NEW ORLEANS SAINTS RUNNING BACK Mark Ingram won the 2009 Heisman Trophy playing for Alabama, but as he watched the Crimson Tide against Western Kentucky on Sept. 10, he barely recognized his old team: "Bama really a spread offense now," he tweeted. "What run game?!!" Ingram punctuated this sentiment with a "pensive face" emoji. In the 38--10 win, the Crimson Tide ran the ball 39 times and averaged 3.2 yards per carry. The Hilltoppers had loaded the box to stop the run, and they had succeeded. Unfortunately, that left few reinforcements in the secondary to stop freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts, who completed 23 of 36 passes for 287 yards and two touchdowns.
Was Ingram correct? Has Alabama's offense turned into the kind of hurry-up spread Tide coach Nick Saban once disdained? Yes and no. This season, Alabama has built an offense that can be whatever it needs to be—pass-heavy spread, run-heavy spread, balanced pro-style—on any given play. This versatility is part of a team-wide schematic evolution meant to keep Bama winning national titles.
Five years ago last month, LSU wore down Alabama and won this millennium's first Game of the Century, 9--6 in Tuscaloosa, but that was the last time the Tigers would hold back the Tide. "It's pretty fascinating to look at how the paths diverged from that point," says T-Bob Hebert, who started at center for LSU in that game. Since that loss, Alabama has gone 66--6, winning four SEC titles and three national championships. The reason the Tide hasn't ebbed? Bama never stops changing.
"It all happened so fast," says 2011 Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones, who started at guard, center and tackle and helped Alabama win national titles in 2009, '11 and '12. During Jones's time in Tuscaloosa, the Tide huddled before almost every offensive play. They used a power-run game to set up the play-action pass. Quarterback AJ McCarron had no run-pass option (RPO) plays that would allow him to decide after the snap whether the play would include a handoff or a throw. The defense Jones saw across from him at practice looked bigger and more menacing but also slower and less mobile. "We were built in the past for teams like LSU," Tide coach Nick Saban says.
The season after the Game of the Century, everything changed. Hugh Freeze brought a high-tempo offense to Ole Miss. Texas A&M and first-year coach Kevin Sumlin were about to tear up SEC defenses with freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel and an offense that ran plays as quickly as possible. Days after a 33--14 win against Ole Miss in 2012, Saban sounded an alarm on the SEC teleconference. "Is this what we want football to be?" he asked, rhetorically. Saban had couched his argument in terms of player safety, but there is no evidence that an up-tempo offense is more dangerous than the smashmouth scheme Alabama was running at the time. The reality was that Saban's team wasn't built to handle those offenses, and he knew it. Two days before Texas A&M beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa that season, Saban warned listeners to his radio show that his team might not be able to contain Manziel. "[Saban] sees the writing on the wall before other people," Jones says. Even before the Tide lost that game, Saban was already recruiting the players who would help turn Alabama into a team that could better defend a dual-threat quarterback like Manziel. Saban also began looking for a quarterback who could play more like Manziel.
After a loss to Ole Miss in 2015, in which Alabama ran 101 offensive plays—they averaged 66.5 a game in '11—Saban said on his radio show: "All these people who run spread, you can talk about it all you want, but it's very, very effective. Like Ole Miss. They don't have a great offensive line. They've got really good skill players and a pretty good quarterback, but they're hard to defend because everything's on the perimeter. Everything's a run-pass option. If you don't do some of that, you're not taking advantage of the rules or the game."
A quarterback like Hurts might not have even been recruited by the Alabama of 2011. Now, the 6'2" 209-pounder is the team's ideal signal-caller. What makes Alabama 2016 particularly difficult to stop is that even as the team has been modernized, it has maintained the pro-style principles of 2011. Opposing defenses must prepare for multiple approaches. On defense, the Tide have lightened up, but they can still play heavy. Two weeks after holding Texas A&M's up-tempo spread to 52.2% of its average total offense in a 33--14 win, the Tide limited power-run-loving LSU to a measly 2.5 yards per play in a 10--0 victory.
Saban laughs at the notion that his willingness to adapt is a sign that he has loosened up. "I never thought I was a conservative coach to start with," he says. The schematic alterations had nothing to do with a personality shift. To keep winning championships, Alabama had to change. "One of Coach Saban's strongest qualities as a leader is that he's not afraid to change," says Jones. "So many leaders find success, and they stay that way. Then they get passed by."
THEN AND NOW: QUARTERBACK
ON A SECOND-and-14, in the second quarter of Alabama's game against Tennessee on Oct. 15, freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts put the ball in the belly of freshman tailback Joshua Jacobs. Had this been 2011—with AJ McCarron at QB and Trent Richardson at tailback—McCarron would have either handed to Richardson or pulled the ball and thrown downfield. And both McCarron and Richardson would have known whether the play was a run or a pass when they left the huddle. But the 2016 play was an RPO—a run-pass option. Hurts didn't need to decide whether or not to hand the ball to Jacobs until he saw the reaction of the defense. And even then he had the choice to throw it or run it himself. He went with the last option and raced down the right sideline for a 45-yard touchdown.
The Tide began adding such plays when Lane Kiffin took over the offense in 2014 and Blake Sims—a better runner than thrower—won the quarterback job. The huddle went away, and Sims wound up leading an offense that broke school records for total offense, passing yardage, most plays run, passing touchdowns and total touchdowns. In 2015, Kiffin adjusted to a new quarterback, Jake Coker, who was a better thrower than runner. Hurts combines the best attributes of Sims and Coker, making him the ideal quarterback for the new Alabama offense. "We don't want to flush him out and make him throw on the run," Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele told reporters before the Tigers lost to Alabama 30--12 on Nov. 26. "Because then you've got a double-edged sword. He doesn't have to throw it, and he can run real fast and far. And does so often."
