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Vote for the RBR All-Saban Team: Offensive and Defensive Coordinators

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The ultimate scapegoat of any failings by any given team, the coordinators have a tough job. But Alabama’s had some of the best.

NCAA Football: SEC Championship-Alabama vs Florida Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve finally finished up voting for the players on RBR All-Saban team, and now we just have to decide who will be calling the plays. Obviously, there will be no vote on the head coach, considering this is the All-Saban team.

The rules for this voting process are fairly simple, but also they absolutely will not be totally consistent. I’m making them up as we go and each position will be handled differently. I will choose the top candidates for spots on the All-Saban team, and different members of the RBR staff will present their argument to you as to why his player coach should be considered over the others. There is no criteria on the type of argument, so anything from stats, to important plays, to NFL performance is fair game.

First up, we have the offensive coordinators. Obviously, none of them ever unleashed the secret weapon of the tight end quite to the level we as fans wanted, nor have any of them #RTDB appropriately.

For this exercise, we’ll be leaving out a few of the candidates. Doug Nussmeier led the most balanced and (pre-Tua) efficient offense of the entire era, but his, uh, untimely mid-game play-calls soured fans to the point that I have no illusions he’d fare well in a vote, even if I think he’s mostly unfairly hated.

Major Applewhite’s dreadful 2007 offense is grounds for disqualification on the spot, and Mike Locksley and Brian Daboll didn’t stay long enough for us to get any sort of idea if we like them.

The same could be said of Steve Sarkisian... but I really like Sark and am thus including him.

Roger on Jim McElwain:

Jim McEIwain was hired as offensive coordinator at Alabama on February 1, 2008 and held that position for four years. During those four seasons the Tide won two National Championships with a perfect 14-0 season in 2009 and the 21-0 beat down of LSU to claim the 2011 title.

McElwain joined the Tide staff after one season as OC/QB coach at Fresno State, following stints at Eastern Washington, Montana State, Louisville, Michigan State, and the Oakland Raiders. The Tide played a different type of football in those days, relying heavily on the running game, play action passes, and elite defense and McElwain was perfect for the times. None of the other candidates can boost of the accomplishments of the Montana native.

McElwain left the Tide prior to the 2012 season to become the head coach at Colorado State. After three seasons and records of 4-8, 8-6, and 11-2, Mac was named head coach of the Florida Gators. Florida went to the SEC Championship Game in the first two years of McElwain’s tenure before things went south and the third year coach was shown the door after a bizarre set of circumstances involving alleged death threats toward the McElwain family. After a year at Michigan as the wide receivers coach McElwain was named head coach at Central Michigan where he remains until this day.

With two championships in his four years, I feel that Jim McElwain deserves strong consideration for the role as offensive coordinator on the All Saban staff.

Roll Tide

Believe in the process

BamaBrave4 on Lane Kiffin:

Come on, boys, we all know who you have to roll with on this one.

Nick Saban’s historic tenure at Alabama will forever be known as being divided into two parts. From 2007-2013, the Crimson Tide was the amalgamation of everything Saban had learned over the course of decades being involved in the game of football. That era was peak-Saban philosophy: dominant on both sides of the line of scrimmage, huge, powerful linebackers, big, tall corners and safeties, an efficient game-managing quarterback, and running the damn ball like it was artwork. The offensive philosophy wasn’t exactly “run-run-pass”, but it wasn’t far off from it. Multiple tight end sets, I-form looks, tons of traditional play-action, etc.

However, the game of college football was changing all around him. By 2013, the “Hurry Up, No Huddle” had become rampant. Just about every team out there, especially the ones trying to beat the Tide, were running versions of the spread. Most of them were reliant on exploiting loopholes in the rule-book to introduce an element that Saban had spent decades trying to prevent: chaos. Saban got so frustrated with the way the game was changing, he infamously asked in a presser, “Is this what we want football to be?”

The answer, from the rest of the country, was a resounding yes.

So, Saban evolved. He got lighter, yet faster, on defense. He simplified his defense just enough to allow guys to get set quicker and play faster. And he hired Lane Kiffin to modernize the offense.

