TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — You don’t have to be a genius to figure out what the biggest story of Alabama’s offseason was.
It wasn’t coach Nick Saban’s contract extension and raise. It wasn’t cornerback Eddie Jackson having major knee surgery that will keep him out indefinitely. It wasn’t even quarterback Jacob Coker transferring in from Florida State, giving the Crimson Tide a bonafide option under center after AJ McCarron’s departure. (Saban wearing a Luigi hat was pretty close, though.)
No, Alabama’s biggest offseason story was, unquestionably, Saban hiring former Tennessee and USC coach Lane Kiffin to be his offensive coordinator.
The jokes were plentiful at first and showed their heads again during spring practice, when we had our first visual confirmation that Lane Kiffin was, indeed, Alabama’s offensive coordinator.
But for now the dust has settled (until Kiffin gives his only public comments before a potential bowl game at the start of fall camp), and we can turn our attention to how Kiffin will actually coach the offense—what will change and what will stay the same.
Based off of comments from players, coaches and Kiffin himself, along with observations from practice, here is what we know so far about how Kiffin’s offense will look at Alabama.
Introducing a fullback
Alabama has never really used a fullback in the traditional sense under Saban, but we’ll be seeing one now with Kiffin.
Previously, it would shift a tight end or H-back into the backfield as a lead blocker, and someone would line up there on the goal line. Otherwise, it was a one-back offense.
Jalston Fowler will be the biggest beneficiary of the change.
“I play the fullback a lot,” the 6’1”, 250-pound Fowler said during spring practice. “That’s the type of offense that we run, a fullback-based offense, so I’m pretty much in there most, all of the time.”
Fowler has been a versatile weapon for Alabama in the past, lead blocking, carrying in short-yardage situations and catching his signature play-action touchdown on the goal line (last year he caught seven passes for 15 yards—and five touchdowns).
This year, he’ll likely be doing a lot more blocking, still some receiving but likely not as much running. And that’s all right with him.
“I like blocking and opening up those holes for those guys,” he said. “It’s pretty fun, going against the D every day. It might be harder in the game, but right now it’s pretty easy because I’m going up against these guys and we know each other pretty well. I like it so far.”
Creativity in the passing game
Even in McCarron’s third year as a starter, the passing game got stale at times.
It was a lot of short throws and bubble screens, mixed in with some play-action passes over the top and McCarron’s signature corner route connection with Kevin Norwood.
Kiffin is adding some creativity and changing things up, however. Junior wide receiver Amari Cooper offered up on example of this during spring practice.
“Coach Kiffin calls plays based on matchups and what he sees,” Cooper said. “Like I said before, it's a simple offense. If he sees they are in man-to-man coverage and I have a hitch route, it converts if he's close to me. We are going to throw a little fade route and make something out of it.”
That will also include using pass-catchers in different ways.
“Versatility,” wide receiver Christion Jones said. “Guys doing different things, being able to play different spots, different positions. Instead of having a set for these type of receivers and these type of tight ends, anybody can play any position.”
Getting the ball to playmakers
A major criticism of the offense under Doug Nussmeier was its underutilization of key weapons.
The most common example cited is tight end O.J. Howard. Howard, a 5-star and the top tight end in the class of 2014, showed off his athleticism on a 52-yard catch-and-run against LSU, where he blew by the secondary for a go-ahead score.
But at the end of the season, he had caught only 14 passes for 269 yards and two touchdowns.
“It's like getting our athletes in space and showing off our ability,” Howard said of Kiffin. “We have a lot of speed on the offensive side of the ball. It's going to really help our athletic ability and show it off for us.”
Cooper could be another who benefits from these tendencies.
“Obviously he's a guy that we want to get the ball to as many times as we can,” Saban said of Cooper. “Lane will do a really good job of getting the ball in the playmakers' hands.”
Still goes through the run game
For all the talk of the passing game, though, this offense is still going to start with the run game. As it should.
Alabama has a loaded backfield, with returning starter T.J. Yeldon headlining the group, bruising Derrick Henry looking to build off of a big Sugar Bowl and the lightning-quick Kenyan Drake providing a change of pace.
Kiffin recognizes as much.
“As you guys know extremely well, I think the offense is led by the tailbacks,” he said, according to AL.com’s Mike Herndon. “There probably aren't three more talented tailbacks in the NFL on a roster than we're fortunate to be able to work with at Alabama."
Pete Roussel of Coachingsearch.com took a look at Kiffin’s offensive tendencies compared to Alabama’s since 2009, and he ran the ball 51 percent of the time compared to 60 percent for Alabama. Look for that number to stay somewhere in that range this year, especially with Kiffin and Alabama breaking in a new quarterback.
Kiffin will bring much-needed changes to the passing game, but the running game that has become a trademark for Saban isn’t going anywhere.
Marc Torrence is the Alabama lead writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats come from cfbstats. All recruiting information comes from 247Sports.
Follow on Twitter @marctorrence.