Nick Saban participated in a radio interview on Thursday morning, something the University of Alabama football coach does only a few times a year if you exclude his own in-season show. As always, Saban’s interview with WJOX-FM in Birmingham was substantive — the rants, real or contrived, get all the attention but a Saban Q-and-A usually produces more substance and straight talk than some college coaches share in several seasons.
The topic turned, naturally, to quarterbacks — and suddenly the interpretation was that America’s favorite college football soap opera, “Nick and Lane,” was on again. When Saban talked about “protecting” Jalen Hurts down the stretch of the 2016 season and not “developing” him as a passer, some people took that as a veiled shot at Lane Kiffin. The theory was Saban was lobbing a grenade back at Kiffin, now the Florida Atlantic head coach, who has done a handful of interviews from Boca Raton that have characterized his time in Tuscaloosa as a sort of three-year forced labor sentence in Siberia.
So was this really a retaliatory strike from Saban?
I don’t think so.
First, I don’t think Saban really worried about Kiffin very much at this point. I certainly don’t think Saban misses him — but in this instance, I don’t think he blames him, either.
Even his pronouns — a lot of “we” and “our” — indicate that Saban takes ownership of the way Hurts was handled down the postseason run in 2016.
“I think we protected him a bit last year,” Saban said on the air. “It didn’t enhance his development and sometimes later in the year when people played us in a way where we needed to be able to throw the ball, we may not have been efficient as we would have liked to have been. That’s probably our fault as coaches because we protected him, instead of developed him as a young player.
“The goal this spring and certainly before next spring is that we can create more balance by being a better passing team to go along with what we are able to do with our feet as a quarterback,” Saban said, “as well as how that creates balance for our overall offense and utilize some of the other skill players that we have, which we didn’t always take advantage of last year.”
Saban expanded on that answer after Alabama’s Thursday practice.
“The most difficult thing for a young quarterback to do is probably to be a drop-back passer,” Saban said. “We tried to create ways — and I am being very positive here and I was in agreement with what we did — to try and create ways to make explosive plays in the passing game without doing a whole lot of (dropping back.)”
The issue, then, was one most people recognized. Saban knew that given the strength of the overall roster, the best path to winning the national championship was to rely on those strengths and reduce the risk of Hurts turning the ball over in the air. It came within about three seconds of working — and that’s if you categorize 14 wins as “not working.” The price was not to put Hurts in situations that might have “developed” for the future, because the present was more important.
“Is that a bad thing?,” Saban asked rhetorically, before moving on to the answer.
“Maybe if we had put him in those situations more, it might have benefited him. But that’s a mighty big assumption.”
That’s a deep discussion — one that might last through the entire 2017. But it wasn’t a shot at Kiffin — just an explanation of why things were what they were.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.