Kiffin did just that. As soon as he arrived in Tuscaloosa, he turned career back-up and former running-back Blake Sims into a household name and an All-SEC performer at quarterback. Utilizing more spacing, implementing deeper, more developed passing routes, playing with tempo, creating more favorable one-on-one match-ups, and being more aggressive with his play-calling, Kiffin got Amari Cooper to New York as a finalist for the Heisman trophy. That’s a rare feat for a wide receiver in today’s world.

The next season, with Cooper and Sims both gone, Kiffin adapted. “Run Henry Left” became the bread-and-butter as Kiffin next sent Derrick Henry to New York, this time to claim the 2015 Heisman. All he did was set the SEC record for rushing yards in a season. But Kiffin didn’t implement the run game for Henry the same way previous coordinators at Alabama had. It wasn’t just lining Henry up in Ace formation with 12 or 21 personnel and running between the tackles all day long. Kiffin added elements of the “smashmouth spread option” that Urban Meyer had popularized, even with a quarterback who wasn’t exactly fleet of foot in Jake Coker.

Those elements would pay off in a big way in Kiffin’s final year in Tuscaloosa, when he was tasked with working with yet another new quarterback: true-freshman, Jalen Hurts. Kiffin was unable to get the 19 year-old to New York for the Heisman, but Hurts did end up winning SEC Offensive Player of the Year, despite his obvious limitations as a passer. He was able to accomplish this because Kiffin A) implemented a complex running scheme that relied on Hurts’ legs and his ability to run read-option and B) went all-in on utilizing the run-pass option to put defenders in conflict and make Hurts’ reads extremely easy to execute.

In three seasons at Alabama, Kiffin simply led the Tide to three straight SEC Championships and was on the cusp on winning back-to-back National Championships before his, well, untimely departure just ahead of the 2016 National Championship game. You know, the one where the abhorrent offensive play-calling left that legendary defense on the field to defend Deshaun Watson and company for 100 plays?

Kiffin certainly had his off-the-field baggage, and he fell in love with his creative play-calling sometimes when simply running the damn ball was all that was necessary, but this isn’t even a debate in my mind. Kiffin revolutionized the way the offense was run under Nick Saban. The Tide went 40-3 with him calling plays. Imagine if he had been able to call plays for Tua Tagovailoa and the offense the past two seasons? You would have been seeing a lot more of this:

Brent on Steve Sarkisian:

Sure, Sark took a lot of flak for that 2016 national championship loss to Clemson. Of course, he also had only just been allowed to be on the field with his players for a couple of weeks before the game, was trying to make things work with a QB that was eventually benched, and was working with two running backs with nagging injuries and the top running back breaking his leg mid game... And still scored 31 points and held the lead with only two minutes left in the game.

Well, two years later, he came back to Alabama to take over from Mike Locksley, who had just overseen the emergence of an Alabama offense based on the explosive arm of Tua Tagovailoa.

And what did Sark do? He made it better. Tua improved on all of his stats from the prior season and saw Alabama go from no 1000-yard rushers in 2018 to Najee Harris grinding it for nearly 1300 rushing yards (plus another 300 as a receiver).

But hey, those are only counting stats, and can be falsely inflated by pace of play, right? Chew on these numbers from the 2019 Alabama offense:

#4 nationally success rate, #5 passing success rate, #1 rushing success rate.

He wasn’t just some guy who forgot the run game. On top of that, it was consistent across all downs and distances:

#3 success rate on 1st down, #10 on second downs, and #3 on third downs.

And lest you think all those success rate numbers meant they were taking easy short yardage plays, check these out:

#3 in yards per play, #3 in yards per pass attempt, and #4 in explosive play rate.

That is total, across the board, offensive domination.

And he did with Tua Tagovailoa missing the last quarter of the season. Sark did a great job calling plays for Tua that allowed him and all the receivers and running backs to play to their strengths despite there being so much talent that any normal football team would wind up with disgruntled skill players not getting enough attention.

But the true mark of his brilliance as a coordinator is what he did after Tagovailoa went down. Sark calmly put in a back-up QB, changed his playbook to fit Mac Jones’ strengths as a passer, and hung 45 points (well, 38... one was a kick return TD) on what was considered to be a top 5 defense in Auburn before they gave up so much to Alabama in that final game, before following that up by putting up 35 points on a top 25 defense in Michigan.

Again. With a back-up QB.

