TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – To get a deeper look at the Alabama Crimson Tide, we’re joined for a few questions by Ben Jones of the Tuscaloosa News. Ben is one of the few reporters to have extensively covered both Jimbo Fisher and Nick Saban, having joined the Florida State beat in 2013 before moving to Alabama in 2015. Follow him on Twitter at @BW_Jones for the Alabama perspective leading up to and during the game.
Tim Linafelt: Alabama has a new offensive coordinator in Brian Daboll. How has he fit in so far, and do you expect the offense to look much different than it has in years past?
Ben Jones: All indications are that staff chemistry is better than it has been in the past few years. It’s not hard to tell that Daboll is a different personality than Lane Kiffin. It’s harder to tell exactly what his offense will look like. During his only interview session with the media this fall, Daboll was charming and talked about his background and his time with Bill Belichick, but basically avoided any questions about Xs and Os.
No one expects Alabama to completely abandon the kind of offense it had in the last few years, because it’s hard to argue with the results. Daboll is working with many of the same skill players that Alabama had last season. He was the tight ends coach for the Patriots, and Nick Saban has said they expect to use the tight end better this season than previously. Saban has also expressed a desire to return more to an offense that can impose its will on opposing teams, grinding out games when needed. The backfield sets up nicely for that. I’d look for Alabama to remain a shotgun-based team with a balanced approach, but it will probably rely more on play action to set up deep passes than the last couple of seasons. You might see more two-tight end sets with one player moving into the slot or into the backfield. You could also see Alabama use its running backs more in the passing game, like the Patriots do. Alabama has intentionally kept a tight lid on its offensive plans, but this kind of game will force them to show their hand right away.
TL: What has Jalen Hurts done to improve from Year 1 to Year 2? And, with so many talented players across the roster, how important is he to Alabama’s success?
BJ: Alabama nearly won a national championship last year without a consistent downfield passing game, but it took a lot elsewhere for that to happen. The defense became a legitimate scoring threat every game, opponent’s didn’t score a touchdown for nearly a month at one point in the season, there were two star running backs and the wide receivers on the outside were a threat to make plays on their own after short catches. It’s possible for Alabama to repeat a formula like that this year, because the roster remains loaded, but Jalen’s development would definitely give the offense another dimension in which it can stretch and attack teams. It’s a lot easier for defenses to cover 20 or 30 yards of field than it is to cover 40 or 50.
He did look improved in the spring game, but hasn’t always seemed comfortable this fall. We see such a limited portion of practice, so it’s possible he’s really wowed people and it’s just remained quiet. Even if that were the case, he has to take it to the game to prove that he can do it against live competition. Brian Daboll has had good things to say about him and no one questions his focus or work ethic. But I’d bet Florida State is willing to keep its defense at home to defend the run and shorter passes until Hurts shows he can beat it over the top.
TL: Alabama lost 10 players to the NFL draft. Which of those players left the biggest shoes to fill and how effectively have they been replaced?
BJ: The toughest to replace are probably defensive linemen Jonathan Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson. They were Alabama’s ends in its 3-4 defense, so nose tackle Da’Ron Payne is the only starter back. The defensive line wasn’t as deep in 2016 as in 2015, so it’s hard to imagine it being deeper this year without those two. Tight end O.J. Howard was a physical freak. Alabama likes its depth at that position but there’s no one standout as good as he was.
That said, outside linebackers Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams were both powerful playmakers. Anderson did a great job of sealing the edge and Williams was maybe the best pure pass rusher Saban has had at Alabama. Marlon Humphrey was a 6-0/195 cornerback with track speed, and god doesn’t make too many guys like that. Safety Eddie Jackson was a captain and a ball hawk, and Reuben Foster was a devastating enforcer at inside linebacker. Alabama is probably equipped with the players to replace its linebackers, but the secondary and the defensive line will have to prove themselves.
TL: What about Alabama should make Florida State nervous?
