After weeks of having its future questioned, the University of Alabama football team’s rushing attack went into its first open week on arguably the high note of its season.
The offensive line had one of its better run-blocking performances, clearing the way for Najee Harris and Brian Robinson Jr. to both average 6 yards per carry in a game for the first time this season.
The performance was more than just offensive line play.
“Especially with the RPOs tagged, we had guys motioning behind me and motioning in front of me,” quarterback Tua Tagovailoa said after the game. “It really drew the defense to one side of the field, opening a lot of running lanes and I think our running backs did a great job looking at it inside-out as far as gaps and hitting the hole, too.”
Upon further review, wide receiver motion played a big factor in No. 1 UA running against the Rebels, and could factor into UA’s future ground success.
Of UA’s 11 running first downs against Ole Miss, five utilized wide receiver motion of some kind — and UA ran only six such plays, excluding one Wildcat snap. UA averaged 7.2 yards per carry when using wide receiver motion, and it doesn’t plan on discontinuing the wrinkle going into Saturday’s game at No. 24 Texas A&M.
“Well, I think there’s several different ways that you use motion,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “Sometimes you use motion to create an advantage in terms of overloading the formation so you can actually block better. Sometimes you motion as, I’m going to call it, eye candy, a’ight, for the defense because the guys come rocking through there, and they’re thinking, ‘Do I have to adjust with this guy? Slide adjust? Or if they slingshot the safeties, I can just stay one on that.’ Then you just run a regular, basic play that you run all the time without motion, but yet they might get confused as to what their fit is.
“You can always motion to create new formations, which create adjustments for the defense. So there’s a multitude of ways that you use motion. I think we use about all of them, which I think is a good thing, and hopefully we’ll be able to continue things that will create some confusion on defense.”
The strong numbers from the Ole Miss game leave some things out. Harris had a 13-yard run aided by wide receiver motion taken away by a penalty. UA can also use it to set up passes: it did so on one of DeVonta Smith’s five touchdowns, the 33-yard score late in the second quarter, and a 9-yard screen pass to Robinson Jr.
“Yeah, that’s something new that we added to the game this year,” receiver Jerry Jeudy said. “It just helps us get the ball in our hands faster to make plays.”
The case in point: the first play of the New Mexico State game, the 75-yard touchdown by Henry Ruggs III that was ultimately deemed a run. The pass was ruled a lateral, thus scored as a run, but the play was a swing screen that saw Ruggs motion across the formation behind Tagovailoa.
But as it applies to the UA run game, the Crimson Tide is far from alone in using this wrinkle.
Joe Moorhead, in his first year as Mississippi State’s coach last season, used motion heavily when his Bulldogs hosted Auburn. That Tiger defense went on to finish just outside of the top 30 nationally in yards per carry allowed, but on that night in Starkville, Moorhead used motion to torch Auburn for 349 rushing yards and win the game 23-9.
“We didn’t want the linemen to get their feet in the ground and let them play downhill, so we wanted to create a little misdirection and give them a decision on their end,” Moorhead said. “When you have a defensive line and front seven as talented as Auburn’s, it’s difficult to line up and run the ball right at them with a consistent degree of success. We wanted to do some things to make them play more horizontally than vertically.”
Alabama will soon meet the meaner defensive lines the SEC has to offer, with Texas A&M this week, LSU and Auburn in November and possibly more in the postseason. The offensive line is coming together and adding more run-blocking prowess with the return of Deonte Brown.
If that’s not enough, it has another weapon it can use.
Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or email@example.com or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson