Tua or Jalen? That question was all the rage from January up until September. But what if the question really should have been “Tua and Jalen???”
If you didn’t ask that to yourself, don’t feel bad. Most everyone assumed it was a dichotomous choice— one to which the consequences of either would be season altering. In the realm of mortal football coaches, that would be a perfectly acceptable and reasonable way of viewing things. But Nick Saban is not a mortal football coach. He went beyond the “or” and created an “and.”
In two of Alabama’s last three games, we’ve seen both Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts trot out onto the field at the same time in back-to-back plays. If you’re counting, that’s four plays in total, and each one has shown a different element.
The first was a jet sweep to Hurts out of the slot. Then Tua lined up in the slot and Hurts ran a simple QB draw. One game later, Hurts lined up in the slot again and took the handoff on an identical jet sweep, except he pivoted around and then ran a reverse roll-out and tossed the ball to the tight end 10 yards down the field. On the very next play, Hurts ran a quick slant and made the catch for 5 yards.
Now, every single opponent for the rest of the year knows in the back of their minds that Alabama has the ability to use a dual-QB formation, and they know that the Tide won’t be limited to just certain kinds of plays.
About a decade ago (has it really been that long now), the Wildcat formation was the hottest thing around since global warming. However, it ultimately met its demise because of one major flaw: predictability. When you put your running back to take a direct snap, the opposing defense knew that it was going to be a run play, whether by the back or a receiver coming around on a jet sweep.
For the same reason, specialized running backs were a fad that died out earlier this decade. If you’re always going to put the big back in to run up the middle and the small back in to run sweeps, all you’re really doing is telling the defense what play you’re going to run. Which isn’t a good thing. Just ask Auburn:
Against Tennessee, the personnel Auburn had on the field seemed to be a very clear sign about what the play was going to be. As Rodgers pointed out, with a fullback or tight end on the field, Auburn ran the ball or threw a screen pass 74 percent of the time. With no tight end or fullback, the Tigers threw the football 91 percent of the time.
This is where play calling moves up into another dimension. You stop calling plays for just that specific moment and begin thinking about how one play call affects another later on. Eventually, this becomes a scheme, and, at the highest level, a coaching philosophy.
The idea is that you have certain plays that always work on the whiteboard against the defense you hope to see — the pass play that always works against Cover 3, the run play that works against the 4-3 under with out the linebackers cheating inside. Yes, it is what works on paper. But we don’t live in a perfect world: the “constraint” plays are designed to make sure you live in one that is as close as possible to the world you want, the world on the whiteboard.
Constraint plays thus work on defenders who cheat. For example, the safety might get tired of watching you break big runs up the middle, so he begins to cheat up. Now you call play-action and make him pay for his impatience. The outside linebackers cheat in for the same reason; to stop the run. Now you throw the bubble screen, run the bootleg passes to the flat, and make them pay for their impatience. Now the defensive ends begin rushing hard upfield; you trap, draw, and screen them to make them pay for getting out of position. If that defensive end played honest your tackle could block him; if he flies upfield he cannot. Constraint plays make them get back to basics. Once they get back to playing honest football, you go back to the whiteboard and beat them with your bread and butter.
This is a piece I came across years ago and have used the terminology of “staple” and “constraint” plays ever since. Give it a read, then come back with your newfound knowledge.
So, application time: How does Nick Saban properly utilize a Tua/Jalen package without it being predictable?
First, you have to establish staples. Plays that will be effective against a normal defense and don’t really depend on trickery or getting defenders out of position. That would be letting Tagovailoa line up at QB like normal, and running a normal play, like a slant. Whether that be to Hurts or to another receiver will depend on defensive coverage. Alabama has done that once now. You also have to establish the same thing with Hurts lined up at QB and Tagovailoa at receiver. In this case, Hurts ran a QB draw— a staple of Alabama’s offense in 2016 and 2017. Though he will still have to establish that he can act as a normal QB in this formation.
This doesn’t have to be all at once. Just a few plays in succession every game should be enough to make it a valid personnel grouping, rather than just a trick formation, by the time the end of the season rolls around. That’s when you can start implementing a constraint. Say, like the jet sweep reverse pass that Hurts ran against Missouri. Or a double pass.
Speaking of double passes, this is where the game theory starts getting fun. In a vacuum, the staples and constraints would be the same for every team. However, Jalen Hurts has a reputation as a dynamic playmaker who can also throw the ball, which will make defenses play him differently. I imagine that every single opposing defender is just waiting on Hurts to take a few steps backwards to set up that double-pass. It’s in the back of their minds. It’s the expected trick play.
So how can Alabama use that? A secondary expects that double pass to be a deep shot, so they likely will be dropping to stay deeper than the WR, while a linebacker or two, plus the flats or man corner, will crash on Hurts as soon as they see the screen being set up. Where does that leave the biggest hole in the defense? Probably the midrange center-to-backside of the field. Tua Tagovailoa could pump fake the screen while a couple of linemen run out towards Hurts. Meanwhile, tight end Irv Smith, Jr. can run a seam route from the backside to clear out any traffic, and either running back, Damien Harris or Josh Jacobs, can leak past the line of scrimmage behind where Smith just vacated. As soon as Tua completes his pump fake, he can turn and toss it up to the waiting running back, who now has an easy 15 yards with a chance at getting more with the right open field moves.
Then after Alabama does that once, the actual double pass will suddenly become more likely to be effective, since a defense will be worrying that it might not actually be that play. That split second of doubt is all it takes in the game of football for wide receivers Jerry Jeudy or Jaylen Waddle to sprint past the safety for Hurts to lob one down the field to them.
Or, maybe we never see the package again. It all becomes a big mind game. Or is it? Ultimately, the best way that Alabama can use both QBs together is to treat that package just like any other: run regular plays— runs and passes— regardless of the personnel. Get other teams used to the fact that Jalen Hurts can, in fact, play receiver fairly competently. Then, once they begin to start playing fundamental defense, rather than expecting a trick play, you hit them with one.
Of course, that’s when this all becomes one big game of predicting other people’s thoughts and actions. And that’s why Nick Saban gets paid the big bucks.