Alabama fans have, almost collectively, been waiting for two years for Bill O’Brien to vacate his position of offensive coordinator for the Crimson Tide. When it was announced a couple of weeks ago that he was going back to the NFL to join the New England Patriots, there was universal rejoicing in both fanbases (seriously, New England was an absolute circus at the spot last year and BoB is a big upgrade).
Then, things went silent. There was some speculation that Garrett Riley from TCU might be the guy, but he jumped on the Clemson job well before O’Brien leaving was ever official. At the beginning of last week, Alabama and Nick Saban went through a flurry of interviews, and the first name to be leaked out was Ryan Grubb, the OC for the Washington Huskies. Grubb wound up flying back to Seattle without the job though, and happily announced his desire to stay.
Rumors abounded on Twitter, and people all confidently knew that either Grubb turned down Saban’s offer, or confidently knew that Saban never offered him. Regardless of who turned who down, rumors along the interwebs seem to indicate that Grubb wanted to make some major changes to Saban’s offense, and Saban wasn’t a fan.
For my part, I can see it. UW (and Fresno before that) made Michael Penix into a very, very good QB with an explosive passing offense. It was a fun offense to watch, no doubt. For Alabama fans, it would remind them a lot of what we saw for one year with Mike Locksley, just with less running. Lots of one-read lay up passes interspersed with deep shots and deep mesh routes. Regardless, I think Grubb’s lack of a focus on being able to run the ball tanked things.
Then there was Jeff Lebby, the Baylor disciple who’d been the figurehead for Lane Kiffin’s offense at Ole Miss before jumping to Oklahoma last year. It’s a spread option system that focuses on power running, counter runs, pre-snap motion, horizontal space plays, and using all that misdirection to get seams, wheels, and deep crossers open for chunk gains and space to run. And it’s an offense Saban is intimately familiar with, as he ran it from 2014-2016, as well as Steve Sarkisian’s twist on it in 2019-2020. In fact, even the other years in there (2017, 2018, and 2021-2022), Saban kept most of those Kiffin concepts interspersed in there with what the other new OCs brought.
The big problem with Lebby, though? The baggage. Saban’s been notorious for resurrecting coaches (Kiffin, Sarkisian). But those were coaching failings and personal demons... Lebby, though, was specifically named/accused as a coach compliant in the attempted cover up of the sexual assault and rape charges at Baylor. Ultimately, while his offense would have been a great fit, Lebby himself was not. And I’m personally very happy for that.
Saban also apparently talked to Akron head coach, Joe Moorhead. The former Mississippi State head coach also runs a fairly similar scheme to what Alabama ran under Kiffin, with a big focus on the quarterback as a legitimate part of the rushing attack. However, it sounds like Moorhead wanted to stay as a head coach, so things ended there.
Then we got the name Tommy Rees.
The Notre Dame play caller was, at first blush, an underwhelming hire. The Golden Domers have been a solidly above-average offense in three years under Rees, but its been far from special or explosive by any means. Couple that with him seemingly being the 4th option with the order in which names leaked out over 3 days, and many Tide fans have, understandably, felt like Nick Saban settled for mediocre.
Our own Erik Evans quickly jumped to the more advanced metrics to give us a story of what the Notre Dame offense was over the last three years, and it’s... Okay. Seriously, go give that a read if you didn’t on Friday.
Erik mostly focused on opponent-adjusted per game and per drive data, so I spend some time checking out more per play metrics just to try and get a more wholistic story.
If you’re interested, feel free to check out my spreadsheet comparing his three years to each of Alabama’s 2016-2022 offenses. I like to compare it directly to what we all saw at Alabama during different seasons.
Some observations I thought most interesting:
- Rees’s 2020 and 2022 seasons look pretty similar. Success rates were good, explosiveness was generally underwhelming, but there was some respectable explosiveness on passing plays on standard downs. The offensive line did some nice work in the run game and short yardage. And they overall avoided negative plays pretty well.
- 2021 was different. Explosiveness and points skyrocketed (seriously, their overall explosiveness was better than all but the 2019 and 2022 iterations of Alabama’s offense). But they were worse at running the ball, much less consistent, and took a lot of negative plays and getting stuffed.
- 87% power success rate in 2020 is absolutely phenomenal. And 3.3 line yards (a metric that qualifies how well the offensive line creates room for running backs) in 2020 and 2022 is quite impressive, and would be a marked improvement over the 2.9 Alabama had last year
- Open field yards (a metric that mostly reflects skill players doing good things on their own in space) in 2022 was horrendous... About the same as Alabama in 2021. So the fact that they even had an above average offense with such little YAC from their receivers down the field is impressive on its own right.
