TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Even a casual look at the stat sheet reveals the vast departure from just a season ago.
No longer is the offense asked to manage the clock, score just enough and let the defense do the rest.
It all comes down to personnel, and as coach Nick Saban says frequently, that starts with the offensive line. This group is lighter, quicker and maybe more athletic than the 2008 front that lost starters Marlon Davis, Antoine Caldwell and Outland Trophy winner Andre Smith.
Their replacements — Barrett Jones, William Vlachos and James Carpenter — on average weigh 20 pounds lighter. That hasn’t been an obstacle since Alabama is pulling its linemen more often to get favorable blocking assignments on linebackers.
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Being smaller does not mean this line is any less aggressive, tight end Colin Peek said.
“When they come in here, they’re going to have to have their helmets strapped to be ready to play,” Peek said. “I guess we are more diverse than we were last year and hopefully that carries on through each game.”
Building such a quick lead in Saturday’s win over North Texas kept the Tide from throwing the ball around Bryant-Denny Stadium as it would in closer games. The rushing game still accounts for more yardage (803 yards to 734) although production from both facets of the offense has risen considerably from this time last season.
The 2008 offense had 1,148 yards following wins over Clemson, Tulane and Western Kentucky while the current group has 1,537 yards in wins over Virginia Tech, Florida International and North Texas. More importantly, the scoring average jumped from 31.7 to 42.3.
On a fundamental level, offensive lineman Mike Johnson said the offense isn’t much different than in 2008.
Saban said the run-pass mix comes down to what the defense will give you. When eight defenders crowd the box, passing lanes open. And when defenses drop safeties into zone coverage, running lanes widen for the army of Alabama running backs.
Quarterback Greg McElroy said having such a large group of playmakers makes it easier for him and much more difficult for defenses to counteract. The absence of preseason All-American Julio Jones for most of the last two games with a knee injury gave the supporting cast — that includes six players with at least five receptions — more opportunities.
“With the exception of Mike (McCoy) against FIU, we haven’t had a just explode,” McElroy said. “That’s encouraging though. Every one of those guys is capable of making plays, and they will all get their chance to make plays.”
Running backs have taken on much more of a receiving role in the offense with Mark Ingram’s 10 catches leading the team.
On his 29-yard scoring catch Saturday, Ingram said he was McElroy’s last option, showing off the quarterback’s ability to work through his progressions to make the best decision.
Now that Jones appears to be healthy enough to play Saturday against Arkansas, Alabama’s balance should open things up for the heralded sophomore.
“Last year, (Jones) used to draw double and triple coverage,” Ingram said. “Now we have a lot of receivers stepping up so I don’t think they will be able to do that to him. With him coming back, he will be just another headache for the defense to deal with.”
The offense has also shown several new looks from the Wildcat to the pistol. Using the pistol, a formation that sets a running back behind the quarterback in a shotgun, serves multiple purposes. It helps mask blocking schemes that are more obvious when the back lines up next to the quarterback on a certain side. It also helps McElroy find a comfort zone since he operated out of the shotgun in a spread offense in high school.
Running backs also gain an advantage since they use the same momentum after taking a handoff as they would with the quarterback under center.