Alabama’s Offense – The 2016 Preview

The Bama Lighthouse is proud to be back for our 6th year of blogging about the Alabama Crimson Tide! Our staff has been on a hiatus for the last few months but now we are all champing (yes, champing – our crack research staff verified the correct usage of this idiom) at the bit to get started covering the 2016 season. We of course know that coach Nick Saban magically cobbled together SEC championship teams with Blake Sims and Jake Coker at the helm, but we at the Lighthouse humbly submit to you that the 2016 season will be one of Nick Saban’s most challenging seasons to date. But more on that in a moment…

First, the Lighthouse wants to pause for a moment and give a shout out to Tony in San Diego! Our crack staff has been deliriously dancing naked in the streets ever since Tony referenced the Bama Lighthouse on the nationally acclaimed and globally distributed Paul Finebaum Show on January 8th of this year! Tony – we can’t thank you enough for the shout out on the Finebaum show and for reading the blog!

In all honesty, I write all these articles simply because I love to do them. They are time consuming and, rest assured, I certainly do not get paid to post them. To date, the site hasn’t made the first dollar. I don’t mean “netted a dollar” – I mean it’s never received any payment of any sort at any time. Our “crack staff” is me and me alone (though we do have a ghost writer – the Notorious PAB – who breaks down the statistical numbers game in a witty and informative way) so the many hours of work that goes into each article are mine and mine alone, as well. Until January 8th, I’ve just done it for the love of the game and for the positive feedback you guys provide. But, I have to say, selfishly I was pretty dang giddy about the mention on the Finebaum so we thank Tony from San Diego for providing the coolest moment of the blog so far!

But, you guys didn’t tune into this site to hear about us dancing naked in the streets (thank God we haven’t integrated Periscope into the site). No, you guys and gals came here to get the goods on Alabama football and we promise to deliver once again. Let’s take a look at our season preview for the 2016 version of Alabama’s offense, shall we?

Alabama on Offense

This season, Lane Kiffin is miraculously returning for his third year at the helm of Alabama’s offense. After leading Alabama to an SEC title and playoff appearance with Blake Sims, Kiffin outdid himself by bringing home a national title with Jake Coker! Kiffin has simply been outstanding. From his ability to develop young quarterbacks to his uncanny ability to call plays (and signal touchdowns at the snap of the ball), Lane Kiffin has been a godsend for the Alabama offense. Between his successes on the field and the multitude of vicious “extra-curricular” rumors off the field that came out last year, we at the Lighthouse thought for sure that, one way or another, the Fast Lane would be headed out of T-town shortly after the national championship victory over Clemson. I mean the team even left him behind at the stadium for goodness sakes! At first we thought Kiffin would get one of the many college head coaching gigs that emerged last season and then it seemed certain that the Lane Train was headed to San Francisco to unite with Chip Kelly as his offensive coordinator. However, neither was the case and Kiffin returns once again this season and has yet another opportunity to mold another first year starting QB into a viable national championship contender.

Perhaps Lane’s greatest strength as a coordinator and a play caller is his ability to feature his top playmakers in every offense he’s ever led. In 2014, Kiffin found every way possible to get the ball to Amari Cooper and the resulting Sims to Cooper air raid combo was nearly unstoppable. In 2015, Kiffin took to the tundra as his ground assault rode Heisman Trophy winner (and general beast of a human being), Derrick Henry, to a national championship. As we said, Kiffin has long been known to feature the best players on his squad so you should expect Calvin Ridley to break more than a few records this season. But, there are a significant number of challenges that Alabama’s offense will have to overcome before Ridley can ever get the ball. First, the snap has to be flawless and that will be a challenge for a first year starting center (although this may have been remedied with the move of Bozeman to center). Then the blocking up front along the OL has to hold up – yet another challenge with four new OL starters. And, before the new QB, whoever he is, flings the first spiral, his brand spanking new RBs will have to be able to pick up a blitz. Then and only then can the ball be thrown in Ridley’s direction. Oh boy, that’s a lot a lot of unknowns this season. Here’s the position by position outlook for the Alabama offense…

Quarterbacks

Did you skip down to this section? If you did, shame on you! But, hey, we understand. The QB position is THE most talked about position on the entire football team so of course you wanted to skip down to find out what the deal is at QB this season. But, before we get into the QB nitty gritty, we must reiterate (I mean, since you skipped down to this section we must reiterate) that the RB and OL are just as questionable/inexperienced if not more so than the QB position this season. There. I feel so much better now that you got the message. Ok, on to the QBs…

