How did Alabama get the tough yards in 2015?
Inside the trenches, it’s all about getting a push.
While every team has different philosophies for short-yardage situations, no SEC team executes a variety of run packages quite like the Alabama Crimson Tide.
It doesn’t matter whether the Tide pulled guards, used an H-back or loaded up the backfield with multiple lead blockers, Derrick Henry and the Alabama offensive line were dominant in short-yardage situations throughout the 2015 season.
Although having Henry, who won the Heisman Trophy and finished his junior year with 2,219 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns, certainly helped Alabama get the tough yards, the Tide also benefited from using diverse schemes to move the chains or plunge the ball into the end zone.
In the team’s season opener against Wisconsin, Alabama utilized junior tight end Dakota Ball as an H-back during short-yardage situations. When the Tide faced 4th-and-1 at the Badgers’ 37-yard line on their second drive of the game, Ball motioned down the line of scrimmage to the right side before blocking the defensive end in a trap play.
Not only did the 6-foot-3, 268-pound Ball and the Alabama offensive line execute their blocking schemes, but Henry took care of business and busted loose for a 37-yard touchdown run.
It worked wonders against Wisconsin, but sending the tight end in motion didn’t always work for the Tide, especially later in the season when offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin used another junior tight end, O.J. Howard, to block in short-yardage situations.
Even though Howard was used as an H-Back when Henry rumbled in for a 2-yard score late in the fourth quarter against Ole Miss, the running back was stuffed on two rushes in similar packages during the first quarter. The first came on a 3rd-and-1 as the Rebels’ defensive line blew up the play for a loss of one.
However, an even worse loss came shortly after in the second quarter, when Henry was stuffed for a 1-yard loss on 1st-and-Goal at the Ole Miss 2-yard line. Howard was in at H-Back on that play, and the Tide eventually had to settle for a 20-yard field goal by Adam Griffith after failing to convert down near the goal line.
As much as Kiffin and the offensive coaching staff seemed to like sending the tight end in motion as a lead blocker, Alabama wasn’t afraid to allow its offensive linemen to get out in front of Henry when the team needed to gain a few yards, too.
In fact, much of Henry’s success came with redshirt junior right guard Alphonse Taylor and freshman left guard Ross Pierschbacher leading the way through the hole. Against Arkansas, the eventual Heisman Trophy winner moved the chains on 3rd-and-1 twice, and both plays were handoffs to the right side with Pierschbacher pulling from the left. In the fourth quarter, Henry plunged into the end zone on 1st-and-Goal with Taylor pulling to the right side.
The two guards remained busy late in the season, as Taylor cleared a hole to the left side to help Henry score from two yards out in the second quarter against LSU. Pierschbacher, meanwhile, pulled to the right when Henry muscled in for a touchdown against Florida on a 2nd-and-Goal from Florida’s 2-yard line in the SEC Championship Game.
That second-quarter score with 2:26 left before halftime gave Alabama a 12-7 advantage, and the Tide would lead the rest of the way.
After Alabama mixed up its formations in short-yardage situations during the regular season, it came as no surprise to see the trend continue in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game against Clemson. When the Tide faced 3rd-and-1 in the first quarter, Kiffin gave the ball to Henry — who was all alone in the backfield — and the Heisman Trophy winner sprung free for a 50-yard score against the Tigers.
But that wasn’t the only formation Alabama used to help Henry find the end zone against Clemson. When the Tide faced a 3rd-and-Goal at the Tigers’ 1-yard line with just over a minute remaining, Henry was perched in the backfield behind a pair of defensive linemen — junior A’Shawn Robinson and senior Jarran Reed.
Alabama’s nod to former Clemson star William “The Refrigerator” Perry worked out as Henry followed the big linemen and fought his way into the end zone to give the Tide a 45-33 lead.
With Henry, everything seemed easy. However, it will be interesting to see how Kiffin calls the offense when the team faces short-yardage situations throughout the 2016 season. With Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris both handling the load in the backfield, the Alabama offensive coordinator might be reluctant to utilize multiple packages from the outset.
Even if it takes time to install the entire breadth of plays designed for short-yardage scenarios, the Tide should once again be tough to push around inside the trenches this fall.