- The big red flag, though is the passing downs success rate: consistently 34-35% in all three years. For perspective, we saw Alabama struggle more on passing downs under Bryce Young the last two seasons (mostly on the road) and that was about a 40% success rate. What Rees had at ND in all three seasons is equivalent to the Jalen Hurts 3rd down offense in 2016 and 2017.
So, to put these three seasons into some context, I wanted to look at Rees’s QB each season, the receiving talent, and the running backs they had.
In 2020, he inherited Ian Book as a 3rd-year starter. Book was a bit of a freelancer with some running ability and scattershot accuracy (Dollar General Johnny Manziel-type) but was briefly considered a Heisman candidate under Rees, and ultimately ended up as a 4th round NFL Draft pick. He also had a phenomenal do-it-all running back in Kyren Williams, a Northwestern transfer receiver Ben Skowronek (who’s now getting actual playing time with the L.A. Rams), and 5-star freshman tight end Michael Mayer. The bulk of the offense ran through Kyren Williams that year, and Mayer had a major impact as ND’s best recruit of the last 5 years or so.
in 2021, they brought in graduate transfer Jack Coan from Wisconsin. Coan, a former 3-star QB, had been a starter for the Badgers’ pro-style vertical passing attack in 2019, but missed 2020 with a foot injury and then transferred to ND. With Coan, Rees no longer had any semblance of a rushing threat from his QB, but he could be counted on to pass accurately down the field, and the offense adjusted accordingly. Kyren Williams continued to keep the offense moving, but Coan pushed the ball down field often to the sophomore TE, Mayer, and jump ball specialist receiver Kevin Austin, a 4-star recruit who is now on the Jacksonville Jaguars squad.
In 2022, Rees recruited top-100 QB Tyler Buchner to be a true dual-threat, and he wound up messing up his collarbone in week 2, leaving ND to turn to long-time backup and former low 3-star Drew Pyne. Pyne was fast enough to get some yards on occasional QB keepers and could make some throws, but struggled mightily with aiming anything downfield. The passing game pretty much turned into the Mayer show, as most plays were designed to get the ball to their superstar TE in the 10-15 yard range. Braden Lenzy, a former cornerback and track star, got a decent bit of use as a speed sweep and screen guy.
The running backs really drove things, though. Even with Kyren Williams off to the NFL, Audric Estime came in as a 4-star, 230-pound bruiser of a back who looked a whole lot like Bo Scarbrough as he busted his way through defenses for nearly 1000 yards on 6 yards per carry. 3-star Logan Diggs had 820 yards with him, and Chris Tyree, a converted receiver, got another 450 rushing yards, often as part of 2-back packages.
I say all of this history of Notre Dame’s to make a few observations:
- Rees changed his offense each year based his QB. When Ian Book was there, it was a strong focus in running the ball with a lot of scramble drill passing routes. With Jack Coan, he went more pro-style, running to set up deep passes. And with backup Drew Pyne, he went to a multi-faceted rushing attack supplemented with easy passes to his star TE and horizontal passes. That adaptability is something Nick Saban values, as he’s often mentioned over the years how his offenses change to match his QB.
- The common denominator in each of those three seasons: He focused on Running. The. Ball.
- In each year, the offense was designed to spam plays to their best player: Kyren Williams or Michael Mayer (with Estime in 2022). Another thing we’ve heard Nick Saban speak about often in the past is his belief that offensive playcalls do not matter as much as just making sure your best player gets the ball. I think this was a major factor in the hiring decision as well.
With those three bullet points, I think I understand why Rees was chosen as Alabama’s next offensive coordinator. Those qualities— adapting the offense to your QB, making the run game a focus, and making sure the offense is designed to get the ball in your best player’s hands— Mark the three big things Saban wanted. They also match what we saw in the Kiffin and Sarkisian systems, and also likely would have with Lebby and Moorhead as the OC (they had non-scheme reasons for not getting the job). And also explains why Grubb, despite his success at UW, was not a fit.
With that, I then went back and watched all the snaps of 6 of Notre Dame’s games last season, with the goal of getting a good understanding of what scheme he runs, his favorite formations, route concepts, and tendencies. And, despite working with a very, very underwhelming QB, I came away impressed in quite a few facets, and think most Alabama fans are going to be pleased with this offensive scheme.
First thing’s first, this offense goes through the run game.
It is not, however, a stuffy harkening back to 2006. It’s a highly modern spread rushing scheme focused on power runs, counters, pre-snap motion, and multiple potential handoff candidates on any given play. In fact, think about what Ole Miss has run under Lane Kiffin the last couple of years with Jerrion Ealy, Snoop Connor, Quinshon Judkins, Zach Evans, and Matt Corrall/Jaxson Dart, (or, honestly, Alabama in 2016 with Jalen Hurts, Bo Scarbrough, Damien Harris, and Josh Jacobs) and you’ll have a very good idea of the rushing scheme you’ll see with Tommy Rees.
It’s variable, it’s powerful, it’s well-spaced, and, it is coherent. And after two season of feeling like the RB and the OL were operating on totally different timings and only called to use up a play until it was time to pass again under BoB, I am absolutely ecstatic at the thought of our run game having this level of dedication to it.
There will be multiple backs involved often, and they’ll be asked to do work as receivers and lead blockers for each other on any given play. The receivers will be in motion, and they might at any time work horizontally to get yards to the edge (again, think Calvin Ridley on all those jet sweeps in 2016. That will be coming back, to a lesser extent)... And more importantly, they WILL be expected to lead block on the edges.
In short yardage, Rees was highly successful throughout his tenure at getting yards with pure power runs with 9 men on the line of scrimmage, but he mixed up just often enough out of the same formation with quick outside runs or other fake-like plays that it continually kept defenses off their game in those situations. Again, music to Alabama fan’s ears.
Now, on the other hand, we have the passing game. With this part, I think there’s some very legitimate risk that Nick Saban is taking on (but there is a path to a lot of upside). For the most part, the passing game is focused on a few concepts that will remind NFL fans of what Sean McVay did with the L.A. Rams back when noodle-armed Jared Goff was the QB (instead of Matt Stafford), and, again, will remind Alabama fans a lot of 2015-2016 Alabama under Lane Kiffin.
Most early down passes will always be paired with playaction, and there’s going to be a lot mesh/crossing routes at the 10-12 yard depth and flats paired with QB boots. Easy throws to complete, and a QB with good accuracy paired with fast receivers (neither of which ND had in 2022) can make them into routes that get a lot of YAC. For deeper passes, there will be some flood concepts with a medium crosser and a deep post running the same direction with a boot, and there will be a lot of smash concepts (two WR stacked on one side, one either does a curl or quick out, and the other will do a fly/fade down the sideline).
The TE should be very involved as a primary target on those 12-yard crossers. And, while Alabama likely doesn’t have anyone that can do quite as much as the superstar Mayer (likely top-15 NFL pick) did with option routes and seams, it is exciting to see if he can get that position involved even at 60% of the production Mayer had at ND.
The running backs will also be extremely involved, as they’ll often be starting snaps in motion and will do a LOT of wheel routes and angle routes out of different motion types and blocking fakes.
What we haven’t seen much of from Rees at ND in 2022 was a coherent plan on pure dropback passes on passing downs. In fact, he often still ran the ball on 3rd and 5-9 yards to go. Some of that was, of course, due to even those running plays being more likely to do something useful than Pyne, and Rees’s playcalling reflected his lack of trust. But that in itself also reflects a lack of confidence in his own passing plays there.
We aren’t going to see many high level downfield concepts (daggers, switch routes, seattle combos) like Alabama did under Tua Tagovailoa and Mac Jones, unless Saban can integrate that type of passing game in with Rees’s current playbook. Similarly, everyone’s favorite RPO slant wasn’t really something we saw much at all under Rees, though, again, Saban kept that one around even through the BoB tenure and likely will make sure Rees learns how to coach it.
So, with all of that, I went into Friday not knowing who Tommy Rees was, and, two days later, am legitimately excited.
It’s not a hire without risk, for sure. He’s extremely young and only has three seasons of experience. And the lack of an explosive downfield passing game could be extremely detrimental if Alabama finds themselves down a score or two in tight games (think how many games they would have lost the last two years without some Bryce Young comeback heroics).
On the other hand, Rees is, without a shadow of doubt in my mind, going to bring a much more imaginative and powerful rushing game to the Tide, and that in itself should keep Alabama in a better position in most games than they often were the last two seasons.
For Saban’s part, I think he’s hiring Rees specifically for that improvement in the run game and banking on his own experience with Kiffin and Sarkisian’s passing concepts and Alabama’s significantly superior speed at WR to bolster Rees’s inexperienced areas.
Run the ball, stay creative, and get easy throws to playmaking receivers with space to run. It’ll be a change from the Bill O’Brien/Bryce Young years, but much more aligned with 2014-2020 Alabama offenses.
And, considering the amount of frustration I felt over the last two seasons, I find myself very, very excited for that, even with the potential for failure involved.
Now let’s go get a great defensive coordinator.