Cooper Bateman is the equivalent of hitting a six iron off the tee to the fairway. It won’t be flashy and it won’t be pretty but you’ll always be able to find your ball and you’ll rarely be in trouble. We at the Lighthouse like to call him “Captain Checkdown” mainly because he hesitates to throw the ball over 10 yards down the field. Phil Savage actually reported from the Manning Passing Camp that Bateman’s balls tend to flutter beyond 20 yards. While that certainly sounds like a personal problem, it’s also going to be something that inhibits his ability to get the ball to playmakers like Ridley, Stewart, Foster and that OJ Howard guy. Bateman’s only strengths are that he won’t turn the ball over and that he knows the offense. Unfortunately, his limitations as a passer constrain the Bama offense in such a way that it simply can’t succeed to its fullest with Bateman at the helm. Remember those gorgeous long spirals from Sims to Cooper and Coker to Ridley? Yeah, well, Bateman can’t throw those.

According to sources in and around the team, true freshman Jalen Hurts has won over the team. As a true freshman, that’s beyond remarkable. This son of a high school coach is blessed with a big arm and blurring speed so the only question mark that surrounds him is “is he ready?” Thus far, the scrutiny and the competition hasn’t been too big for Hurts and he’s performed each and every time he’s been given the opportunity. Early on in spring camp, Hurts seemed to tuck and run way too early for our tastes but all indications are that he’s getting that high school teen spirit out of his system. If Bateman’s ceiling is your grandfather’s seven foot popcorn drop ceiling, then Hurts’ ceiling is the Sistine Chapel. It’s not a question of “if” Hurts plays but, rather, it’s a question of “when.” Hurts will most definitely have a package of plays that he’ll run early and often in a way to build his competence and confidence. So, look for Bateman to start the season and for Hurts to “wow” the coaches into a rather obvious decision to start Hurts later in the season.

And then there’s Blake Barnett. Barnett has long been the Lighthouse’s favored Alabama quarterback since he stepped onto campus. After winning the Elite 11 MVP and leading his team to a championship at the event, the sky appeared to be the limit for this golden armed talent. As far as “wow” throws go, Barnett owns this category. Barnett’s ability to drive the ball down the seam on a rope is unmatched by anyone on the current roster. However, his uncanny ability to throw pick sixes is unfortunately unmatched as well. Barnett turned the ball over four times (Bateman just had one turnover) during the last scrimmage with two of those turnovers getting returned for defensive scores. The week before the A-Day game this spring Barnett threw two pick sixes and three interceptions on the day. All three picks were of the “what on earth are you doing” variety. When the bright lights hit the stage, Jalen Hurts appears to channel that energy into making big plays. However, Barnett seems to play the role of the shrinking violet and becomes blinded when the spotlight comes on. From a pure talent perspective, it should be Barnett’s job with Hurts coming in with a special package of plays. However, until Barnett can be trusted with the football, he just can’t be THE guy. With that being said, if Barnett isn’t the guy by the end of the year, look for him to transfer – and you have to believe the staff understands the position they are in with him. They basically know they have to play him. If they play him, there’s the risk of losing games. If they don’t play him, there’s the risk of losing Barnett. Quite the conundrum.

Running Backs

Since 2008, Nick Saban’s offenses have had the luxury of having a Preakness thoroughbred in the backfield – and usually he’s had more than just one. Glen Coffee, Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, Eddie Lacy, TJ Yeldon, & Derrick Henry. Man, that’s a helluva list.

The 2016 season brings us something we’ve never experienced before in the Nick Saban era – there is no proven running back in the backfield. Oh sure, there’s 5-star Bo Scarborough and 5-star Damien Harris back there so talent isn’t likely going to be the issue this season. However, do you happen to remember why Derrick Henry had so little playing time early in his career? Ingram, Richardson and Lacy all had the same problem, too. Blitz pickups. Saban has no use for backs who do not know their protection assignments. Bo knows running the football but Bo doesn’t know blocking. Last season, the Lighthouse staff saw Harris miss several blitz pickups and it got so bad that the staff decided they would rather trot out Kenyan Drake with a broken arm than play Harris. Folks, that’s not good. With four OL in new spots this season, blitz pickups are going to be paramount to the success of the passing game early on in the schedule.

