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Alabama Football Recruiting: How has the Crimson Tide offense changed over the last decade?

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Is Alabama set to continue the passing dominance of the last two years, or will they return to their rushing roots?

NCAA Football: Citrus Bowl-Michigan vs Alabama Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

There’s been many words, observations, and opinions spilled on the changing of the Alabama Crimson Tide offense this decade, with the two major talking points being the hiring of Lane Kiffin in 2014 and the ascendance of Tua Tagovailoa in 2018.

However, any change in a team is really a reflection of the recruiting classes from a couple of years earlier. With that thought in mind, I wanted to go back and look at how Alabama’s recruiting criteria has changed in the last 9 classes.

The reason for choosing the 2012 class as the starting point is because, before that, it was nearly impossible to find any athletic testing data on the players. We could go back further to look at sizes and rankings, but I figured it was as good of a cut off as any.

Now, any individual class is subject to a lot of variance. An average isn’t much of an “average” when you only recruited one QB in the class. So, I broke up these averages into 3-year increments to track how things have changed.

Quarterbacks

QB Stars National Rank Position Rank Height Weight 40-Yard Dash 20-Yard Shuttle Vertical Jump Power Throw SPARQ z score
QB Stars National Rank Position Rank Height Weight 40-Yard Dash 20-Yard Shuttle Vertical Jump Power Throw SPARQ z score
2012-2014 3.5 417 18 75.5 215 4.91 4.4 31.5 33.5 87.24 0.86
2015-2017 4.25 161 6.25 74.6 200 4.88 4.38 30.7 36.125 83.1075 0.64
2018-2020 4.33 168 6 73.6 199 4.88 4.3 29.4 33.33 74.06 0.16

In scientific circles, that’s what we like to call the “Lane Kiffin Effect.” In the 12-14 recruiting classes, the Alabama quarterbacks averaged being in the 400s of national rankings, and then the following 6 recruiting classes saw the Tide start bring in QBs ranking twice as high as those previously. It was a massive improvement, and can be directly attributed to Alabama switching to an offense that actually allowed a QB to show out a little.

Interestingly enough, the QBs have also gotten progressively smaller and more agile, but less explosive overall.

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Running Backs

RB Stars National Rank Position Rank Height Weight 40-Yard Dash 20-Yard Shuttle Vertical Jump Power Throw SPARQ z score
RB Stars National Rank Position Rank Height Weight 40-Yard Dash 20-Yard Shuttle Vertical Jump Power Throw SPARQ z score
2012-2014 4.44 57.55 4.66 72.14 208.14 4.51 4.16 37.5 44.5 130.13 1.82
2015-2017 4.17 138 6.33 72.16 213.33 4.61 4.23 32.8 38 101.13 0.73
2018-2020 3.85 236.85 12.28 71 200.29 4.58 4.2 35.5 37.5 107.445 0.778

The 2013 class really threw things off, as Derrick Henry, Altee Tenpenny, and Alvin Kamara all were top-tier SPARQ testers, and nobody in the 2012 or 2014 classes actually posted any test results.

Test results aside, though, Alabama has clearly been placing less and less importance on recruiting top-tier running backs, and the backs they are recruiting are getting smaller. The Alabama offense has gone the way of the spread, and the running backs are becoming much more of a factor in the passing game while becoming less reliant on pounding it up the middle.

Wide Receivers

WR Stars National Rank Position Rank Height Weight 40-Yard Dash 20-Yard Shuttle Vertical Jump Power Throw SPARQ z score
WR Stars National Rank Position Rank Height Weight 40-Yard Dash 20-Yard Shuttle Vertical Jump Power Throw SPARQ z score
2012-2014 4 121 15 74.4 187.57 4.63 4.51 30.2
2015-2017 4 163 16 73.33 184.11 4.56 4.17 35.1 36.1 104.24 0.92
2018-2020 4 171 28 72.33 187 4.59 4.3 34.96 32 84.53 0.16

There doesn’t seem to be too much of a change in recruiting strategy with the pass catchers. Like the QBs and RBs, they’ve also gotten a little shorter over the decade, but aside from that, the recruiting has stayed mostly constant. Overall, it’s such a varied position that Alabama typically has some 6’3” guys as well as 5’11” guys in nearly every class.

Tight Ends

TE Stars National Rank Position Rank Height Weight 40-Yard Dash 20-Yard Shuttle Vertical Jump Power Throw SPARQ z score
TE Stars National Rank Position Rank Height Weight 40-Yard Dash 20-Yard Shuttle Vertical Jump Power Throw SPARQ z score
2012-2014 3.66 205 8 76 238 4.49 4.31 34.0 124.23 2.80
2015-2017 3.6 332 12 76.6 232 4.9 4.51 29.9 32.75 75.63 0.4
2018-2020 3.33 497 21 76.66 231 4.82 4.5 30.13 41.75 102.82 1.74

O.J. Howard was the only tight end to post testing numbers in the first grouping, so those athletic numbers aren’t exactly a representative average. If every tight end the Tide had recruited in that time ran a 4.49 forty, it would have been an arrestable offense for the Tide to not be throwing to the tight ends more during that time.

Overall, Alabama’s been fairly consistent with tight ends as well. The most interesting part is that in the last two classes, Jahleel Billingsley and Caden Clark have been elite athletic testers, though not all that highly ranked. Aside from Howard in 2012, upper-tier athleticism has pretty much never been a staple of an Alabama tight end.

Offensive Line

OL Stars National Rank Position Rank Height Weight 40-Yard Dash 20-Yard Shuttle Vertical Jump Power Throw SPARQ z score
OL Stars National Rank Position Rank Height Weight 40-Yard Dash 20-Yard Shuttle Vertical Jump Power Throw SPARQ z score
2012-2014 3.77 202 17 77.07 315.38 5.43 4.98 23.4 40 91.55 1.74
2015-2017 4.07 147 12.14 76.6 307 5.31 4.81 25 39.38 78.98 1.36
2018-2020 3.9 202 12.1 77.35 310.4 5.51 5 25.18 40.5 80.55 1.43

For the offensive line, I put all of the tackles, guards, and centers into one grouping. Most high school linemen are tackles, and Alabama typically moves half of those “tackles” to the interior anyway.

Interestingly, Alabama’s OL got lighter and faster in the middle grouping of 2015-2017 before getting bigger and stronger again starting in 2018. While we like to argue about the size of running backs being the main factor of the “identity” of an offense, does the increase in OL size mean that the Tide is looking to get away from the zone blocking schemes that Kiffin loved so much? Steve Sarkisian did go back to power runs out of the pistol more than the previous few offensive coordinators.

As a whole, the Alabama offense is clearly getting smaller at the skill positions than they were earlier in the decade, particularly at running back. They’ve also doubled and redoubled their focus on bringing in elite quarterbacks, and have also been willing to break the old “prototype” of going for the tall, statuesque 6’5” passers all the time.

While the OL and QB recruiting have improved over the years, Alabama’s overall ranking of running backs, receivers, and tight ends have dipped— particularly the running backs. No longer is this an offense that focuses on using a lead bell cow running back and tosses it to a single elite WR on 3rd downs. This is an offense that has morphed into one built to protect an elite QB that can spread the ball to anyone on the team.

And this change wasn’t an accident. It was intentionally recruited to become that by Saban over the years. So watch out, college football. The Crimson Tide’s passing attack dominance of the last two Tau Tagovailoa-led years may not have been an aberrance, but a trend going forward.