On the Beat: Alabama’s balancing act stands out from other Crimson Tide teams

Alabama football-Jalen-Hurts-touchdown

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Balance. It’s something that University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban talks about a lot.

He mentioned it after the Florida State game, and has regularly used the word to compliment opponents. This week he brought it up while praising the development of his own quarterback, sophomore Jalen Hurts.

“We’re excited about the progress that we’ve been able to make and the balance that he can create for us,” Saban said.

When football coaches talk about balance they’re usually referring to being well-rounded and unpredictable.

A balanced offense means it can run as well as pass, it doesn’t have to rely on one or the other. While defenses usually try to take away the biggest threat, offenses able to compensate are often the most successful.

The same holds true on defense, as opposing offenses search for ways to exploit weaknesses. If they can’t, the old saying about what wins championships can come into play.

With that in mind, this might be the most balanced team Saban has had at Alabama — even more than the four that won national titles.

On paper, it’s loaded with talent, a team of superstars with 18 former 5-star prospects and 51 4-star recruits, according to the 247 Sports composite rankings. Yet they don’t act like it. Everyone seems to have their eye on the big picture and possibly playing 15 games for the third consecutive season.

Overall, Alabama has used 73 players, including 16 from the recruiting Class of 2017. It has so many contributing that the coaches are even using two long-snappers, redshirt freshman Scott Meyer on field goals/extra points, and true freshman Thomas Fletcher on punts.

It might have used two former walk-ons with the first-team defense, but their places on the depth chart were fully earned. Senior cornerback Levi Wallace leads the SEC in passes defended, while Jamey Mosley stepped in admirably when Alabama had four linebackers suffer injuries during the season opener.

A good example of the defensive balance is the four-way tie for the team lead in tackles (23) with junior safety Ronnie Harrison, senior linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton, junior defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick and junior defensive tackle Da’Ron Payne.

Another four players trail with between 16-21 tackles, and Rashaan Evans isn’t among them. Granted, the senior linebacker suffered a groin injury during the season opener, but he was a popular preseason pick to lead the Crimson Tide in tackles.

Nevertheless, rotating in more linebackers and getting more players involved in the defense was part of the plan coming into this season. Part of that is simply trying to survive against offenses that can snap the ball 99 times, like Clemson did during the National Championship Game, plus also playing to everyone’s strengths.

Besides, the more the defense can do, the better its chances of confusing and shutting down an opponent. Sophomore linebacker Anfernee Jennings confirmed that “it’s safe to say” Alabama’s defense can give as many different looks as any offense.

“The game of football has changed so much throughout the years. We have to be able to adapt, and we’re lucky enough to have great athletes and great players that understand what their role is and understand what they have to do, and just build on that,” junior linebacker Keith Holcombe said. “That’s just what we’ve tried to do for the last couple of years, and we just need to keep doing that through the season.”

Meanwhile, on offense, new coordinator Brian Daboll spent a good part of September establishing a whole variety of players as viable weapons. So many have already reached the end zone that one has to wonder if an offensive lineman might be next.

“That would be nice,” sophomore left tackle Jonah Williams said with a laugh, “but I don’t know.”

The statistic that Saban refers to most is explosive plays, which are defined as a run of 13 yards or more or a pass of 17 yards or more. Through five games, 15 players have already made an explosive play.

Most explosive plays

  • Jalen Hurts 11
  • Damien Harris 6
  • Calvin Ridley 4
  • Bo Scarbrough 4
  • Najaee Harris 3
  • DeVonta Smith 2
  • Brian Robinson 2
  • Jerry Jeudy 2
  • Robert Foster 1
  • Hale Hentges 1
  • Xavian Marks 1
  • Cam Sims 1
  • Ronnie Clark 1
  • Josh Jacobs 1
  • Tua Tagovailoa 1

Yet no one has more than 2 touchdown receptions, and none of the running backs are averaging more than 10 carries per game. With this balanced approach, the Crimson Tide are averaging 6.7 yards per carry.

“Everybody’s been pretty fresh,” sophomore running back Josh Jacobs said. “I don’t think I’ve had a bruise or anything yet.”

Nine players have a rushing attempt, with seven notching at least 1 touchdown. With Hurts having caught 1 of his passes that was deflected back to him, 17 players have made a reception, and seven player have a touchdown catch.

“When you have a lot of playmakers like [we do], you can kind of choose what you’re going to do and how you want to attack a team, because you can depend on all of your playmakers to make plays,” Hurts said.

The last two games were a perfect example. Against Vanderbilt, the running game led the way, but at home against Ole Miss, the passing game was a lot more involved. The Crimson Tide beat them by a combined score of 125-3.

Two other important factors must be mentioned:

  1. The offensive line has really come together, and, to use junior running back Damien Harris’ description, improved “tremendously.”
  2. Hurts being able to read defenses and make adjustments on his own, throw on the run and improve his downfield passing, are helping open things up for the offense.

“It’s really helped his game out even more because now people have to worry about him throwing it, where in the beginning they might have only been worried about him running,” junior tight end Hale Hentges said. “That’s just showing how he’s developing into a really dynamic player and he’s taking his game to a new level.”

That’s the idea for the whole team, which knows it can still play better.

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