Unsurprisingly, the quarterback competition at Alabama has been perhaps the most discussed position battle in the country this preseason. Also unsurprisingly, Nick Saban has stuck to his normal talking points when asked about what the coaches are looking for in their offensive leader: some combination of winning the locker room, managing the game, limiting turnovers, taking what the defense gives you. All of those are prerequisites to getting the keys to the offense - after all, you can’t lead if others won’t follow and you can’t win if you give the ball away. For today, let’s assume that any of the prime candidates can meet those criteria and focus instead on what an explosive runner such as Jalen Hurts can bring to the Alabama running attack.
From day one, offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has heavily utilized run-pass option plays, or RPOs. These plays are designed to give the QB an option at the snap to hand the ball off on what is typically a zone run or throw a quick pass based on a read of a single defender. Alabama has had quite a bit of success with these types of plays, but for whatever reason have not used the QB as a running threat. This was particularly surprising in 2014 with the dynamic Blake Sims at the helm, leaving many to speculate that Blake was either banged up or that the coaching staff was being overly cautious in protecting him.
In any event, let’s take a look at a couple of plays from last season that highlight just how a dynamic running threat at the QB position can impact the Alabama running game. We’ll start with a first-half inside zone read (IZR) against Mississippi State:
A couple items of note: first off, take a look at the Bulldogs’ alignment. There are eight men in the box and packed tightly in effort to limit the running game of Derrick Henry. They were fairly effective in this regard, as evidenced by the paltry 34 yards of offense in the first quarter. Alabama ultimately won this game by busting some big plays, but in general the Bulldogs were a feisty bunch that gave Alabama problems offensively. Second, notice that Richard Mullaney is completely uncovered in the slot. The safety at the top of the screen is sending out an SOS, but neither the Alabama QB nor the Mississippi State coaches seem to notice. As we will see below, this play appears to be an RPO featuring a shallow cross paired with the IZR. If so, this ball should go to Mullaney for a big gain. It did not. Moving on, let’s take a look at the snap:
It is generally easy to distinguish a zone run from a designed gap run based on the first step of the offensive line. As you can see in this cap, the entire line takes a “zone step,” blocking at about a 45 degree angle to the right, in unison. Depending on where defenders line up, some may start with a combo block then move to the second level, but the idea is to get the entire defense moving in the same direction and allow the RB to find daylight.
Note that O.J. Howard, who had been lined up at H-Back on the play-side, is coming across the formation at the snap. Typically, the back-side defensive end tends to crash on this play because Alabama’s QB rarely “pulls” the ball from the mesh and runs it himself. Howard is usually tasked with blocking him toward the sideline to help create a cut-back lane for Henry. On this particular play, however, Howard bypasses the DE and Coker is actually going to keep the football. This may indicate that the keep was pre-determined and not actually a read by Coker. We will never know. Regardless, the pull is the right choice here:
As you can see, at the mesh point, the defensive end has crashed hard, inside Howard. Coker pulls the ball, the end wraps up Henry, and Coker has plenty of daylight to the top of the screen. An explosive runner may well take this to the house. Howard even gets a great seal block on the outside LB:
A player who is accustomed to running the football and has a bit more speed and quickness than Jake bounces this to the outside and runs to the pylon. Alas, Jake is a little slow in reading the block and runs into traffic instead:
He still makes a nice gain, but there is no question that between the coverage bust on Mullaney and the wide open field outside the hash, this play was a missed opportunity and an example of how the offense, at times, made things harder on itself than necessary.
Next, let’s take a look at another inside zone, this time from the first half of the Ole Miss game:
As on the previous play, the line is going to take its zone step to the right, and this time Dakota Ball will come across the formation and actually block the back-side end. Let’s have a look at the mesh read:
As you can see, #4 is biting hard on Henry right away. This screams “pull” read. For whatever reason, Cooper Bateman decides to give the ball anyway. The line blocks it up well and Henry gains four yards, but this is again a missed opportunity for much more. Watch #15, the second level defender at the bottom of the screen :
Like #4, he too bites hard. As in the previous play, a QB who is a dynamic runner and a bit more comfortable in this type of system probably scores. Here is an example of one of the best, Marcus Mariota, making a quick read to pull then finishing with his vision and speed:
Note just how close some of the defenders are here. If he hesitates at all at a couple of points in the play, he ends up with something less than the touchdown he earned. A QB who is accustomed to, and has been successful in, a purely read-based system can not only run, but he is also instinctive and sees things quicker. These types of QBs are often compared to point guards on the basketball court. This isn’t intended to suggest that Bateman couldn’t be that type of QB, but indications are that he hasn’t been asked to be.
Lastly, let’s take a look at Jalen Hurts executing an IZR in high school:
Besides the obvious explosiveness, there is a certain confidence here. Jalen not only pulls the ball fearlessly, he utilizes a pitch fake to move defenders, finds the open space and walks to the end zone. In short, he makes it easy on himself by taking the wide open field that the defense is offering him.
Obviously, high school football is a far cry from the SEC. The game is exponentially faster, the defenders bigger, smarter, and more explosive. Still, adding a pure threat to take the ball out the back door and do damage adds several elements. First, it eliminates the need to block the back-side defender since he is forced to stay home and honor the QB. This would allow Alabama’s H-Backs to stay on the play side and either add an extra blocker or another pass threat on the front side, meaning that the zone runs would be even more successful. Of course, there is also the benefit to requiring a spy in the passing game which creates more single coverage outside. We have already seen Jalen flash an arm that is plenty strong enough to push the ball down the field. He is a great athlete, but he is no running back masquerading as a QB.
We don’t know yet if Hurts is going to be the answer for the team this season, but it is exciting to think about the extra element an athlete of his caliber, who has played extensively in this type of scheme, could add to the offense.