To the good, at 6’2, 230 lbs, Bo Scarborough is quite a handful as a runner. In the scrimmage before the A-Day game last year, Bo started left at his own five yard line and then quickly planted and cut back against the grain to his right. First, he stiff armed the DE who had over-committed and then he dump trucked the safety who filled the backside gap. After that it was an 80 yard footrace to the corner of the end zone and let me just tell you – Bo knows speed. He’s also a tremendous receiver out of the backfield so look for him to be lined up as a WR and to be used out of the backfield on circle routes and screens in the passing game. Linebackers won’t be able to stay with this cat.

Damien Harris is 5’11, 214 and is no small back to be sure. Harris looked to be one of the most college ready RBs we’ve seen in the all-star games we’ve scouted but he failed to produce much of anything last season. The confident, hard charging runner we saw in high school was suddenly a tentative, hesitant shadow of his former self. Thankfully, spring and fall camp seems to have awoken the beast inside of Harris as he is once again exhibiting the speed, power and vision that made him a 5 star back. Look for Harris to win your hearts this season if all goes well.

B.J. Emmons is another favorite RB we’ve seen at an All-Star game. Emmons, a 4-star recruit, checks in at 6’0, 210 and runs with the reckless abandon that you like to see in a young back. Emmons has plenty of speed and elusiveness so it will just be a question of picking up the playbook and the blocking schemes for him. The Lighthouse is VERY excited about what Emmons can potentially bring to the table this season and the practice onlookers seem to confirm what we’ve seen on tape.

Lastly, Joshua Jacobs was a late add to the 2016 recruiting class and right now the former 3-star recruit looks like an absolute steal. His tape was evidently a little late in getting out but what the coaches saw on tape was a fast back with excellent hands and agility. At 5’10, 205 it’s not like he’s a scatback but he certainly adds a smaller, faster back to the array of weapons in the backfield. This unheralded signee is pushing for playing time and, as of this moment, it appears both of the true freshman backs will play this season.

Wide Receivers

What can you say about this group of wide receivers, other than to say this may be the best in Alabama history. Calling out this receiver group is kinda like calling out Santa’s reindeer – on Calvin, on Robert, on ArDarius and Dieter. On Sims and Simmons and on Kief and Falkins. Honestly, we thought Cam Sims and Falkins were headed for big things but now they’ve been surpassed by Ridley, Foster and Gehrig Dieter (transfer from Bowling Green). And Sims and Falkins are really good!

This list begins with the incredible talent of Calvin Ridley. He’s every bit as good as Amari Cooper and every bit as exciting, as well. The best play in Alabama’s playbook may be for (insert QB here) to throw it deep and let Ridley go get it. Single coverage, double coverage, whole team coverage, whatever. My money is on Ridley to go up and get the ball because he’s just awesome.

Meanwhile, Ardarius Stewart has quietly become Bama’s Robin to Ridley’s Batman. Hmm. Perhaps a better way to say it is Stewart is Butch if Ridley is Sundance. What we are trying to say here is that Ridley and Stewart form a dynamic duo and while most everyone knows Ridley, Stewart’s exploits seem to fall under the radar. Remember the critical touchdown reception against Auburn? That was Stewart. The big TD catch against Florida? Stewart again. Needing a big catch against Clemson? Throw it up to Stewart for 38 yards. Folks, he’s just been overshadowed but he’s an outstanding talent.

Speaking of really good, did you know that before he got injured, Robert Foster was starting ahead of Calvin Ridley? Yep! Foster is a little bit taller than both Ridley and Stewart and by all accounts he’s a lot faster. On the aforementioned 95 touchdown run by Bo Scarborough at a scrimmage, only one guy on the entire field closed the distance on big Bo – that was Robert Foster from across the field. This dude can move and we are really looking forward to a full season out of him this year.

Gehrig Dieter is a pretty significant transfer WR from Bowling Green. At 6’3, 210 he’s a pretty solid red zone threat but don’t let the size fool you. Last season at Bowling Green, Dieter hauled in 93 passes for 1,033 yards and 10 touchdowns so the kid can play and he’s currently in the top four rotation of receivers. Of course, this entire season I’m going to be picturing Mike Myers playing the Saturday Night Live character Dieter and rest assured that each time Dieter catches a pass I’ll be screaming, “Now is ze time on Sprockets vhen ve dance!”  And when Dieter scores, you know it’s gonna be time to touch that monkey!