Sark’s legacy is still being written. If he can continue his success in 2020 in a full season without Tagovailoa, then he’ll without a doubt be the best of the bunch.

Poll

Who was Nick Saban’s best offensive coordinator?

This poll is closed

  • 16%
    Jim McElwain
    (88 votes)
  • 74%
    Lane Kiffin
    (393 votes)
  • 8%
    Steve Sarkisian
    (44 votes)
525 votes total Vote Now

Next up, we have the defensive coordinators. This is basically a two-man race between Kirby Smart and Jeremy Pruitt. I don’t think anyone is going to be beating down the gates for the single-seasons from Kevin Steele, Tosh Lupoi, or Pete Golding.

Here’s Josh’s thoughts on the race between Smart and Pruitt:

Debates over coordinators are always difficult. You have so many variables, from whether he is asked to coach a position in addition to his coordinator duties to how involved he is in the playcalling to how well his team recruits and develops players. Discussing the merits of defensive coordinators under Nick Saban is even more challenging, because we know that the defense is his baby and he still has his eyes, ears and hands on everything. Indeed, many of the concepts Alabama runs today, the Rip/Liz pattern match in particular, were developed in that room in Cleveland way back in the early 1990s. While Saban has been incredibly adaptable for someone who has been as successful as he has, things are always going to be done his way on the defensive side of the ball.

Still, we are here to decide on the All-Saban team, and there are two potential DC candidates in Kirby Smart and Jeremy Pruitt. Once again, this is going to come down to what one values. Both men learned their craft under Saban, though it could also be said that Pruitt learned under Kirby for three years as the defensive backs coach. If not for some of the shenanigans after leaving town, Kirby would probably be a no brainer here. Not only did he coordinate four of Saban’s five national championship defenses and put a ton of guys in the NFL, he left Jeremy Pruitt with one of the most talented, experienced defensive rosters in college football history for the 2016 season. Seriously, folks, take a gander at this lineup.

Every one of the starters were drafted in their respective classes, five of them went in the first round, the top four members of the secondary are all key starters on NFL teams and have already amassed four Pro Bowls. They finished as the top defense in the country that season by most every metric. The key question is, who gets the bulk of the credit?

Jeremy Pruitt was the coordinator in 2016. He called the plays, but when you think of not only the pure talent but also the veteran leadership on that squad, wouldn’t most any semi-competent coordinator have had the top defense? Pruitt had been gone from Tuscaloosa since 2012, so it was Kirby and his position coaches who recruited and developed all of that talent, under Saban’s watchful eye, of course. Was that a matter of having better position coaches, or did Kirby do a better job of leading and managing them?

Now, the 2017 season is most certainly a feather in Pruitt’s cap. While he still had plenty of returning talent including Hand, Payne, Evans, Wilson, Harrison and Fitzpatrick, there was significant turnover and the injury bug bit early and often. Alabama still had the top defense in the country that season, despite some late season struggles after losing both inside LBs. They were given a second chance after losing at Auburn and took home a national championship.

When compared against its peers, the Alabama defense has still been very good the past two seasons, but it hasn’t stood alone at the top as Alabama fans have been accustomed. This goes back to the Smart vs. Pruitt debate. How much credit does Kirby get for leaving a cupboard for 2016 that was full of developed veteran talent, and how much blame does Jeremy get for leaving something less than that? After all, the combination of Tosh Lupoi and Pete Golding had to choose between a true freshman and a JUCO transfer to start at corner opposite Trevon Diggs in 2018, and there was nothing but true freshmen behind them. The depth in the front seven wasn’t really there, either. Was this merely happenstance, or were the two years of Jeremy Pruitt short on recruiting and player development? If the latter is true, was that Jeremy’s fault or was he held back by lesser assistants under him?

This is always a spirited debate, and the fact that Pruitt put up two number one defenses and very nearly won two straight national championships as a playcaller will undoubtedly earn him some votes, particularly when one of those championship units was so injury riddled. Kirby will get plenty of credit for his role in building the dynasty and for his playcalling, but he also gets his share of venom from the Alabama fanbase these days, much of it well-earned.

This should be an interesting vote.

Poll

Who was the better defensive coordinator?

This poll is closed

  • 48%
    Kirby Smart
    (251 votes)
  • 51%
    Jeremy Pruitt
    (271 votes)
522 votes total Vote Now