THEN AND NOW: TIGHT END
ONE THING THAT has not changed in Tuscaloosa since 2011 is that the team has excellent running backs. Last year Derrick Henry won the Heisman Trophy and helped the Tide to a national title. This season the combination of sophomores Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough and freshman Joshua Jacobs has averaged 6.6 yards per carry.
The receivers even better than they were five years ago, and the current crop specializes in stretching the field vertically and horizontally. Sophomore Calvin Ridley can beat cornerbacks deep or catch a bubble screen behind the line and shimmy through a defense. Junior receiver ArDarius Stewart excels on jet sweeps and intermediate routes that can turn into long gains thanks to Stewart's speed.
The biggest difference in the last five years is at tight end. In 2011, 6'6", 269-pound Michael Williams started at that spot. A power-run blocker, he had 51 receptions for 503 yards over four years. Today, 6'6", 251-pound senior O.J. Howard has already caught 106 balls for 1,576 yards. The versatile Howard is an excellent blocker who can line up in a three-point stance next to a tackle and either maul a linebacker or run a route. He can also line up behind the line as an H-back and serve as a lead blocker. Unfortunately for opponents, Howard is fast enough to split out wide and beat a safety on a vertical route, too. This allows Alabama to essentially swap personnel groups without making a substitution. And when a team has all but stopped huddling, it can snap the ball quickly and saddle the defense with a mismatch it can't overcome.
BREAD AND BUTTER 2011: THE OUTSIDE ZONE
[The following text appears within a diagram. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual diagram.]
H-back goes in motion presnap to add an extra blocker on the play side.
IN THE OUTSIDE ZONE offensive linemen, often working in pairs, block defenders who come into their zones. After an initial push, one lineman scrapes off and blocks the nearest linebacker. The back reads the block and looks outside the widest blocker on the line for a hole. Alabama overloads the play side with a fullback and an H-back, who motions over. If the blockers succeed, the back won't have to break a tackle until he gets into the secondary.
BREAD AND BUTTER 2016: THE OUTSIDE ZONE RPO
[The following text appears within a diagram. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual diagram.]
Option 1: Give to the back running the Outside Zone.
Option 2: The quarterback keeps the ball.
Option 3: Throw the bubble screen to an outside receiver.
THE RPO VERSION of the play uses the same blocking principles—with one key difference: The defender on the end of the line on the play side is left unblocked. The quarterback places the ball in the tailback's belly and reads this defender. If the defender crashes down to get the back, the quarterback keeps the ball. From there, he can dart to the outside or throw a bubble screen to the receiver along the opposite sideline, behind the line of scrimmage.
THEN AND NOW: DEFENSIVE BACK
PERHAPS THE most important play for the Alabama defense in 2015 was LSU's first snap in Tuscaloosa. LSU tailback Leonard Fournette, a 6'1", 235-pound bruiser and Heisman Trophy favorite, presented the new Alabama defense with its first exposure to a true power-run game. On that play, 194-pound cornerback-turned-safety Eddie Jackson dropped Fournette after a two-yard gain. Coach Nick Saban's experiment—using five players who had been recruited as cornerbacks in the defensive secondary—would work, even against a team that ground out the yards with an old-school offense.
The members of the 2011 Alabama secondary had more rigidly defined roles. Starting cornerbacks Dre Kirkpatrick and DeQuan Menzie covered the best receivers. Strong safety Mark Barron might have picked up a slot receiver or tight end in coverage, but at 6'2" and 218 pounds he was perhaps better suited to come downhill and thump a tailback, which he did often. Free safety Robert Lester played centerfield.
The base scheme in 2016—if there even is such a thing anymore—is more likely to be a nickel package with five defensive backs whose responsibilities shift from play to play. Ideally, all five would play like 6'1", 203-pound sophomore Minkah Fitzpatrick, who until the Texas A&M game played a hybrid position that Alabama calls the star. With Jackson lost for the season with a broken left leg, Fitzpatrick took on more of a safety role. That versatility is what makes him the ideal defensive back for 2016: He's a long-limbed, loose-hipped burner who can cover a receiver one-on-one but is sturdy enough to fly into the box and take down a running back.
THEN AND NOW: FRONT SEVEN
FORMER ALABAMA offensive lineman Barrett Jones wonders what senior linebacker Tim Williams would have done in the Tide's 2011 defense. "I'm trying to think of where he would have played," says Jones, who's a free agent after spending last season with the Eagles, of the player Pro Football Focus called the nation's most efficient pass rusher in 2015. Lightning fast at 6'4", 252 pounds, Williams is listed as an outside linebacker, but in Bama's 3--4 scheme he usually rushes from a three-point stance. In 2011 he might have been a stand-up linebacker who stayed on the second level. Back then Courtney Upshaw, 265 pounds and at least a step slower, was the team's most frequent fourth rusher.
Sometime between 2010, when a Cam Newton--led Auburn left the Tide's defenders panting, and '12, when a Johnny Manziel--led Texas A&M did the same, coach Nick Saban decided to focus on a lighter front seven that could get to the quarterback more quickly and had the stamina to handle an increased workload. At defensive end, 6'3", 294-pound senior Jonathan Allen plays the same spot previously occupied by 319-pound Jesse Williams. And in '11, 260-pound inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower was responsible for crushing tailbacks who dared run between the tackles. Now Reuben Foster, who dropped weight this off-season to reach his current 228 pounds, plays more of a sideline-to-sideline role.
The shift has worked: The Tide defense can still stuff the run—opponents are averaging 2.0 yards per carry—but it also ranks fourth in the nation in sacks per game (3.46).
Watch a new video about Alabama defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson or check out the entire Symetra series at SI.com/risingstars