Why Alabama's offensive identity won't change (much) in a post-Tua Tagovailoa world
On the first play of the Citrus Bowl against Michigan, Mac Jones and Steve Sarkisian were on the same page. Against a coverage they expected, Alabama lined up with 4 receivers split out wide and motioned in the tight end. The play, which had been in the works all week leading up to the bowl game in Orlando, had a simple goal — to get Jerry Jeudy behind a single-high safety and then hit him in stride for a long, walk-in touchdown.
Needless to say, the goal was accomplished. Eighty-five yards of nothing but game-planned perfection kicked off Alabama’s offense in familiar fashion. That is, getting on the scoreboard before fans even reached their seats.
In 2018-19, nobody in America executed that formula quite like Alabama. With Tua Tagovailoa, the Crimson Tide made a habit of throwing a haymaker — and usually connecting — on the game’s first drive.
Tagovailoa is gone, and so are Jeudy and fellow first-round receiver Henry Ruggs III. Naturally, there’s a belief that Alabama is in for a shift in the post-Tagovailoa era. That is, with Jones or 5-star freshman Bryce Young running the show, the Crimson Tide aren’t going to throw the ball anywhere near the 323 or 342-yard per game clip they achieved in 2018 and 2019, respectively.
Some of that could be based on the fact that Najee Harris is back. It was Harris who many expected to leave and garner first-round consideration for the 2020 NFL Draft. Read this comment from an anonymous coach (via Athlon) and you’d think he’s expecting post-Tagovailoa Alabama to look like the 2009 Alabama team that had a 43-25 run-pass split:
“This is going to be a Heisman campaign season for Najee Harris, go ahead and make your bet. They don’t have a quarterback locked in. And their other weakness on offense is turning over receivers. So we think Steve Sarkisian is gonna find ways to scheme Najee into everything they can.”
Here’s a crazy thought. “We” might not all think that Sarkisian is gonna find ways to scheme Harris into everything they can. That’s not to say Harris is destined for light work by any means.
But maybe, just maybe, Sarkisian doesn’t plan on changing the identity of this offense very much at all.
After all, we’re talking about a team that has not 1, but 2 preseason All-American receivers in DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle. It was Waddle who had those 3 touchdown catches in that shootout loss in the Iron Bowl. It was Smith who averaged 77 receiving yards and a score in those 3 Tagovailoa-less games to end 2019.
The fact that an anonymous coach actually said Alabama’s “other weakness on offense is turning over receivers” as a justification for a more run-heavy approach is absurd.
How easily we forget that Alabama was plenty pass-heavy in its competitive games vs. Power 5 competition to end the season. Those were both competitive games against top-25 defenses away from home, which is usually a pretty good sample size for what an offensive coordinator had in mind. Against Auburn, Alabama led or was tied for 41 minutes and 8 seconds of that game, which doesn’t suggest Jones’ 39 passing attempts were all the product of trailing (because people forget that he was actually outstanding aside from a pair of pick-6s).
Some might argue “well, it would have been too difficult to go through a significant mid-season shift.” OK, what about when Alabama had over a month to prepare for Michigan?
Jones only threw the ball 25 times, but he did so for an extremely efficient 13.1 yards per attempt. It’s easy to look at the box score and think that Harris’ 24 carries were simply a product of that offensive shift, but were they?
I say that because Alabama had a 28-16 lead with 6 minutes left in the 4th quarter. On that drive, want to take a guess how many carries Harris got? Eleven. That’s right. Nearly half of his 24 carries that day came simply when Alabama was running out the clock (Brian Robinson’s 3 carries marked the only non-Harris player who had more than 1 backfield touch).
See what I’m getting at?
Sure, Alabama might get Harris more than 2 games of 25-plus touches in 2020. But to think that the Crimson Tide are suddenly going to become some ball-control team that doesn’t throw the ball unless it has to is far-fetched. Not in 2020. Alabama’s starting quarterback won’t be treated like 2009 Greg McElroy, who threw an average of 23 times per game.
Times have changed, and so has Alabama. Gone are the days of 2009 or 2012 when Alabama ran the ball 63% of the time. Shoot, Alabama was at 65% when Jalen Hurts was last the full-time starter in 2017.
Even if Young takes over, it’s hard to imagine Sarkisian turning the Crimson Tide into a run-dominant offense. Besides the fact that Young passed for over 13,000 yards at the prestigious Mater Dei (Calif.) — compared to 1,084 rushing yards — look at Sarkisian’s offenses since he took over at Washington just over a decade ago (only full seasons listed):
For what it’s worth, the only time Sarkisian’s passing percentage was lower than 44% was that 2013 Washington team that had Bishop Sankey, AKA the first running back selected in the 2014 NFL Draft, and 0 drafted receivers (tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins was drafted in the 2nd round and he had twice as many touchdowns as the next-closest receiver).
Sarkisian doesn’t want to throw the ball 50 times a game. He wants balance. He doesn’t want loaded boxes, nor does he want an offense that only knows how to win 1 type of game. He wants to be able to take advantage when a team like Michigan inexplicably comes out with a single-high safety tasked with covering a future first-round receiver.
Fortunately for Sarkisian, he has that with Jones. All signs point to Alabama having that with Young, too. Call me crazy, but I can’t help but wonder how much the lure of developing Young, whom Sarkisian has known since he was in grade school, played a part in his decision to bypass head coaching opportunities at Colorado and Mississippi State.
Whatever the case, we’ll inevitably get reminders that we’re living in a post-Tagovailoa world, but not a post-Sarkisian world. His identity will be all over this offense. There will still be times when Alabama makes it look easy by spreading teams out and hitting Smith for a slant that goes 75 yards. The Crimson Tide offense is still going to look its best when it has several receivers split wide with run-pass option principles.
Will it be historically efficient like it was with Tagovailoa? Probably not. But will it continue to light up scoreboards with a balanced attack?
I’d say that’s a better bet than gambling on a single-high safety to cover Jeudy in the open field.