Rounding out the WRs on the roster are trees like senior Raheem Falkins (6’4, 200), junior Cam Sims (who at 6’5, 203, is the tallest receiver on the roster), and sophomore Derek Kief (6’4, 200). Also, freshman TJ Simmons (6’2, 201) has looked good in camp and they are also trying to find ways to get Xavian Marks (5’8, 166) the ball in the slot. Marks is listed as a RB but he lines up mostly in the slot. Oh, and FYI – if you see big #80 in the game (Falkins), then watch him as he motions down towards the line of scrimmage and de-crapitates a defensive end or linebacker. No one plays with more malice than Falkins. Cam Sims has always been an interesting WR but knee issues have held him back. But, all in all, this is a tremendous group.

Tight Ends

We all know about OJ Howard but did you know that he very quietly finished the season tied for third on the team in catches (38)? We think Alabama is going to run a ton of RPO (run/pass option) plays this year that will almost certainly feature the TE pop pass. With the vertical speed on the edges, our OJ should kill man-to-man coverage. (OJ jokes when opening up against USC are mandatory, btw).

Beyond Howard, the 2016 team suddenly has an embarrassment of riches at the TE position. Hale Hentges has grown into full grown 6’5, 254 lb MAN at one TE position and true freshman Miller Forristall (6’5, 230) was the star of spring camp as the move TE. When you sprinkle in big Irv Smith (6’4, 240) and walk on Cam Stewart (6’8, 254), you suddenly have a wealth of talent at this position. Stewart was actually a pitcher for the Padres organization so he’s quite a find as a walk on!

Offensive Line

Frankly, the offensive line is our biggest concern going into the season and that was even prior to the recent shake up at the center position. Originally, the line was to be Cam Robinson (6’6, 310) at LT, Lester Cotton (6’4, 319) at LG, Ross Pierschbacher (6’4, 304) at C, Bradley Bozeman (6’5, 319) at RG and true freshman (yikes) Jonah Williams (6’5, 296) at RT. The Lighthouse’s main concerns centered on Pierschbacher, as he had never played the center position before the spring and it showed due to inconsistent snaps throughout the spring and fall. However, that same starting offensive line remained intact thru all of fall camp and two scrimmages until Bozeman was recently moved to Center. Now an entire fall of cohesion has been thrown up in the air as Pierschbacher is moving to RG and Bozeman is moving to Center – thereby essentially trading positions with only two weeks left in camp. At least Bozeman has played the center position before, so that’s a plus. But, the footwork at RG is completely different than the footwork at C or LG so Pierschbacher is really going to be tested to get up to speed in the next couple of weeks.

So, if you are scoring at home (or if you’re alone), then I’m sure you’ve noticed only Cam Robinson is starting at the same position he started at last season. Cotton, Bozeman, Pierschbacher and Williams are all new to their positions, with Cotton and Williams never having started a game in their career. How quickly this group can gel and become one cohesive unit is THE key to the offense this season. All the pretties like Ridley, Stewart, Foster, Scarborough, Howard and Hurts are worthless if the offensive line can’t win at the line of scrimmage. Because of the offensive line’s lack of experience, this is the year that you really need to start the season with a Kent State rather than a USC. The talent is there but individual talent alone does not win at the line of scrimmage. Bama loves to use double teams and combo blocks that require a tremendous amount of teamwork and cohesion that can only be gained with experience.

Kicker

Oh boy. Our spies tell us that senior Adam Griffith missed an extra point and two of three field goals in the last scrimmage so things are not all well and good at the PK position this season. Pray for Griffith as he really needs to begin the season with a few makes in order to boost his confidence levels. If he misses his first attempt in Dallas then it could make for a mighty long season.

Summary

Alabama’s offense will feature inexperienced quarterbacks, inexperienced running backs and newbie offensive linemen this season and, for whatever reason, no one seems to care. It’s true that the Tide’s talent at WR and TE should be overwhelming in most games but the backs and the line will have to quickly learn to pick up blitzes in order to give Bama’s new QBs some time to throw the pigskin. All three of Alabama’s quarterbacks are mobile so look for Kiffin to use a variety of RPOs, zone reads, boots and roll outs to help his quarterbacks (yes, plural) escape pressure and keep the defense on their heels.

There are playmakers at every position on the offense and Lane Kiffin has certainly achieved more with much less talent but the key to the entire season will likely be how quickly that offensive line can begin winning the line of scrimmage. The defense will be outstanding once again so the success or failure of the 2016 season will be found along Bama’s offensive line.

 

Tune in next as we preview Nick Saban’s fastest defense he’s fielded at the Capstone!

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