During games this season, I continually lamented the four areas where the Tide were an erratic, inconsistent team — and often a fundamentally not even a good one: Corners, special teams, playcalling (and we will have more on that later, promise), and especially on the offensive line.
Without reliving in gruesome detail every nightmare that was the Alabama offensive line in 2021, let me just throw these numbers out for you so that you can grasp some sense of the scale of the disaster we witnessed.
- For just the second time in a decade, and only the 3rd time in Saban’s 15 years, the Tide offense did not hit 5 YPC on the ground.
- Alabama’s 4.11 YPC was almost as bad as 2007’s 4.01 YPC average. And, its 150 YPG rushing output was barely better than the 2007 team that was held together with duct tape (149.2). Last season was the second-worst rushing output of Saban’s Tuscaloosa tenure.
- Alabama allowed 105 TFL, the second-worst of Saban’s career. (In some fairness, that is somewhat to be expected with a freshman QB playing. Still, only Jalen Hurts 2016 team allowed nearly as many, 107).
- Those 105 TFL were the third-worst in the SEC in the last decade. Nationally, it would place Alabama 127th, just ahead of Arkansas State, Kent State, and Southern Miss — who had a combined 12 wins.
- The Crimson Tide allowed 42 sacks on the season, which was 120th in the nation. It’s 2.73 sacks per game were 104th nationally.
- Those 41 sacks? It was the 4th worst showing by any SEC team in the last ten years and easily Saban’s worst. Alabama had only allowed more than 20 sacks twice in Saban’s career, and never more than 32. Excepting the 32 and 41-sack outliers, Alabama had allowed an average of 21.3 sacks per year.
- F’n Auburn.
What I’m saying is that Doug Marrone absolutely sucked at his job. And, just as other failsons have been encouraged to seek other opportunities, Doug Marrone was kicked back to the NFL’s derpy pasture (seriously, when was the last time you saw Saban hire another coach while the current one was still on staff?)
Just as the corners are getting back to the Alabama identity, and as the special teams units is striving to correct deficits, so too does the most recent hire seem to reflect that Saban wants a return to Alabama’s identity in this particular area: a mauling offensive line.
Enter the mercenary, Eric Wolford.
When I say mercenary, I mean that in the traditional and best sense of the word: someone who comes in to do a difficult job that others are unable or unwilling to. The quintessential gun for hire that gets results.
In his 25 year career, Wolford has coached lines everywhere from Emporia State (KS) to the G5 to Illinois to Arizona to South Carolina and most recently Kentucky...and even with the San Francisco 49ers — 8 schools and 1 NFL franchise in 25 years, mostly in one- and two-year blocks
Did we also mention that he was was a head coach at traditional FCS power, Youngstown State, where he took over a rebuilding Penguins program and led them to three straight national rankings and two playoffs?
In fact, his longest stint at any place other than Youngstown was in Columbia, South Carolina, where he was initially on Steve Spurrier’s staff for a season, and then came back for another three years with Will Muschamp (2017-2020). When Boom, was fired, Mark Stoops leapt at the opportunity to grab a smashmouth OLC and brought him on board with the Wildcats this season.
At Kentucky, the Wildcats improved by a half YPC and added an additional 8 TDs to the fine job the outstanding 2020 team had done up front. But it his work at South Carolina that was simply brilliant and which is probably the better comparison here. The Gamecocks went from averaging 3.6-ish YPC prior to Wolford’s arrival, to leaping up almost a full yard per carry, and finishing 5th in the SEC in YPC. For his USCe career, the ‘Cocks netted 4.61 YPC. That may seem unimpressive, but one must look at where USC came from to see the improvement.
Wolford’s impact was particularly noticed in keeping the Gamecocks ahead of the chains and giving their mediocre quarterbacks clean jerseys. In 2016, South Carolina had allowed an SEC-worst 41 sacks. In 2017, after Holman was hired, the ‘Cocks allowed just 25, and were in the top 5- or 6 of Pass Pro every season.
Tackles for loss also improved. In three of four seasons at USC, the Gamecocks were in the top half of the conference, and nowhere was the jump more pronounced than in Season One: 2016 USC had 102 TFL, the year before he was hired. In 2017, USCe had just 73. By Season 3, USC had jumped all the way to third in the conference in prventing negative plays — just 60 TFL.
And so on down the line — you can do this for almost a quarter-century. No matter where Wolford went, the offensive lines got nastier, they got more physical, and they kept teams ahead of the chains.
That is the improvement fans want and that Nick Saban demands. It also is just the recipe for a Crimson Tide offense that lacked identity most of the season; one that played as soft as they looked; one that had an offensive line lacking cohesion, continuity, personnel evaluation, discipline, coaching...and even fundamental toughness.
For that Alabama offense, one shaking off the filth of literally the worst hire in Saban’s history (and I will defend this point), then a mercenary is just what the doctor ordered.
Have gun, will travel. Welcome to Tuscaloosa, boy are we ever glad to see you.
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