TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It rivals a stop sign for complexity and the sunrise for predictability.
Still, through four games, Alabama’s version of the wildcat offense has been effective in sporadic use and still draws a buzz when a running back lines up behind the center.
There is potential for variety, though, and a few slight variations sprinkled in this season hint toward a spiced version of the currently vanilla scheme as the Crimson Tide prepares for Saturday’s showdown with Florida.
But, in the early going, there wasn’t the opportunity or need to try something too daring with a running back or wide receiver taking shotgun snaps. Only twice in the two dozen or so plays run from the relatively new look have included anything other than a run between the tackles from the wildcat quarterback. Both deviations were end arounds by wide receiver Julio Jones — the first a 13-yarder against San Jose State and Saturday’s 1-yard gain at Arkansas.
Otherwise, his motion in front of the quarterback is used as a diversion as the burden shifts to the ball carrier and the blockers.
The Tide has yet to throw a pass from the formation, but all three players used as quarterbacks have affirmed their ability to toss one if needed. Mark Ingram was unsuccessful in his one throw attempted at Auburn in 2009, but the emergence of wide receiver Marquis Maze as a wildcat quarterback might take that burden off the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner.
A quarterback for a time in high school, Maze has taken two wildcat snaps. He ran for a 7-yard first down against Penn State and handed off to Jones against the Razorbacks.
Traditional quarterback Greg McElroy isn’t taken completely out of the equation when someone else steps behind the center. He splits out wide, and a few times last year, McElroy took a pitch back and threw deep after lulling defenses into anticipating the run.
Coach Nick Saban still prefers to talk about the advantage it brings to the ground game.
“We’re fortunate to have a couple of really good runners,” he said. “The offensive line does a really good job. I think you’re adding a gap to the defense when you do this because somebody has to cover the quarterback. Even though he’s not going to get the ball, somebody has to cover him.”
After limited use in the 62-13 blowout at Duke, the Tide ran 11 plays from the wildcat against Arkansas including five of the crucial final seven snaps. In a scene reminiscent of the clinching drive against South Carolina last October, the threat of deception was tossed out the window.
It was man on man with the worst kept secret in football play calling.
“They pretty much bring everybody in the box, just crowd the line of scrimmage and put 10 people in the box,” Ingram said. “They know it’s coming and it’s pretty much execution. Are we gonna block them the right way we know how to? If we do then we’re going to have success on the play. If not, they’re going to have success on the play. It’s pretty much just lining up and playing football.”
He ran down hill on the two plays following Robert Lester’s fourth-quarter interception of Ryan Mallet. His 7-yard plunge was followed by running straight through the teeth of the Hog line for four more to the 1. He scored on play later by taking an old-fashioned handoff from McElroy.
Ingram ran three more times from the wildcat after a Dre Kirkpatrick interception on the Razorbacks next possession.
“I love being in that situation, just for the coaches to try and ice the game and get a first down to make the game over,” Ingram said. “I thrive on that. Any player should love to be in that situation. (Michael) Jordan and all those players like that thrive on situations like that. It’s just a situation you try to take advantage of when you’re put in it.”
Florida got a taste of the deliberate, predictable runs last season in the SEC championship game.
Gator safety Ahmad Black said the defensive game plan is equally conventional.
“You just have to out-will them,” he told reporters in Gainesville on Monday. “That’s where the offseason comes in. In the fourth quarter, when things get tough and everyone’s tired, we’ve got to find a way to win the game.”