“If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” goes the old saw.
Or, in Nick Saban’s case, if a position has underperformed, and another team has given you absolute fits with scheme and talent at that same spot, then you open up the ‘Bama Piggybank and the Saban Coaching Tree cachet to bring someone along who can match it.
In this case, it may be a little of both, as Alabama has hired a dedicated coach to solely mentor tight ends — a first for Nick Saban, where some combination of WRC. OLC, or STC has traditionally split those responsibilities.
Meet 35-year-old Joe Cox, the former Georgia quarterback beginning to carve out a career as a tight ends specialist.
After a year of watching Billboard whiff on blocks, run bad routes, and drop wide open passes, it is probably as necessary a hire as this iteration of Alabama could have possibly used. This is an offense with so much raw unpolished talent on the outside, one that has had problems in pass pro; and it is also one that could greatly benefit from pressure being relieved on the outside. The fewer times that Bryce has to run for his life before unleashing a no-hoper against a bracket on a slow-developing route, the better.
As usual, news of the hire didn’t really touch on Cox’s work product. So, that’s what we’re here for. That and the snark.
So, what does Cox really bring to the table? Let’s look at recruiting, for a start, especially Colorado State’s results. It is a story that is perhaps best told by looking at what CSU did before his arrival, the kind of coach Cox has worked under, what the Rams did after his arrival, and what happened after signing McBride.
The first thing to know is that Cox is a Mike Bobo and Mark Richt disciple in every sense of the word. He comes from a lineage of pro offenses, two- and three-wide, power backs, and ace sets. And those offenses were lethal, particularly in getting the ball over the middle and working the seams. Alabama and Georgia routinely alternated having the league’s best, balanced offenses during the heyday. Georgia’s balance in particular was envious: Outstanding running games, physical lines, and great passing games where every piece on the board was a legitimate weapon.
Cox recruited a lot of depth pieces in his stops at Colorado State, Charlotte, and South Carolina. But one in particular stands out — both in identifying a gem and in developing him: Trey McBride. Just the 67th ranked TE in the country, the 6’4” 240-pound three-star McBride had been offered a commission in the Naval Academy, as well as several scholarships at Power 5 programs. McBride somehow convinced Trey to decline that commission, forgo a public ivy education that Justin Wilcox was offering at Cal, and come to a team that had won five games in its last two seasons.
What ensued was nothing short of remarkable. After spending a year in S&C, McBride burst on to the season as a true sophomore, hauling in 45 passes for 560 yards and 4 scores. The following year, McBride would be the team’s leading receiver. In particular, McBride excelled at settling into zones, using his athleticism to his advantage, and moving the sticks. He vaulted from an unknown, to a legitimate NFL prospect.
Those 45 catches are productive, for sure. But what makes it more impressive is that CSU had been awful at the position before Cox’s arrival. But over a four-year stint, the TE group was polished more and more, and undertook a greater role in the offense, going from just 23 catches the year Cox arrived to hauling in 53 by the time he left. Targets went from 2.3 per game, to 4.8, and drops were reduced from 1.6 per game to 1.1.
His production was just as good at Charlotte. The 49ers went from 19 catches by tight ends to 35. And there were no guarantees of playing time either. Cox subbed in five tight ends last season, four of them were freshmen. If a player could get on the field, they got the playing time. Refreshing after a certain season of entitlement, huh?
The year before, when Steve Addazzo was let go and Cox found himself back in the Carolinas at USCe where Will Muschamp was wasting a world of talent, Cox again did not hesitate to play young guys. Three TEs saw action in 2020: Two were freshmen. And, he turned little-used Sr. Nick Muse into the Gamecocks’ second-leading receiver. In tandem with USC’s improved offensive line, the Gamecocks became a lot more balanced, physical team that were leaps and bounds better on a YPC basis and on 3rd downs.
It is a thin body of work, to be sure. But it is also a promising one; a young career marked by very good identification of raw talent, development of the roster, a lack of favoritism to upperclassmen, and increased productivity in run and pass schemes.
His ability to coach tight ends against the zone cannot be overestimated either. Young is going to increasingly see them until his field awareness hesitancy improves. It is only off by half a second, sure; but, that half-second is a lifetime when tight ends aren’t helping out the quarterback. And it can get you beat when you most need to move the chains.
Call it a return to Alabama’s roots. Call it Nick Saban taking a gamble an a young coach. But all signs are pointing to a far more physical, deliberative pro scheme in 2022 — and this is but one of a series of hires meant to remedy all of the ugly warts that plagued the 2021 Alabama Crimson Tide.
In case you missed those, we’ve covered all four of the Tide’s new hires over the last several weeks. They’re worth a read.
Offensive line coach, Eric Wolford
Special teams coach, Coleman Hutzler
Cornerbacks coach, Travaris Robinson
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