BJ: This is a program that has led the nation in rushing defense in each of the last two years by a healthy margin. Jacques Patrick and Cam Akers will have a tough road ahead even with Alabama’s losses on defense. The Crimson Tide defense wasn’t always known for being an aggressive bunch of pass rushers, but it had 50+ sacks each of the last two years. If FSU’s offensive line hasn’t made improvements, it’ll be devoured both against the pass and the run.
Alabama ought to score points, too. Jalen Hurts was SEC offensive player of the year, the top three running backs are back, and so is Calvin Ridley. Even taking into account that openers can be sloppy, it could easily take 30 points to win this game. How confident are you that the offense can score that much against Alabama’s defense?
TL: What about Florida State should make Alabama nervous?
BJ: Clemson had a great blueprint for defending Hurts: Cover the short stuff and take your chances on deeper stuff. He didn’t connect enough on downfield passes late last year and it cost Alabama. FSU has the secondary with Tarvarus McFadden, Levonta Taylor and Derwin James to leave some guys in single coverage and gamble up front. The Seminoles probably have the best defensive front Alabama will face in the regular season. Alabama will also be breaking in a new right tackle and there’s no telling how he’ll hold up initially.
Good quarterbacks can beat Alabama, and Deondre Francois can do some damage. If he’s elevated his game this offseason, he’ll test the new players in Alabama’s secondary. Patrick and Akers are both capable backs, and have as good a chance as any runners to break through the defense.
TL: Is there an under-the-radar Alabama player that Florida State fans should know about?
BJ: My pick for a player to watch is cornerback Trevon Diggs. He’s a true sophomore who played some DB and some receiver last year but is now on defense full time. He has really good measurables at 6-2/195, and we saw some of his ability last year as a receiver and returner. It might take him a couple games to get into the swing of things as a starter but he should end up as a good one. Defensive tackle Da’Ron Payne isn’t exactly a household name but has played a ton of ball. He should be a high NFL draft pick whenever he leaves, whether that’s after this year or next year.
TL: Alabama lost the national championship game in heartbreaking fashion. Do you get the sense that that loss still lingers over the players or that it’s providing any extra energy that might not have otherwise been there? It unfinished business or business as usual?
BJ: Yes. Players and coaches talk about leaving the past in the past and focusing on this season and this team, but it’s been a quiet source of motivation. Nick Saban talked about “not wasting a loss” at SEC Media Days. There are some signs around the football building that read “2:01,” the amount of time that was left on the clock when Clemson started its game-winning drive. They can say whatever publicly, but it was clearly part of their offseason motivation.
The program here has been at such a high level for such a long time that any season without a national championship feels somehow incomplete. You can tell after losses like Ole Miss or Clemson that players feel crushed every time they lose a game. That might not be the most sensible way to approach a football season, or a game like this one, but that’s the reality that the players here live in. They lose just often enough to know how awful it makes them feel, and they don’t want to get any more comfortable with that feeling.
TL: Much has been made about the history and relationship between Jimbo Fisher and Nick Saban. As one of the few people who have covered both coaches, what do you make of their similarities and differences? Do the two programs remind you of each other?
BJ: There’s a fair bit about the two programs that is exactly the same. Saban finds a system that works and sticks with it, and Fisher adopted a lot of those things when he took over. Some of it is little stuff, like the stretching routine and how the teams structure practice. Some of it is big picture stuff: Both coaches really value a balanced offense, but make sure to tweak things around their strengths or their best players. Alabama’s offense looked very different when it was built around Amari Cooper than when it was built around Derrick Henry, and FSU’s emphasis shifted from Jameis Winston to Dalvin Cook.
Saban has been on record as saying that Jimbo Fisher was the best offensive coordinator he had for what he wanted to do, so some of the offensive philosophy here is still reminiscent of that. The principles stay the same, but both coaches know how to use their best strengths. FSU’s defense obviously made the move to look more like Alabama’s when Fisher hired Jeremy Pruitt. Some of what FSU does in recruiting and the measurables it evaluates mirror what Alabama does.
And there you have it. Thanks to Ben for his time and insights.