but when I really want to football, I talk to other sportswriters and broadcasters. Like me, they analyze things more than most. After watching the personnel that Nick Saban is bringing in lately along with the ones he’s courting for next season’s signing class, it’s obvious that change is coming on both sides of the ball as soon as this season.
The first change was obvious when he hired Lane Kiffin. The offense is going to have Kiffin’s fingerprints all over it. For everyone who thinks that Saban won’t give Kiffin the chance to shake things up a bit, you don’t know Nick. Expect to see more two back offenses where one is exploited as a receiver out of the backfield. Expect this offense to spread the field more and keep the defenses off balance a whole lot of the time.
In the past, there weren’t many deep shots taken, but this year, if you’re a fan of the deep ball, you’ll see more of them. Coker can throw them and Alabama has a bevy of great receivers who can catch them with speed enough to finish the job by taking it to the house.
And while Yeldon will still get the majority of the carries, the backups are just too darn good to get rusty sitting on the bench. Expect to see at least three running backs used to varying degrees this year. If you wondered why someone with the skill set of Kenyan Drake didn’t take his talent and go to another team where he would be the featured back, you only have to understand Lane Kiffin. He likes a back with Drake’s explosive quickness and while Yeldon and Derrick Henry will provide the muscle, Drake will still have his opportunities to shine and he knows it.
That’s why he didn’t leave. Well that and the fact that he’s not a quitter who shies away from competition. He’s a team guy and said so in a tweet earlier this year when he wanted folks to know that he’s not going anywhere.
And on defense, look for the 3-4 to start giving way to the 4-3 defense. While that doesn’t sound earth shattering, it is something that will be profound.
The 3-4, which has been Saban’s signature defense for as long as anyone can remember, is just not getting it done against teams with up tempo and spread offenses. Now before you write this off as the ramblings of just another writer trying to say something to get attention, all you need to do is look at the facts and the history of Saban’s decision making process.
If you listen to Saban and I analyze every word, then you know he borrowed much of his 3-4 defense from Bill Bellichick, one of Saban’s top mentors in how to do things. Well if you’ve paid attention to Belichick, he’s moved on to the 4-3 himself to help against fast paced NFL teams that feature spread type offenses. You also may have heard that on many stops of the rubber chicken tour he does after spring practice, that he’s seen the need to get faster on the defensive line.
Secondly, in a 3-4 defense, you have to have big muscular defensive ends who could play the run and be responsible for plugging a two gap defensive scheme. These bigger men work well against the run, but don’t get the sack numbers or have the raw speed to stop a fast spread offense or catch a speedy quarterback.
To convince yourself that this is something that is going to happen, look at the defensive ends that Saban has on hand and is continuing to recruit. Remember Marcell Dareus? He was the prototypical 3-4 defensive end. He plays pro football at end today at 6’3” and 331 pounds. But who is Saban lining up now for use at defensive end?
Leaner, faster, more agile personnel who can not only pressure a quarterback, but react faster and close ground quicker than the defensive ends they’ve fielded in the past. That change began perhaps when Johnathan Allen committed back in 2013. Most thought that at 260 and full of speed, he was destined to be a linebacker, but instead, he’s the defensive end of the future. Other ends may be lighter, faster and more reactive ends like D.J. Pettway (at 250 pounds) or even Da’Shawn Hand (at 260 pounds).
Those players just mentioned could play a one gap responsibility defense in a 4-3 and spend more time aggravating the quarterback. That would leave A’Shawn Robinson on the other end in most situations to be the “traditional” defensive end. At 6’4” and 320 pounds, he fits that bill. He could still play a two gap responsibility role on the strong side allowing the other end to focus more on the quarterback and backfield pressures. But unlike most other big men that size, Robinson has good “burst speed” that can create problems for an offense too.
This is how Bilichick transitioned to the 4-3 and you can bet that it didn’t go unnoticed by Saban. Such a move would mean that Trey DePriest and Reuben Foster, who were born to be attacking, blitzing, downhill linebackers which is what they seemed born to do, would fill that role in 4-3 defense. Neither is best suited for taking on blockers and filling gaps as they are responsible for doing in the standard 3-4 defense.
This change is not as radical as you would think for two reasons. First of all, Alabama has always had 4-3 formations in the playbook and have shifted into it depending on the situation for several past years by taking a physical linebacker and putting him up on the line. Secondly, the 4-3 is said to be both easier to teach and easier to learn and with the youth on Alabama’s defense, that could mean that now is the best time to start the move.
So watch for the changes and then decide if they are for the good or not. I think change can and will a good thing for the Tide this fall. But the season will play out and then it will be easy to judge.
Larry is an award winning writer whose work has appeared in almost every college football venue. Now he primarily writes for Touchdown Alabama Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/LBSportswriter